Pairing Nashville’s original outlaw with country music’s award-winning contemporary outsider in an Everly Brothers-style duet is something Bobby Bare wanted to do. As usual, he accomplished that task and generally does once he sets his mind on something.
Bare, 82, was working on his first new album in five years when he decided to enlist the aid of Chris Stapleton, the closest thing to an “outlaw” who is continuing his own domination of country music, despite the odds being stacked against him.
To wrap up his new album, Things Change, Bare decided he wanted to redo his signature song, the gritty and melancholy “Detroit City.”
Of course, he recorded the classic version more than 50 years ago and, well, things really do change. Bare wanted to do it differently with Stapleton, who is among Bare’s many friends and fans.
“I told Chris, ‘You’re not singing harmony with Bobby,'” Bare recalls, as he nurses a mid-afternoon cup of coffee. “I said, ‘We’re the Everly Brothers. You be Don, and I’ll be Phil.'”
In other words, he was seeking something different than a simple remake of the song that pretty much made him a star when it was released in 1963.
He wanted to reshape it sonically as an old-fashioned duet with another artist of distinctive voice and against-the-grain courage. The result is not “Wake Up Little Susie” by Don and Phil Everly, pioneers who bridged the gap between Top 40 and country radio in the ’50s and early ’60s. The similarity to the Everlys is that the new version of “Detroit City” blends the voices of two great country singers with equal quantities of vocal and vocational grit, doing it their way, the same way they’ve fashioned their careers.
The younger man’s shaggy-haired refusal to bend to the rules of radio airplay is quite reminiscent of Bare’s career-long practice of going against the norm, tilting at windmills sometimes just for the hell of it.
While some people think “Waylon and Willie and the boys” are the originators of the heralded “Outlaw Movement,” it was Bare and his insistence to oversee his own recordings and assert artistic independence that inspired and freed up Jennings and the rest to take over their own sessions.
Bare had already enjoyed considerable success before “Detroit City,” including the prior year’s Top 10 charting “Shame on Me.” But his performance of the Mel Tillis-Danny Dill-written “Detroit City” earned him a lasting spot in America’s soundtrack.
It should be noted that prior to his solo 1963 classic take on that song, Bare had, without fanfare, begun blazing the trail for artists who wanted to seize control of their careers, opening doors for what press pundits called the “Outlaw Movement.”
For example, “Shame on Me,” was the first song to make it out of Chet Atkins’ RCA Studios with a horn accompaniment. Those horns put on full display the rebellious brass of a young man intent on doing things his way.
Going against the polite norm and shrugging off convention have been hallmarks of the career of a guy who could be considered, along with his old friends Jennings and Johnny Cash, possessor of one of country music’s best voices. For almost six decades, Bare has been both singing for and surprising audiences as well as his country colleagues.
His hit-making began with his 1959 single, “The All American Boy” … but his name wasn’t on the record. In fact, the talking blues novelty song — a parody inspired by Elvis’ ballyhooed and career-boosting conscription into the Army — was recorded by Bare and became a hit while Bare was similarly serving. Because he wasn’t around, the hit was credited to Bill Parsons, who sang a different song on the same demo acetate.
Parsons, who lip-synched to Bare’s voice on the song on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, was given credit. Bare didn’t mind, still doesn’t really, because he was in the Army.
“I told him to keep the beer money,” says Bare. “I also said, ‘It’s only rock ‘n’ roll. It will be forgotten in six months.'”
It’s probably just as well, since that “talking blues” song did not display the timeless vocal cool that has defined Bare’s career, but he still laughs about Parsons and that “theft-by-lip synch” 58 years ago.
“Can you imagine how hard it was to try to lip-synch a talking record?” says Bare, laughing at the task faced by his old friend Parsons.
Actually, Bare, a truly gentle man, laughs about a lot of things during a warm and drawling conversation inside the garage and then the comfortable den of the spacious Hendersonville, Tennessee, home he shares with Jeannie, his wife of 52 years, and, as often as not, the grandchildren who live three minutes away and who go to school within eyeshot of Bare headquarters.
Sitting in the garage, Bare says “goodbye” or some-such to the guy on the other end of the phone and hangs up.
“I’ve been working this thing (the new album) hard,” says the original outlaw who not only took control of his own recording, his Music Row office was HQ of that rebellious style of country music, partly because he had pinball machines that his speed-gobbling friends like Waylon, Roger Miller, Cash and Captain Midnight played while they were on their sleepless binges.
“I never could have done like those guys,” says Bare, a big man with a hearty soul and a heart filled with love for friends, songwriters and, most especially, the family that has been the underpinning of his success since the 1950s.
