With Bobby Bare, you sense he pays more attention to the lyrics of the songs he records than he does to their melodies and rhythms. His choices are droll, wise and energized with vivid images and strong, relatable narratives. Adding to their impact are Bare’s laidback persona and laconic, understated vocal delivery.
Let’s face it: This guy’s as cool as Dean Martin was.
So it’s only fitting that on this, his 84th birthday (April 7), we look back over 10 of his most memorable records — the one’s that helped propel him six years ago into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“The All American Boy” (1958, No. 2 pop, written by Bill Parsons, Orville Lunsford)
This was Bare’s first hit. Released under the name “Bill Parsons,” it did not make the country charts, which is quite understandable since it’s a talking blues number. It was inspired by and modeled on Elvis Presley’s being drafted into the Army in 1958.
“Detroit City” (1963, No. 6, Danny Dill, Mel Tillis)
Bare hails from Ironton, Ohio on the West Virginia-Kentucky border, a hard-luck region that sent tens of thousands of its citizens north after World War II to seek work in such manufacturing hubs as Dayton, Cleveland and Detroit. All the loneliness and homesickness these immigrant “hillbillies” endured seep through in this recording. It reached No. 18 on the pop charts and later netted Bare a Grammy for best country single.
“500 Miles Away From Home” (1963, No. 5, Bobby Bare, Charlie Williams, Hedy West)
Here’s another lyrical essay on homesickness and one that rode the wave of folk music that became so popular in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. In an era when long-distance phone calls were a luxury, interstate highways were rare and email nonexistent, 500 miles was a world away from family and the familiar. This re-working of Hedy West’s re-working of even older fragments of folk songs rose to No. 10 pop.
“Four Strong Winds” (1964, No. 3, Ian Tyson)
This was a Top 10 song in Canada in 1963 for the Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia, but it didn’t make the U.S. Billboard charts until Bare released his slightly more uptempo country cover. The song falls into the “drifting lover’ category in which a man’s wanderlust is invariably more compelling than his love for any girl he romances on his travels: “But my good times all are gone / And I’m bound for moving on / I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.” Bare’s version reached No. 60 on the pop rankings.
“The Streets of Baltimore” (1966, No. 5, Tompall Glaser, Harlan Howard)
Country = simplicity and good; city = complexity and evil. This was the equation for many early country songs, and it certainly holds true for this one. Here the husband gives in to his wife’s entreaties to move where the bright lights are. And, at first, even he’s charmed by them. But eventually, he comes home from his factory job “with every muscle sore” only to have her “drag” him through the streets of Baltimore. So he leaves her immersed in the nightlife and heads back to the farm alone. The city has done him in.
“(Margie’s at) The Lincoln Park Inn” (1969, No. 4, Tom T. Hall)
A string section undergirds a scene of domestic harmony as the singer daydreams about the woman who waits for him at the local motel. Quite aware of the disconnect between what he seems to be and what he really is — an adulterer — the singer ends with the scene of his little son in bed and his wife baking cookies. However, he’s conveniently “almost out of cigarettes and Margie’s at the Lincoln Park Inn.” Some radio stations refused to program this song because it didn’t overtly condemn the man’s cheating.
“Daddy What If” (1973, No. 2, Shel Silverstein)
Bobby Bare Jr., then four years old, poses a series of cosmic questions to his dad — What would happen if the sun stopped shining, the wind stopped blowing and the grass stopped growing? The father’s answers are gentle and reassuring. Then comes the toughest question of all: What if he stopped loving his dad? The success of this single — which went No. 41 pop — set the stage for the 1974 album, Bobby Bare and the Family Singin’ in the Kitchen.
“Marie Laveau” (1974, No. 1, Shel Silverstein)
The message is clear: Don’t mess around with voodoo queen Marie Laveau or you’ll never leave the swamp where she practices her black arts. This is Bare’s only No. 1 song. Originally recorded by Dr. Hook for the band’s self-titled 1972 debut album, it was Bare’s only song to attain No. 1.
“The Winner” (1976, No. 13, Shel Silverstein)
This is a song about Pyrrhic victories. The singer of the song wants to pick a fight with the legendary Tiger Man McCool to see who’s the tougher. But before the challenger can land his first lick, McCool takes him on a wound-by-wound tour of his own battered body to show what being a winner gets you.
“Dropkick Me Jesus” (1976, No. 17, Paul Craft)
A tongue-in-cheek tribute to America’s greatest passions — Christianity and football. Bare sings it with the seriousness of an evangelist who’s picked a metaphor that runs away with him.
“The gods have always smiled on me,” Bare told the crowd of onlookers as he accepted his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Then with a twinkle, he added, “I’m just a singer — and ain’t I something!”
Yes, he is.