It’s no shock that Bobby Bare Jr. became a musician. The alt-rock troubadour grew up surrounded by the business.
His father and namesake was a country music star. Waylon Jennings and Shel Silverstein (himself a noted songwriter) were regular fixtures at the house. His childhood neighbors included George Jones and Tammy Wynette. And by the age of six, he earned a Grammy nod for a duet with his dad. What’s surprising is how long it took Bare Jr. to find his own sound.
Though he’s a bona fide indie heavyweight now, Bare’s career in music was limited to performing in cover bands and running P.A. throughout his 20s.
"I wrote really bad songs until I was 30," he readily admits. "I didn't play anything I wrote in public until then."
So what suddenly changed?
"I started writing good songs," Bare jokes with typical deadpan delivery. "The secret to anybody's success is they write good songs."
But there is a bit more to the story. Even if he wasn't performing, Bare was writing all along. Throughout that period he collaborated with Silverstein, his mentor, who he says "served as a beacon." The legendary wordsmith critiqued every one of Bare's songs until Silverstein’s death in 1999, providing some additional incentive to develop as a songwriter.
"It gave me a real direction," he remembers. "And also, you don't half-ass a song when you know Shel Silverstein's going to be listening to it and passing judgment on it. It makes you try real f—king hard."
Listening to Bare's records, it's hard to believe guidance was ever necessary. From his stint with the late '90s roots-rock outfit The Bare Jr. to his solo work of the last eight years, Bare's songs are blessed with an effortless quality, shifting from horn-laden, distorted rock jams to twangy, country-tinged ballads with un-fakeable ease. And no matter where they land stylistically, his songs all share a penchant for witty lyricism and wry humor, delivered in Bare's scratchy, quavering baritone.
Much like his sound, Bare's recent projects have been all over the map. In 2006, he co-produced his father's first album in more than 20 years, a dense and sprawling take on country that introduced the elder Bare to a whole new generation. Three years later, he had a go at '70s soft-rock with a collection of America and Bread covers, the American Bread EP. Next, Bare oversaw and performed on a compilation of Silverstein songs, Twistable, Turnable Man, whose contributors included Dr. Dog, My Morning Jacket, Andrew Bird, Lucinda Williams and Kris Kristofferson. He's also appeared on records by The Silver Jews and Will Oldham (Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy). Basically, the guy gets around.
On his latest work, A Storm, A Tree, My Mother's Head, Bare continues the tradition of tongue-in-cheek story songs with offerings like "Rock and Roll Halloween" and "Liz Taylor's Lipstick Gun" (the former includes lines like "Slash walks in with an overweight Madonna / Orders two Bud Lights and a cranberry vodka" and "Marilyn Monroe dances dirty with Darth Vader / James Dean holds hands with a Cher impersonator). But A Storm also delves into some more serious territory, much of it pulled directly from Bare's own life.
On "The Sky Is the Ground," the singer manages to find humor in a bicycle accident that found his two-year-old son upside down in a tree. The album's title track, though, takes a more serious tone, telling the story of a freak accident that nearly claimed his mother's life. It would seem there's nothing Bare can't laugh about.
"My mom was just watching TV, clicking channels, and a tree fell through the roof and landed directly on top of her," he explains. "She's as unlucky that it fell directly on top of her as she is lucky that she didn't die. I always say, come to find out, the most dangerous thing for anyone's mother to do is just sit on a couch at home. So if anybody has a mom anywhere who might be sitting on a couch, call her immediately and say, 'Get off the couch!'"
This weekend, Bare makes his way to Asheville for a somewhat nontraditional show. Lately, he's taken to performing intimate house shows for anywhere from 20 to 50 fans.
"It's really fun," he says. "It's so intimate that the only thing more intimate would be if I sat on people's laps and serenaded them. Towards the end of every show I say, 'Isn't it wonderful that none of us had to stand in line for a gosh darn beer, none of us had to deal with attitude from a bouncer and none of us had to go to a really unusable toilet.' You know, everything that sucks about a club.
"When I get to a house party it's like, 'Hey! We made you this meal and all this chili, and here's a bottle of Jack Daniels. I've got as much beer as you want. And, you know, our daughter's in town from college if you want to go snuggle up with her tonight, that'd be fine!' I'm exaggerating, but it's the opposite of most club gigs."
For the Asheville date, Bare stretched the definition of house and agreed to play at Craggie Brewery. He insists that it was for a good cause: a free keg of beer for the crowd.
"I'm going to do it just like a house party," he explains, "but it's really hard for me to say, 'No. I don't want everybody to have a free keg of beer. I'd rather them be in your living room.'"
— Dane Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Bobby Bare Jr.
what: House party-style concert
where: Craggie Brewing’s Public House
when: Friday, Feb. 11 (doors at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m. $22. bobbybarejr.com/house-parties)