“Those guys — Guy Clark, Waylon, Roger Miller — all of them, they’d just take those pills and keep going, stay up all night,” Bare recalls.
Bare shakes his head, with a smile rather than with judgment, when discussing those friends. He loved them all like brothers. He was their unofficial leader. And he misses them all, as in most cases that lifestyle was literally short-lived. But he had no desire to compete with them on all-night binges of pills and pinball.
“Me, well, I liked to go to bed,” he said. “It got so those guys were calling sleep ‘the Bare Disease.'”
His rich laughter, punctuated by a swift, yet-somehow-loving obscenity, chases that story.
“I still like to take a nap. And I know enough to put this thing on airplane mode when I take ’em,” says Bare, holding up his smartphone.
Bare, an affable sort, on this day is continuing a string of 10-15-minute “phoners,” quick interviews with newspaper reporters, radio hosts, web sites, whoever and whatever it takes to bring attention to Things Change.
A friend, who has for years helped me when I have been writing stories about the men and the music of the outlaw years and more, he has invited me to his comfortable home on a Hendersonville cul-de-sac to spend a few minutes that joyfully turn into a full afternoon.
“Thanks for being patient with me,” says Bare, referring to the calendar juggling we’d done to set the wheels in motion for what turns out to be more a sprawling discussion of country music and fishing and love of family than it is a forum for him to sell this excellent new record.
“That last phone call I got was from a fishing magazine. I must have been on the phone with him for an hour.” They swapped fish tales, not album sales.
“I like it out here,” he says, looking around the garage that on this day, at least, is home to large boxes of the Things Change CDs that he’s been methodically going through with a white Sharpie, personalizing them for promotional purposes.
“I can come out here and smoke cigars. I like coming out here to work.”
He turns to nod to a 13½-pound large-mouth bass that’s hanging over his makeshift desk.
“That was Reed’s,” says Bare, referring to his long-time fishing pal Jerry Reed, who died in 2008. “When he died I got that fish and all of his fishing gear.”
Their relationship had deep roots indeed, as guitar wizard Reed worked on some of Bare’s recording sessions in the 1950s and ’60s. Besides their mutual passion for the music they made, the two became, well, sort of “fishing brothers.”
Bare, who was with Reed when he hauled in that fish from a Florida lake, smiles at the memory of watching his pal catch the gilled monster.
The love between the two old fishing dogs was mutual. In the staircase inside the home hangs a painted portrait of Bare holding up a 6-pound smallmouth. It was a gift from Reed.
“Those kinds of things where you paint a picture from a photo don’t always turn out good. I think this one really did.”
Reed — who died in 2008 at age 71 — was one of Bare’s contemporaries in a country music world that since their heyday has traded in the hayseed for the hipster.
Bare turns the story briefly over to an album that involved him and Reed and others of their friends and contemporaries. The fishing buddies joined old warhorses Waylon Jennings and Mel Tillis in 1998 to form a supergroup called Old Dogs and release a double album by that title.
Bare’s good friend and accomplice on other projects, Shel Silverstein — songwriter, poet, children’s author, cartoonist and raconteur — handled the writing chores because Bare had told him there weren’t enough songs about growing old.
“I’m one of the last ones left,” Bare says, as he fills our conversation with stories of good friends – Haggard, Waylon, Jimmy Dickens, Harlan Howard — among them.
Things Change is his first album in the five years since a collection of folk songs, Darker Than Light, was released. The new album takes Bare back into the land of pure country, where he is most at home. The 10-song collection features songs written by Bare as well as some of the best in the business, including Mary Gauthier and even the late Guy Clark.
“‘Trophy Girl’ was the last song Guy wrote,” says Bare, proud to have his old friend’s work in his collection.
The title of the album and the radio track — “Things Change” — was inspired by another old friend, singer-songwriter and actor Hoyt Axton, writer of timeless songs like “Joy to the World,” “Never Been to Spain,” “The Pusher,” “No-No Song,” “Evangelina” and “Boney Fingers.”
Back in 1997, after suffering a stroke, Hoyt’s mother Mae Axton (best known as writer of “Heartbreak Hotel”) moved him into her Hendersonville home.
“It was just three minutes from my house and I started going over there in the mornings to make him breakfast,” says Bare. “You know, biscuits and gravy and shit.”
Bare looked past the malady and only saw an old friend who needed help.
“He was in really bad shape. He was using his fingers to eat peanut butter.” Bare simulates doing just that and shakes his head.
As he recalls those dark days, Bare rebounds to recall the reason he named this new album Things Change.
Axton — who died in 1999 — was on Bare’s mind.
“It was just something Hoyt had said: ‘The only thing I ever learned in life was that a cowboy hat was going to blow off in a high wind, women rule the world, and things change.'”