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Digging Down

Bare necessity: Bobby Bare Jr. sings lullabies, legends and lies on his new album, Young Criminals' Starvation League.
Thomas Petillo

Immediately after Bobby Bare Jr. is asked the question, one he's undoubtedly been asked countless times since he joined the family business, he turns it around: "Well, what did your dad do when you were growing up?" He listens for a minute to the reply, a brief biography on a man who was an administrator at a small school district in Central Texas and a fifth-grade teacher before that, a fairly normal father. Every time he's asked the question, and every time he asks it right back, he never hears an answer that matches his own.

"Imagine if your dad was holding a microphone and shaking his butt and strumming guitars and women would come up and want your dad to sign their boob," Bare says with a laugh. It's a line he's delivered before. "Right in front of your mom. That's what it's like."

When Bare was a kid, his picking-and-grinning pop was riding shotgun with former roommate Willie Nelson, along with Waylon and the rest of the boys. Often relegated to the margins of history these days, his father helped drive C&W into new territory in the 1970s, continuing a successful career that began in 1959, when his "The All American Boy" peaked at No. 3 on the pop charts. Songs such as "How I Got to Memphis" and "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends" earned him a reputation, as legendary rock promoter Bill Graham once put it, as the "Springsteen of country music."

Bare's been following his dad's lead--in his own way--since his group Bare Jr. released its first album, Boo-Tay, for Immortal Records in 1998. They followed it up in 2000 with Brainwasher, but it's only now, with the recent release of his first solo album, Young Criminals' Starvation League (issued by Chicago's Bloodshot Records), that the younger Bare has truly become his father's son, at least as a musician. The two Bare Jr. albums banged and twanged like the product of a kid who grew up in the audience at Black Flag shows in Nashville, punk rock with a Southern accent, tattooed country. On the other hand, Young Criminals' Starvation League, with its moans and groans, its pedal steel and gentle feel, could've been recorded in his parents' living room a couple of decades ago, where family friends like Johnny Cash and George Jones were regular guests.

"My parents only hung out with songwriters," Bare says. He's at home in Nashville, taking care of a few last-minute details before he takes off on a short swing through the South, promoting Starvation League. He sounds high as a whole note held by a golden throat, but that's probably just the Tennessee talking. "And I'm lucky enough in my family to be a songwriter. That's like, you know, the top of the heap. They love songwriters, and all the people they hung out with were always songwriters. So that really made an impression on me."

Loaded with Stax soul and country woe, Starvation League is sure to make an impression on listeners, the sound turned down and pinned back so Bare's clever wordplay stands out and pulls you in, instead of sitting second chair. The pole Bare hangs his tent on is "Dig Down," an open letter to past musical greats, celebrating and castigating them for making his life's work unnecessary by "grabbing all the good stuff" first. His voice cracks a bit as he complains to Pete Townshend ("If we rock it looks like we're ripping you off"), Jimmy Page ("My amplifier has no aim for all it plays sounds derivative and mundane") and Jimi Hendrix ("My Fender is just a painted board/And if I light it on fire I become such a fucking bore"). It breaks into a few more pieces when he continues with Black Francis ("If rock and roll dies it's not my fault/I do the best with the leftovers that I got") and Chuck Berry ("You wrote the only original song/Some white boys stole it and we all still sing along"), as well as (of course) The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

Not surprisingly, "Dig Down" took Bare more than a year to write, because "it had to be right. It had to be exactly right." And it is. In less than four minutes, Bare sums up what every musician has been thinking for years: What's the point? Then he answers the question, following "Dig Down" with a cover of The Smiths' "What Difference Does It Make?" Exactly.

That said, his take on The Smiths song, redone with subtle surf guitar and shuffling snare drum, shows up on Starvation League for other reasons. It may have been sequenced on the record as a sly segue, but it appears in the first place as a tip of the hat to a group Bare has always admired.

"I drove to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1985 or '86--I guess it was the summer of '86--to see The Smiths," Bare says. "And still, to this day, Paul Burch"--who plays drums on Young Criminals and holds down his own solo gig--"is the only other person I know that's seen The Smiths that I've ever met. They canceled everything in the South. Paul was living up north at the time. I was a huge fan. I think [their music] is beautiful, beautiful tragic comedy. It kills me. His lyrics are completely ridiculous. 'I smoke because I'm hoping for an early death and I really need something to cling to,'" he continues, quoting The Smiths' "What She Said," off Meat is Murder. "That's funny. That's really funny. He's really one of the greatest lyricists ever."

The disc ends with another cover by another great lyricist: a sung-spoke stroll through the late Shel Silverstein's somber "Painting Her Fingernails." Silverstein--best known, perhaps, for penning a song Johnny Cash made famous, "A Boy Named Sue"--co-wrote a song (the coal-black "I Hate Myself") with Bare for Boo-Tay, and was a Bare family friend for years. Bare Sr. and Silverstein often collaborated, most notably when Bare recorded a double-album set of Silverstein's songs in 1973, Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends and Lies. To Bare Jr., Silverstein was something of a mentor, critiquing his songs as he wrote them. "It was great just having somebody I looked up to so much be a good cheerleader, you know, and somebody to tell me when I'm getting lazy, somebody to tell me I need to push harder in this area," Bare says.

He's learned his lessons well if Starvation League (recorded in just seven days with Lambchop's Mark Nevers) is any indication. He's a solid storyteller, whether he's telling the sad tale of the "Flat Chested Girl From Maynardville" who "trades all her CDs for weed and Ecstasy" or spinning a humorous yarn about "The Monk at the Disco" who "says a prayer for the skinny girl with blond curly hair who forgot to put on her underwear." And the songs--most of them acoustic-based, augmented with swatches of synthesizers and a handful of horns--are more satisfying than the ones on Boo-Tay or Brainwasher. They're quieter, sure, but they say what Bare wants louder than ever. Of course, that's not going to stop Bare from plugging back in: "There'll be another rock record," he says. "I can't stop doing the rock stuff. It's just too much fun. We actually still rock on this stuff."

If nothing else, Bare wants to rock just to prove that it's possible to do so in Nashville, that his hometown is more than just hat racks walking down Music Row, big galoots in shiny cowboy boots and sequined snap shirts.

"You can really buy an AC/DC record in Nashville, Tennessee," Bare says. "And I really saw Black Flag in Nashville, Tennessee. I swear to God. Henry Rollins told me he was gonna kick my ass in the summer of 1985 when I was at a Black Flag show. And people just don't think about that. They don't think that there's a Smiths fan in Nashville, Tennessee. I really, you know, I really like Pavement and live in Nashville, Tennessee." He laughs. "That is just beyond most people's perception of Nashville."


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