Monday, July 29, 2013

British Rocker/Writer Mick Farren, R.I.P.

Mick Farren's Vampires Stole My Lunch Money LP
We're sad to have to report on the death of British rocker and writer Mick Farren. Performing Saturday night, July 27th, 2013 with a new line-up of his legendary 1960s-era cult band the Deviants, Farren passed out on stage and couldn't be revived. No cause of death has been reported; Farren was 69 years old.

Farren came to prominence as the founder of anarchistic rockers the Deviants, a proto-punk outfit that took its cue from the satirical rock of the Mothers of Invention and the psychedelic metal of the Stooges. The band released three albums between 1967 and '69, the best of which – 1967's Ptooff!! – is considered a legitimate cult classic. The band was part of a thriving London music underground that included Pink Fairies and Hawkwind, but when tensions with the other band members reached a boiling over point, Farren left music temporarily to become a rock critic.

Writing for the noted U.K. weekly New Music Express (NME) as well as the underground publication International Times, Farren made a name for himself as an insightful critic and music journalist, but he couldn't stay away from making music for long, and in 1978 he recorded a solo debut Vampires Stole My Lunch Money with a number of friends, including Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson, Pink Fairies members Larry Wallis and Paul Rudolph, and fellow NME writer Chrissie Hynde, who would later form the Pretenders and find the sort of mainstream success that Farren tried to dodge. Farren would go on to record a number of albums over the ensuing years, both solo and with one form or another of the Deviants, as well as musical collaborations with artists like Wayne Kramer (MC5) and Lemmy of Motorhead.

Writing remained Farren's first love, however, and he published nearly two-dozen well-received novels over his lifetime. Farren also penned eleven non-fiction books, including four on Elvis Presley, and books on the Rolling Stones and Gene Vincent; more recently, Farren was a regular contributor to Classic Rock magazine. A gifted writer and thinker, Mick Farren should be remembered as a dreamer, a satirist, social critic, philosopher, and underground icon. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Singer/Songwriter J.J. Cale, R.I.P.

John Weldon Cale, known to hundreds of thousands of hardcore fans worldwide as "J.J. Cale," passed away on Friday, July 26, 2013 of a heart attack. The influential blues-rock singer, songwriter, and guitarist was 74 years old.

A native Oklahoman, Cale got his start in music as a teenager playing honky-tonks in the Tulsa area, often in bands with his friend Leon Russell. Cale developed his own unique sound that incorporated blues, rock, and country influences with often folkish lyricism and laconic, understated vocals that often belied the complexity and intelligence of Cale's songs. Moving to Nashville in 1961, he joined the Grand Ole Opry's touring company as a musician but, after a couple of years of roadwork, he returned to Tulsa and reunited with Russell. The two would subsequently relocate to Los Angeles in 1964, where Cale would work as a studio engineer.

While in L.A., Cale released a number of singles for the Liberty Records label during the mid-1960s, including a version of his original song "After Midnight." None of the singles charted, and Cale once again returned to Tulsa to play music and write songs. When his old buddy Leon formed the Shelter Records label in 1969, Cale was one of the first artists he signed, but before J.J. could record his debut album, fate stepped in when Eric Clapton hit the Top 20 in 1970 with his version of the songwriter's "After Midnight."

Clapton's chart success raised Cale's profile and primed the pump for his 1972 debut, Naturally, which included his version of "After Midnight" (which rose to #42), and his only hit single, "Crazy Mama," which topped out at #22 on the Billboard Top 100 singles chart. Many fans and critics consider Naturally to be Cale's strongest album, which is hard to argue considering that aside from the aforementioned songs, it also includes the bluesy "Call Me The Breeze" (covered by both Lynyrd Skynyrd and Johnny Cash), "Bringing It Back" (later covered by Kansas), and "Clyde" (a 1980 hit for Waylon Jennings).

Cale followed up Naturally, which peaked at #51, with 1973's Really, which was partially recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and 1974's Okie, neither album bolstering Cale's commercial returns. Troubadour, released in 1976, would at least bring Cale back into the Top 100, although it would be his last album for three years, until the release of 1979's 5. Cale would receive another boost courtesy Mr. Clapton with the British guitarist scoring again with Cale's "Cocaine," taking the song to #30 and driving his 1978 album Slowhand to number two on the charts. Clapton would later cover Troubadour's "Travelin' Light" for his 2001 album Reptile, and Southern rockers Widespread Panic would cover the song for their 1988 album Space Wrangler

This would be the blueprint for much of Cale's career, however…he would remain a well-respected cult artist who flirted with commercial success from time to time, seemingly remaining content to watch other artists score on the charts with his songs (and collect the royalties). Cale would continue to record sporadically throughout the 1980s and into the new millennium, chalking up a total of fourteen studio and one live album, his latest being 2009's Roll On. Cale collaborated with Clapton on 2006's The Road to Escondido, contributing eleven original songs and co-producing the album, which earned the pair Cale's only Grammy Award.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Claudia Lennear Gets Real Gone

Her sultry, often electrifying background vocals can be heard on a veritable "who's who" of 1970s rock music, Claudia Lennear's mere charismatic presence often adding a spark to recording sessions gone flat. An original member of Leon Russell's Shelter People ensemble, Lennear toured with Joe Cocker's infamous Mad Dogs & Englishmen troupe, sang at George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh, and appeared on records by artists as diverse as Al Kooper, blues guitarist Freddie King, Traffic's Dave Mason, blues legend Taj Mahal, Don Nix, Ry Cooder, and many others.

As a solo artist, however, Lennear released only a single critically-acclaimed album, 1973's Phew! On September 3 rd, 2013 Real Gone Records will reissue Phew! for the first time on CD, with the non-album B-side "Two Trains" included as a bonus track. A long-lost relic of the classic rock '70s, Lennear recorded with some of the best for Phew! Side one has the singer backed by guitarist Ry Cooder and Memphis music legend Jim Dickinson and members of his Dixie Flyers band. Side two features songs written and arranged by New Orleans music giant Allen Toussaint and a backing band that included drummer Jim Keltner and keyboardist Spooner Oldham.

Aside from the aforementioned musicians, there is some serious talent showcased on Lennear's Phew! Among those lending their skills to these recording sessions are guitarists Charlie Grimes (who played with John Lee Hooker and Stephen Stills' Manassas) and Marlin Greene, bassist Chuck Rainey (a jazz and R&B veteran who played with King Curtis and Herbie Mann, among many others), and saxophonist Harold Battiste, Jr.

Altogether, the singer had a strong backing crew for her solo shot and, sadly, after Phew! was buried among a slew of other rock 'n' roll albums in the fertile year that was 1973, Linnear gave up show biz to become a teacher. Thanks to the good folks at Real Gone, we get to hear Linnear's soaring, soulful voice one more time.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Alex Chilton Live Album Coming October 8th

Alex Chilton fans – they are legion and are growing – have a lot to be happy about these days. For one thing, there's Nothing Can Hurt Me, the recent documentary covering Chilton's long-suffering cult band Big Star and the Memphis rock scene of the '70s. The critically-acclaimed film is accompanied by a briskly-selling soundtrack album that is earning Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens new fans among a generation of hipsters too young to have enjoyed either Big Star's brief day in the sun or Chilton's often maddening solo career during the late 1970s and throughout the '80s.

On October 8th, 2013 Bar None Records will release Electricity by Candlelight, a previously unreleased live performance by Chilton that was fortunately caught on tape. The back story goes like this: Chilton and crew were performing at the Knitting Factory in New York City on February 13th, 1997 when the lights went out. Undeterred, Chilton borrowed an acoustic guitar from somebody and, accompanied by his drummer Richard Dworkin on half the songs, launched into an inspired solo set that was spontaneous, intimate, involved the audience, and featured songs not often performed by the singer/songwriter. 

Because of the nature of the performance, Electricity by Candlelight offers up rare performances of songs Chilton seldom played before or after this single show, including some country tunes, a little Beach Boys, and some original material that seldom saw the light of day. A talented and often underrated musician, Chilton sadly passed away in 2010. His immense legacy lives on however, whether through his 1960s-era chart success with the Box Tops (Chilton sang the classic "The Letter" when he was just 16 years old), his cult status as Big Star frontman, or his eclectic solo career, all of which would influence bands like R.E.M. and the Replacements during the 1980s and '90s, an influence that reaches to today and a wealth of like-minded, pop-oriented rockers that can be glad that Chilton was there to blaze the trail.


JEM Records resurrected, the Bongos first up to bat!

The Bongos circa 1985, photo by Emil Schult, courtesy Wikipedia Commons 

Music industry veteran Marty Scott, the founder of JEM Records, is getting back into the game. JEM made a name for itself during the arid 1970s, when rock 'n' roll fanatics such as the Reverend could read about bands from far-off foreign lands, but couldn't get our hands on the music. Scott and JEM stepped in, the importer/distributor bringing in hard-to-find albums from labels like Virgin (Mike Oldfield), EG Records (King Crimson), and WEA International for U.S. distribution. JEM's "homegrown" label, Passport Records, would be home to a lot of diverse and exciting music between 1973 and 1988, including the Good Rats, Synergy, Pezband, Nektar, and Anthony Phillips, among many others.

Scott's resurrected JEM imprint will launch with a release from Hoboken, New Jersey's favorite sons the Bongos, and the band's long-lost album Phantom Train. Recorded in 1986 and never released, Phantom Train was remixed by Bongos frontman Richard Barone and is scheduled for September release. The band itself will make a big announcement on July 31st, 2013 at Maxwell's in Hoboken as they perform for the last show to be held at the legendary venue. As for JEM Records, Scott plans on signing new artists to the label as well as licensing classic old sides for reissue, which is great news, indeed!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Zine Alert: Teenage News Hits The Scene!

Teenage News zine
It's no secret that here in the Conspiracy M.E.D.I.A world HQ, we're fanatics for music zines! The Reverend buys music zines like Shindig! (U.K.), Flashback (U.K.) and Ugly Things (U.S.) on a regular basis, reveling in their coverage of music that you would have to scour the Interwebs for hours in order to find. So, imagine our glee (like a schoolgirl huffing fingernail polish remover) when we received an email from Gus Bernadicou, the founder and editor-in-chief of a new music zine called Teenage News!

Like the good Reverend, Gus seems to think that there's room in this world for music criticism and rock 'n' roll journalism in a print format (tho' he's hedging his bet with a digital version of the zine). The jam-packed inaugural issue of Teenage News includes interviews with Kim Fowley, King Tuff, Pat Loud of American Family, Dave Faulker of the Hoodoo Gurus, Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls, Todd Rundgren, Andrew Loog Oldham, and the rag's cover girl, the one and only gorgeous Cherry Vanilla!

There's plenty more to be read in between the covers as well, so check out the Teenage News Facebook page and find out how to get your copy! 

CD Preview: Steve Hunter's The Manhattan Blues Project

Steve Hunter first made a name for himself as a member of Mitch Ryder's rough 'n' tumble early 1970s band Detroit. As a literally unknown talent at the time, the young guitarist brought a new dimension to Ryder's sound, and while recording that band's 1971self-titled debut album, Hunter became friends with producer Bob Ezrin. This opened a wealth of possibilities for the musician, who would subsequently tour and record with people like Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Peter Gabriel, and David Lee Roth, among many others.

As guitar talents were expected to do during the '70s, Hunter launched his solo career in 1977 with the Swept Away album, produced by Ezrin. As the guitarist continued to make a living playing sessions and touring, he would release a handful of solo albums, including The Deacon in 1989 (with a young Jack White on drums) and Short Stories in 2008. After finishing up a tour with Alice Cooper in 2011, Hunter decided to take some time off the road to write and record a new album, his fifth solo work, The Manhattan Blues Project.

Rock guitarists often return to their "blues roots" when they have nowhere else to go, but in Hunter's case, it's an honest circling around to where he began in the first place. Growing up in Illinois, Hunter played with bands as a teenager, and learned the guitar by listening to records from talents like B.B. King, Albert King, and Michael Bloomfield. When he was plucked from obscurity to play alongside the great Mitch Ryder, Hunter already had his schooling in blues, soul, and rock 'n' roll, so it should come as no surprise for him to return to his roots and record an album of mostly-original new material in a blues vein. The only two covers on The Manhattan Blues Project are an instrumental version Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill" (Hunter played on the original recording) and Marvin Gaye's soul classic "What's Going On."

