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And lo, the multitudes did behold the Word. And the Word let it be known that, sometime in the 1980s, music journalists did coin the name for new subgenre. And the wonks were pleased. And those who did not henceforth refer to sensible rock ’n’ roll with a proclivity for twang as “alt-country” fell into eternal hell. Amen.
Unfortunately, Bobby Bare Jr. will likely be canonized according to the aforementioned conventional rock crit dogma: He is a Nashville native, a tried-and-true rock ’n’ roller and the progeny of a country music star. But the truth is, there’s something about Bare that defies the alt-country orthodoxy; something a little darker, a little scarier, and yet, kind of adorable.
From his Tennessee home, Bare takes a moment to talk. In the background, the echoes of his fussy 10 1/2-month-old daughter, Isabella ring out. “I was writing really bad songs that eventually didn’t suck anymore,” Bare says. With the slightest hint of a Southern accent and a self-deprecating guffaw, the sandpaper-voiced troubadour admits that he only knew his songs were improving once fans began to assume that they were covers. “When people would ask, ‘Who wrote that?’ I knew I was on to something.”
It seems Bare has been around musicians and their fans all of his life — he knows the difference between a crowd that has been won over and one that couldn’t care less. Some of his fondest memories as a child are of watching his father, country singer Bobby Bare Sr., perform live concerts: “It was marvelous,” he says. “Every kid looks up to his dad, but when he eventually let me get up there and sing with him, well, it was like if your dad was an astronaut and he said, ‘Hey son, you want to come to the moon with me?’”
Bare’s sentiments are filled with such reverence that you can almost imagine the childhood that inspired them. And yet he does not display even a glimmer of an inferiority complex. At one point in the interview, upon realizing that he’s being interviewed for a Motor City rag, he sings one of his dad’s hit songs, “Detroit City” softly into the phone, “Last niiight I went to sleep in Deeeee-troit city …”
It’s really no surprise that Bare has chosen to follow his father’s footsteps; it’s only natural, but lately, his band — Bobby Bare Jr.’s Young Criminals’ Starvation League — has tapped into something outright unconventional. Made up of a decidedly non-country lot of musicians — including Detroit-native Duane Denison (of Jesus Lizard and Tomahawk), Will Oldham (Palace Bros.), Paul Niehaus and Deanna Varagona (Lambchop) — the band is a veritable arsenal of talent.
Their latest album, From the End of Your Leash on Bloodshot Records, is agitated and lovelorn. It covers subjects ranging from cocaine addiction to canine love. Replete with Stax-style horn bursts, orchestral ornamentation and atonal guitar riffs, the record wavers somewhere between a Fluxus art exercise and a honky-tonk boon; it is every bit as wholesome as it is experimental.
“I try to embrace everything that I am,” Bare says. “One thing that I realized was that you first have to get really good at songwriting before you can molest, distort and mock it.”
Still married to the street-punk philosopher inside of himself and the country rock star that he appears to be, Bare has got, well, it. And he’s not afraid to give thanks to those who helped him to develop the dexterity.
The song “Things I Didn’t Say” on Leash was written by his father’s best friend and well-known author Shel Silverstein. (Bare Sr. and Silverstein collaborated for many years and even put out the very first country music concept album, Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends and Lies.) The young musician proudly confides that he recorded Silverstein’s song as an homage to a departed friend and “because he was brilliant.”
“If guys like Kris Kristofferson, Shel Silverstein and my dad came to Nashville today, they’d be hanging out with my friends, not those folks on Music Row.”
Bobby Bare Jr.’s Young Criminals’ Starvation League will perform Sunday, Jan. 23, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700. Volebeats will open.
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