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Not His Father's Country

Bobby Bare Jr. pushes the genre forward by embracing its tangled roots.

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Bobby Bare Jr.

From the End of Your Leash

(Bloodshot)

Gretchen Wilson's chart-topping debut, Here for the Party (Epic), is one of the most exciting and innovative albums to come out of Nashville in recent memory--faint praise indeed. Country music has been a stagnant backwater for at least a generation, and Wilson's efforts to stir things up just spread the stink around. On "Chariot," for example, she delivers a rap that's equal parts Blondie and Charlie Daniels. Her delivery's more convincing than Kid Rock's, but the backing track is pedestrian blooze riffing. It may well be one of mainstream country's first real responses to hip-hop, but it's about 20 years too late and kind of half-assed.

The rest of the album is even less impressive. Wilson's been praised as more "rootsy" than Shania Twain or Faith Hill--and she is, for what that's worth. But to me her poppy power-chord hooks and cheesy pseudo-rebellious choruses ("Hell, yeah!") don't recall Loretta Lynn or even Tanya Tucker so much as the bottom-drawer hair metal that was all over MTV in Wilson's youth. Her hit single, "Redneck Woman," is almost but not quite as cheeky as "Smokin' in the Boys Room."

But such is Nashville's insularity that any acknowledgement of the rest of the radio dial, explicit or implicit, is newsworthy. Thus Wilson can sound eclectic in interviews by name-dropping cutting-edge bands like AC/DC and Lynyrd Skynyrd. She's also associated herself with the Muzik Mafia, a loose affiliation of Nashville artists dedicated (in the words of its de facto leaders, the production team Big & Rich) to making country "the most inclusive format of music in America." Maybe with Wilson's help they'll drag CMT out of the past--they might even make it all the way to 1982.

Country wasn't always so stubbornly retro: in the 1920s the nascent genre was every bit as diverse and adventurous as blues, jazz, or pop. Jimmie Rodgers, often referred to as the Father of Country Music, may have been the single most omnivorous performer of his day. During one remarkable stretch in 1930 and '31, he cut several sides with Hawaiian guitarist Lani McIntire, several more with a Latino band from San Antonio featuring Charles Kama on steel guitar, a couple with the Carter Family, one with Saint Louis bluesman Clifford Gibson, and one with Louis Armstrong. He recorded with jazz backing regularly, if not frequently, and the blues were a foundation of his performance style throughout his career. Indeed, Rodgers is as much a part of the blues as he is of country; artists from Furry Lewis to Howlin' Wolf have covered his songs or cited him as an influence.

This varied approach wasn't unusual, even as late as the 50s. Roy Acuff, Kitty Wells, and the like certainly played up their ties to a hillbilly past, but many others were inspired by the idioms of their own day. Bill Monroe created bluegrass by wedding traditional Appalachian music to the blazing solos of hot jazz, and Bob Dunn, one of the earliest players of the electrified steel guitar, consciously imitated the style of contemporary jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden. Western swing bands like Bob Wills's Texas Playboys played everything from fiddle tunes to hokum blues to Duke Ellington's sophisticated swing charts. Moon Mullican, Billy Jack Wills, the Maddox Brothers & Rose, and many others all made music indebted to jump blues, and country stars like Ernest Tubb and Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded with pop singers like the Andrews Sisters and Kay Starr. (Try to imagine Tracy Lawrence cutting a single with J. Lo.)

Then came rock 'n' roll. To hear some people tell it, Elvis Presley was the first white man influenced by black music--which neatly erases practically the entire history of country, from Jimmie Rodgers to Bill Haley. Elvis was in fact part of a long tradition; country had been borrowing for decades, and from both sides of the color line. (Nobody ever seems to remember that Presley recorded Patti Page's "I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine" in 1954.) It was Elvis's phenomenal crossover success that made him unique, not his eclecticism.

That success had far-reaching consequences, though, and from country music's perspective they were almost all bad. After Elvis, musically inventive white kids--from Dylan to Cobain--gravitated overwhelmingly to rock. There was still room in country for the odd aesthetic disaster such as New Grass, but by and large the genre would become the domain of traditionalists like Merle Haggard. A handful of aging innovators who'd started their careers either before or during the rise of rockabilly--Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson--hung on for quite a while, and largely because of their influence country managed intelligent responses both to the folk revival in the 60s and to classic rock in the 70s. But by the 80s the field was largely down to artists who loved older styles (Lyle Lovett) and artists who loved how they looked on video (Garth Brooks). That's pretty much where things have stayed ever since: country has become a rallying point for anyone unhappy with any musical development of the past 40 years.

Bobby Bare Jr. isn't exactly an exception. Like most country artists, he's obsessed with the past. But his relationship with older styles is more ambivalent, perhaps because he's spent his whole life in their shadow--his dad, Bobby Bare Sr., was a popular country-folk performer in the 60s and 70s.

While Gretchen Wilson tips her hat to the usual suspects to establish her cred--Hank Williams Jr., Tanya Tucker, Charlie Daniels--Bare chooses his influences less predictably, and his attitude toward them is more conflicted.