The Manhattan Blues Project was produced by Hunter and he performed with a few studio guests like guitarists Joe Satriani, Marty Friedman, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, and Michael Lee Firkins as well as bass guitar virtuoso Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel) and film superstar Johnny Depp, who has been known to strap an axe on from time to time. A love letter to the Big Apple, in a press release for The Manhattan Blues Project Hunter says "this album has been inside me trying to get out for a long time. I wanted to show the other side of New York, thee soulful side, plus it also says a lot of what I have always wanted to say on guitar."  

You can check out the electronic press kit video for The Manhattan Blues Project below and the album is available through Hunter's CD Baby page.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Joe Grushecky's Somewhere East of Eden

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers

One of our favorite rockers, Joe Grushecky, is finishing up a new album titled Somewhere East of Eden and has asked for our help in getting it on the street. Taking advantage of the potential of "crowd funding," Grushecky has launched a fund-raising campaign on the PledgeMusic website and is gathering donations to finishing and manufacturing the album.

Who is Joe Grushecky you may ask? Just one of the baddest rock 'n' roll mofos to ever strap on a guitar and bang out three chords, that's who! Joe was the frontman of the Iron City Houserockers, one of the tightest, hardest-rockin' gangs to ever roam the 1970s, the band releasing four critically-acclaimed albums, including the essential, underrated Love's So Tough (1979) and 1980's Have A Good Time But Get Out Alive.

Since 1988 or so, he's been leading an equally dangerous outfit known as Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, releasing around a dozen albums both with the band and as a solo artist, including the 1995 Bruce Springsteen-produced masterpiece American Babylon. Over a career that has now spanned five decades, Grushecky has worked with giants like Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt, Ian Hunter, and Steve Cropper, among others.

A rocker with a heart of gold, Grushecky has made his living all these years as a special education teacher in Pittsburgh's inner city, and has been one of the driving forces behind the Light of Day Foundation, raising over $1 million to fight Parkinson's Disease. Joe has performed annually at the Light of Day benefit concerts and, having seen Grushecky and the Houserockers take over a stage, I can say that you'll never see a better concert. Anything that Grushecky releases is A+ quality rock 'n' roll and, dare I say so, I think that Joe has made better records than his buddy Bruce over the past ten years or so…  

"I am so excited about this unique opportunity," says Grushecky in a press release for the pledge campaign. "Recording artists now have the ultimate freedom to actually have more control over the success of an album, and I intend to put this to good use in the creation of Somewhere East of Eden." Having seen Grushecky perform live, Joe is currently 93% of the way to his goal, so check out the perks you get when you donate to finish Grushecky's new album on his PledgeMusic page.

Wanna know what the Houserockers live experience is like? Check out the Reverend's Blurt magazine review of Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers' We're Not Dead Yet LP!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Bringing It Back to the Bare Essentials: The Making of Darker Than Light

Bobby Bare photo by Pete Mroz, courtesy Plowboy Records

If you know the name Bobby Bare, it’s as likely as not because you know the song “Detroit City.” With its low-twanging signature lick and forlorn account of a man geographically displaced by economic need, the 1963 hit cemented Bare’s career in country music—which became his primary place of residence, despite his pop beginnings and his broadminded musical sensibilities. Just as the blue-collar character in “Detroit City” longed for his home, so has Bare experienced the discomfort of being constrained by a musical classification that was never a completely comfortable fit. He managed better than most, though, employing his restless artistic bent to carve out a niche as one of country music’s more unconventional successes.

Bobby Bare's Outlaw Reputation

His concept album Bobby Bare Sings Lullabyes, Legends and Lies, a collaboration with famed left-field songwriter/poet Shel Silverstein, is often regarded as one of country’s first conceptual works (and is certainly one of its bravest), preceding Willie Nelson’s 1974 landmark album Phases and Stages by a full year. Like Nelson, Bare would become known, if not as widely remembered, as one of the questionably-labeled “Outlaw” movement’s early practitioners. Music historians, including Frye Gaillard in his now-classic book Watermelon Wine, point to Bare as a free thinker who helped reconcile the once-strained relationship between country and folk music in songs such as Bare’s co-written “500 Miles Away From Home” and his hit version of Canuck folkie Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds.” It mattered not a whit to Bare that folk music had previously been viewed by Nashville industry principals as being too politically progressive to make nice with country’s conservative listener base.

