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]

No comments: