NASHVILLE SKYLINE: The Bedrock of Nashville Is Still the Music

A Bare Family Drama in One Act

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

I knew the 2005 CMT Music Awards show was a huge success with fans and viewers almost immediately when the flood of e-mails started. As soon as I started scanning them and could see that they were heavily — passionately — both for and against, pro and con, praising and condemning, I knew we had something going there. Nothing worth doing — especially a music awards show on TV — is worth doing unless it inspires genuine and heartfelt responses. We got those, all right. Especially the heated arguments over what is country and what is not country.

But after all that high drama and excitement and the star power of the show and the glitter of the late night party after the show, it was good to again see Nashville as what it primarily has been for decades — a music-making town. Where music of all kinds goes on every day and every night. And no one argues over what is country or what is not country.

The sunny afternoon the day after the awards show, I drove out to a comfortable home studio not too far from downtown Nashville. In the living room, I ran into Bobby Bare, who was recording his first new album in years, with his son, Bobby Bare Jr., producing.

I hadn’t seen either Bare in several years, so it was good to catch up with them. Bare looks and sings pretty damn good for a man who just hit his 70th year. He’s always been pretty healthy. Fishing and Red Man chewing tobacco and Skoal and Budweiser have pretty much been his excesses over the years. He’s also a killer artist who is one of the most overlooked and underrated in country music history.

Besides the obvious hits, such as “Detroit City,” “Four Strong Winds,” “500 Miles Away From Home,” “Marie Laveau” and “Dropkick Me, Jesus,” he was responsible in many ways for the songwriting revolution in Nashville in the ’70s. By championing and recording such songwriters as Billy Joe Shaver (whom Bare signed to his publishing company when Shaver first hit town), Shel Silverstein, Kris Kristofferson, Bob McDill, Mickey Newbury and Rodney Crowell, he helped bring a new sensibility to country songwriting.

Bare saw a young Waylon Jennings playing in Phoenix and told Chet Atkins that RCA should sign him. Atkins did so. Bare also recommended Waylon for his movie debut (and only movie appearance) in Nashville Rebel. Although Waylon is usually credited as being the first Nashville artist to seek and get the power to produce his own recordings, Bare actually did it first with his Lullabys, Legends and Lies album.

Around the time Waylon began making Outlaw history by recording Billy Joe Shaver songs, Bare was doing the same with songs by Shel Silverstein. Shel is one of the all-time great songwriters, although he’s remembered more as an author and illustrator of children’s books. His songs include Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” Loretta Lynn’s “One’s on the Way” and Dr. Hook’s “Cover of the Rolling Stone.” For Bare, Shel wrote the songs “Marie Laveau,” “Daddy What If” and the great albums Lullabys, Legends and Lies and Singin’ in the Kitchen.

Bare Jr. himself made Nashville history at the age of 5 when he was nominated for a Grammy for a duet with his father on “Daddy What If.” (They lost the Grammy to the Pointer Sisters.) He grew up around Waylon, Willie Nelson, Kristofferson, Cash and other Nashville heroes. Bare, the father, turned down offers for Bare Jr. to star on Nashville TV shows to protect him from what Bare had seen happen to Hank Williams Jr.

Since then, Bare Jr. has had an up-and-down history as a rock ‘n’ roll artist. He was exploited by a major rock label or two who thought they might have a huge overnight success on their hands and then dropped him when they didn’t know what to do with him. I think he’s a brilliant writer and singer, if sometimes unfocused and unchanneled, but always questing. Like his dad, he’s always searching, always questioning, looking for a better way to say what he means to say. He has cut some of the most memorable rock albums of recent years, his current CD being From the End of Your Leash.

In his song, “Visit Me,” Bare Jr. sings one of the most memorable song lines in Nashville history about musicians’ economic realities in Music City: “The world’s greatest living guitar pickers/Can deliver you a pizza or sell you weed.”

Bare Jr., like his father, relied heavily on Shel for song advice, and Shel guided him carefully. Silverstein’s untimely death from a heart attack in 1999 was a huge blow to the entire Bare family.

But now Bare Sr. is making an album again, with his warm, unmistakable and deceptively lazy-sounding voice exploring such songs as Fred Neil’s great “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the Ink Spots’ classic “Harvest Moon,” Tommy Edwards’ chestnut “It’s All in the Game” and a new Bare rockabilly composition, “Lovesick.” He began his career with a rockabilly-ish huge pop hit that was mistakenly credited to someone else. “The All-American Boy” came out in 1959 as a single credited to Bill Parsons because of a record label foul-up.

At the studio, the musicians gather in the living room for a lunch of barbecue sandwiches, cold cans of RC Cola and fresh strawberry shortcake. Paul Burch, leader of the WPA Ballclub band, is there playing, and he introduces me to Michael Grimes, another alumnus of Bare Jr.’s earlier bands.

And there is a genuine studio superstar here: Chip Young, the stellar guitarist who practically began his career backing up Elvis Presley, is playing sparkling guitar on this session. At this moment, he’s picking up and hugging his granddaughter Isabella. She is, he tells me with a sparkle in his eye, the 6-month-old daughter of his own daughter, Megan, and her husband Bare Jr.

Megan brought some stability into Bare Jr.’s life. Now, she’s beaming in the living room as Isabella is being doted on by two adoring grandfathers. Then, they got back to recording.

They were doing what they do best, which is crafting honorable, honest and worthwhile music. Music that will last.

Later, Bare and I walked out through the front yard, talking about current country music and awards shows and the like.

“I don’t know why people are always bitchin’ about young artists gettin’ all the attention,” Bare said. “Hell, that’s the way it should be. They’re young and strong. We’re old and tired. That’s the way it’s always been. Hell, when I was young, I was glad I was takin’ airplay away from the oldtimers.”

Bare laughed his easygoing laugh and got in his new Tahoe. Before he pulled away, he asked me to go fishing with him soon. And you know what? I’m gonna do it.