Bare’s “folk-you” attitude about such artistically arbitrary designations makes him first-line kin with Johnny Cash, who also refused, somewhat more famously, to be corralled by industry-imposed boundaries. Also like Cash, Bare began to score increasingly lower chart numbers as the 1970s morphed into the 1980s, when the country industry chased the cash cattle unleashed by the runaway success of the movie Urban Cowboy. The execs at Columbia Records, to which both Cash and Bare were signed at the time, stopped putting promotional clout behind acts who were older, more established and—perhaps most significantly—weren’t known for being compliant.

In a 2006 conversation with writer Rick Kelly, Bare was direct and dryly humorous about the inevitable changing of the guard. “When they were playing my records, I was glad they were playing them,” he told Kelly. “But that meant they weren’t playing Hank Snow or Roy Acuff or Lefty Frizzell. Eventually they started playing newer artists and stopped playing me.” Bare goes on to say that “there was no real reason to do albums anymore because there was nowhere to go with them. They basically told me, ‘Come back when you’re younger.’

The Moon Was Blue

Bare eventually parted ways with the standard “star” system, maintaining age-appropriate dignity and a lower profile, and letting 22 years pass between solo albums. Had his son Bobby Bare, Jr. not persuaded him to return to the studio to capture his earthy eclecticism on 2005’s critically acclaimed The Moon Was Blue, the 77-year-old singer might still be between projects, happily casting a line from the bass boat he favors these days. But an artist so comparable in spirit and gravitas to the iconic Johnny Cash is worth luring out of retirement, and it was with a concept similar to the one behind Cash’s stripped-down American Recordings series that music historian/author, professor, and Plowboy Records co-founder Don Cusic sparked Bare’s interest in once again getting behind a recording studio microphone.  

“I saw all the stuff that Johnny Cash did before he died, with [producer] Rick Rubin,” says Cusic, seated behind the piles of pages and projects-in-progress crowding his spacious office in the former CBS Records building on Nashville’s Music Row. Cusic, who was both friend and biographer to country legend Eddy Arnold, says he had initially approached Arnold with the idea of doing a project similar to Cash’s unvarnished Rick Rubin sessions. Arnold, whose smooth, mild-mannered way with a song was distinctly unlike Cash’s, wasn’t convinced. 

“Eddy, before he died, he wanted to do another album,” says Cusic, “and he was doing love songs and doing full-production [recordings]. I said, ‘You know, what you need is just some story songs,’ and he said, ‘Well, [love songs] are great stories,’ Cusic recalls, chuckling warmly at the recollection. “’Cause, you know, he was kind of the romantic, leading-man type.” Even while unsuccessfully attempting to cajole Eddy Arnold down a road less traveled, Cusic says it occurred to him that “the perfect guy to do this would be Bobby Bare. So I carried that idea around. This was before Plowboy [Records] was even an idea, when Eddy Arnold was still alive.”

Darker Than Light

Plowboy, the indie imprint to which Cusic refers, was started last year in honor of Eddy Arnold. The author/professor is a partner with Arnold’s grandson, Shannon Pollard, and—get ready for this one—punk-rocker and former Dead Boys founding member Cheetah Chrome, forming an unlikely triumvirate that sounds like the setup for a music-business inside joke. Snicker if you like, but the trio has already won considerable respect and praise for Plowboy’s debut release, Bobby Bare’s Darker Than Light.