On "Dig Down," from 2002's Young Criminals' Starvation League (Bloodshot), he name-checks everyone from Chuck Berry to Jimi Hendrix to Pete Townshend to Black Francis, complaining that they've used up all the best ideas and left the radio to the likes of Limp Bizkit. "My Fender is just a painted board," he wails, "and if I light it on fire I become such a fucking bore." The song ends with a bit of the "woo hoo" vamp from "Sympathy for the Devil," but the punch line isn't that Bare's poking fun at a tired shibboleth--it's that he's improved on the original. His version's sparse, choreographed sloppiness makes it more heartfelt and more fun than the Stones' multitracked dinosaur.

That neatly sums up Bare's approach: he wants to one-up his heroes, not just imitate them. This urgency and ambition gives his albums a kind of humility, counterintuitively enough--for Bare the past is something to contend with and measure himself against, an attitude common in hip-hop and jazz, but not so much in modern country. He isn't too proud to let you see him sweat, and Young Criminals' Starvation League is a worked-over record: everything he's listened to in the past 30 years is in there somewhere, but it's all so orchestrated, chopped up, and compressed that it's hard to tell where one source ends and the next begins. Are the lovely vocals on "I'll Be Around" inspired by T. Rex or the Everly Brothers? Are the dreamy, soulful horn lines more reminiscent of the MG's or of Love's Forever Changes? Even on a cover of the Smiths' "What Difference Does It Make?" Bare's shoulder-shrugging delivery seems as much Willie Nelson as Morrissey.

Bare's latest full-length, this summer's From the End of Your Leash (Bloodshot), is credited to Bobby Bare Jr.'s Young Criminals' Starvation League--more a loose collection of musicians than a band, as the awkward name suggests. But Bare treats them as collaborators, not sidemen, and it pays off. On the album's opener, violinist Andrew Bird comes out of nowhere to screech his way through a remarkable Hendrixoid solo, and on "Don't Follow Me (I'm Lost)" pianist Cory Younts provides a perfect, wistful hook. In "Your Favorite Hat," Carey Kotsionis's childlike vocals chase Bare's ragged twang around and around, like the singer from the Cardigans trying to harmonize with Steve Earle. And Doni Schroader's percussion is marvelous throughout.

It's Bare who really makes the album something special, though--his writing is even more intricate than on the last record. To pick just one example, the supercatchy "Valentine" starts with a churning guitar riff over a backbeat, and Bare and Will Oldham enter singing in harmony; then a keyboard drifts in, followed by a Beatlesque bass line. At the chorus, trumpets play a marching-band flourish over a throaty baritone saxophone. Then the whole thing stops for two bars, and a steel-guitar solo kicks in over a hushed, syncopated version of the original beat. Then the vocals return for a second verse, this time with that baritone sax joining in. After another chorus, the steel guitar comes back, this time accompanied by electric grunge (probably courtesy of ex-Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison--it's hard to say, since the credits list four guitarists and there's no song-by-song breakdown). There's a false ending with more horns, a brief pause, and then one last chord from the trumpets. You can almost hear Bare thinking, "Eat your heart out, Brian Wilson."

The Beach Boys weren't country, of course, but Bare's shelved in country mostly thanks to his dad--and because he's recording for Bloodshot. He knows he's got one foot on either side of the imaginary line between two genres, and his debt to, and distance from, rock and country allows him to mock both. "Let's Rock & Roll" opens with gently swaying music, and then Bare announces, "I live on the floor of a minivan / Driven by drunks across this land." By the time he tells us that "there is vomit running down the walls / That vomit don't care where it falls / And that vomit it came out of someone / And that vomit should be cleaned up by someone," the rock life doesn't seem like good fun or tragic excess but rather just a way to get someone else to mop up your mess. The tune periodically teases the listener with a few seconds of distorted guitar, but it's the wrong kind--Sonic Youth rather than Kiss. Given the lyrics and the otherwise dreamy tone of the song, the rockin' section at the end comes across as a put-on--OK, kids, time to raise your lighters.

The skewering of country on "Visit Me in Music City" is even funnier. Against a musical backdrop that tweaks some of Nashville's excesses--full organ sound, overmiked snare drum, a repeated nick from "Rocky Top" in the fade-out--Bare describes a fairyland where rural authenticity and modern marketing have merged into a seamless whole. "The hills are filled with naked hee-haw honeys / Who all sing along in perfect harmony," he sings. "Guitar strings grow on shrubs and maple trees," and "record deals fly in and out like happy bumblebees." He even suggests that country may not be as patriotic as Toby Keith likes to think: "in pickup bars the country stars play Japanese guitars." The coup de grace is Bare's voice--he deliberately adopts 70s country phrasing, and ends up sounding a lot like his dad.

When Alan Jackson sang about Nashville in "Murder on Music Row," he was peddling straight-up nostalgia--the standard line about how things have gone to hell since ol' Hank's day. But Bare opens "Visit Me in Music City" by claiming he was "born at the Ryman Auditorium during the Martha White portion of the Grand Ole Opry." The Ryman was the Opry's home till 1974, and Martha White is a baking-products company that still sponsors the show. Bare doesn't have a problem admitting that country's always been commercial and hypocritical. He may be trapped by history, but he doesn't have to like it. That makes him truer to country's past--and its present--than almost all his contemporaries.

Bobby Bare Jr.

When: Sunday, September 26, 7:15 PM

Where: Hideout Block Party, Wabansia and Elston

Price: $10 donation

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kristina Marie Krug.

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