True to the label’s mission of releasing worthy American music with no regard to genre, the album combines lesser-known alternative-country numbers with new compositions and folk songs of various vintages, ranging from the venerable “Shenandoah” and Woody Guthrie’s “Going Down the Road” to the sturdy latter-day blues standard “House of the Rising Sun.” Bare, along with a hand-picked Nashville band that includes Randy Scruggs, Buddy Miller, and some of Miller’s cohorts from Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, re-purposed these and other tunes into a pleasingly dark, potently rootsy brew. It’s a concoction well suited to Americana tastebuds, yet deeper and historically richer than most current roots-music, evoking the flavor of the Johnny Cash sessions that served as the album’s initial inspiration. Bare’s version of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” for example, is a brilliant stroke that Rick Rubin may be wishing he’d have thought of first—it would have been an ideal fit for the Man in Black in his grey-haired days, and its inclusion here further underscores the kindred-spirit bond connecting Bare and Cash.

Cusic, confirming the similarity between the two artists, says, “Both of them had an integrity about the music they did. They weren’t just after hits; they were after songs that said something. Their tastes were quite similar in songs. And Bare brought that up several times [saying], ‘Yeah, Cash would like that.’” Darker Than Light, though, boasts a gritty, often easygoing vitality that distinguishes it from the stark stoicism of Cash’s latter-day works. Don Cusic’s concept, as it turned out, met and exceeded the potential he had envisioned; just as importantly, it all fell together without undue force or hand-wringing, as inspired ideas—and inspired music—sometimes have a way of doing.

Music City Roots

It took little effort from Cusic to convince partner Pollard that his concept for Bare would make an ideal project with which to launch their new label, as well as one certain to garner plenty of media attention. It took even less effort to persuade Bare after the two met by chance at Nashville’s Loveless Barn, the venue where fast-burgeoning radio show Music City Roots is performed, filmed and streamed live.

“I happened to run into Bare backstage at Music City Roots one night,” Cusic says, picking up the story. “It just so happened that Shannon and I had been talking about [the prospect of a Bare album] just shortly before, and I said, ‘What do you think about this idea?’ and man, his eyes lit up. It just kind of snowballed from there.”

Cusic and Pollard lobbed song suggestions such as Bob Dylan’s “Farewell Angelina,” Alejandro Escovedo’s “I Was Drunk” and the aforementioned U2 selection—which Bare had somehow never heard. “The U2 song, that was my idea,” explains Cusic, recounting his and Bare’s near-comic exchange. “I played that for him, and I said, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘Who is it?’ [Cusic:] ‘It’s U2, this was a worldwide hit.’ [Bare:] ‘How long ago?’ Cusic says Bare, once his curiosity had been quenched, then made the proclamation, “That’s a country song.” If it wasn’t before, it is now: with Bare’s craggy, wizened vocal and a simple, organic treatment miles removed from the digital guitar effects reverberating across U2’s 1987 original, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” becomes a rustic expression of cowboy-outlaw restlessness worthy of folk-song posterity. 

The Devil and Billy Markham

Conversely, hoary chestnuts such as “Tom Dooley” and “Boll Weevil,” rendered all but toothless through the decades by over-familiarity and anemic white-bread cover versions, are convincingly enlivened by Bare and crew. Not unlike the rope that wrought vengeance upon the real-life murderer memorialized in “Tom Dooley,” Bare’s version of the saga swings loosely and roughly, while his take on “Boll Weevil” is a rhythmic romp that stands as one of the album’s most joyful and gratifying tracks, gliding on a spacious and slippery Levon Helm-styled groove.

More often than not, though, the tone of Darker Than Light reflects its sober title. As Cusic notes, “[Bare] likes the dark stuff, he likes the edgy stuff. He didn’t want to cut—none of us wanted to cut—a Music Row album.” They made that objective clear enough on the closing track, “The Devil and Billy Markham,” a nod to Bare’s late friend and collaborator Shel Silverstein. Not only does the song—an old Silverstein poem set to a minor-key melody by Bare—brandish the Grand Poobah of forbidden words, it also levels a none-too-subtle indictment at the country music industry and its tendency to foster insincerity and cowardice in the artists who cash in by hedging their bets. Because Bare has proven his mettle as an artist who does otherwise, the song’s appearance on the album is emblematic of artistic liberty and Bare’s lifelong commitment to it.

“We had to decide whether to put [“The Devil and Billy Markham”] on the album or not, ’cause it had the F-bomb in there,” relates Cusic. “And we tossed around ideas about not having it on the CD, [or only] putting it on the vinyl, ’cause you can’t get it in Wal-Mart that way. And finally we said, ‘This has got to close the album.’

Don Cusic & Bobby Bare photo by Shannon Pollard, courtesy Plowboy Records

Nashville's RCA Studio B

While Cusic was the album’s de facto instigator, he maintained responsibility for aligning himself with Bare’s musical personality. His role, as he saw it, was “to put Bare in a situation where he could be Bobby Bare…[where] he could let his integrity show.” To create a sonic context consistent with that role, the professor-turned-producer consulted with Buddy Miller and Randy Scruggs, who tag-teamed as session leaders. Together, they located musicians who would intuitively know what to do. Then, Cusic gave them room to do it. “Producing is not something you do by yourself,” he says. “It’s a collaborative process. You’ve got all those guys that are so talented. . . .” Cusic’s main caveat was that no keyboards were to be used on the sessions. “I didn’t want it to be so smooth, I wanted some rough edges to it,” he emphasizes. “The songs are pretty straightforward, and the musician lineup sort of dictated the sound.”
The sound to which Cusic refers is centered around the album’s unfussy arrangements, tracked live inside Bare’s old haunt, the now-historic RCA Studio B—where he started his country career a little more than five decades ago. “The sessions] really seemed to bring full- circle that era where you cut songs live. We didn’t just put down a drum track and then a bass track and then phone in something from Vancouver,” cracks Cusic, who noted that the overdub sessions consisted of little more than adding backing vocals. “We cut it all live, and the musicians could feed off each other. Obviously, we used Pro Tools and all that, but we basically did it the old-fashioned way.”

In 1962, you’d have found extraordinarily talented musicians gathered in the same room and cutting tracks live, but you wouldn’t have found them doing it without taking careful and necessary aim at making polished, radio-ready records. Not while on the clock, anyhow. But those clock hands have done some turning since Bare last exited Studio B in 1977. In a Rip Van Winkle-like twist, the indie-music aesthetic for which Bare once waged battle has come into its own while he wasn’t looking, with a committed cadre of non-conforming singers, songwriters and musicians now espousing his fringe-dweller way of thinking.

Defining the Americana Genre

If today’s Americana movement has given Bobby Bare the gift of a ready outlet—and a willing audience—for his particular brand of rough-hewn rootsifying, Bare, as one of Americana’s most legitimate progenitors, has given the movement something of arguably greater worth: a first-hand stamp of validation for a musical genre that, while on an upswing, is still in need of galvanizing, larger-than-life figures. Weighing in on Bare’s effortless alignment with the core values of the movement, Cusic says a mouthful: “Of course, when Americana talks about what it is, it talks about blues, it talks about country, it talks about rootsy music, and man, we’ve got rootsy music on [the album]. We’ve got songs that go way back. It’s really kind of a history lesson,” he proposes. “For young ears, all that stuff’s brand-new. When you can make history brand-new, you’ve got something, because those sounds and those songs are timeless.

“The problem with Americana,” he offers, “is that it’s everything that isn’t something else.” Cusic offers the notion that Darker Than Light is a kind of one-stop solution for a genre that, in his opinion, has experienced “an identity crisis [and] an acceptance crisis.” Says Cusic, “It’s like they say about Hank Williams—if you want to know what country music is, listen to a Hank Williams album. If you want to know what Americana is, listen to this Bobby Bare album.”

For his part, Bare seems enthused by his affiliation with the Americana camp. During his release-week appearance on Music City Roots, he offered high praise for Buddy Miller and the other musicians on the album and declared to the crowd, “This is a brand-new movement, folks—this is what’s happening in music.” His contribution, as he aptly described it, involved “[taking] folk songs and treating them like honest-to-God songs”—probably as good an assessment of Americana’s objectives as any.

One suspects that Bare was unprepared for this rejuvenating development in his career, unfolding just as his breakthrough hit, “Detroit City,” celebrates its 50th anniversary. All these years later, the classic song’s lonely protagonist, of course, has no choice but to remain forever marooned. Bobby Bare, however, seems to have found his way home. [Article by Steve Morley]