Interview: Bobby Bare, Jr.
Whether or not being officially designated Bobby Bare “Junior” at birth predestined the country legend’s offspring to follow his dad’s path toward music, there won’t be a Bobby Bare III. Junior’s third child and second son, Shelby Booker Bare, was born two days before we sat down for an interview this summer before a show at the IOTA Club & Cafe in Arlington, Virginia; Shelby follows Isabella and Beckham.
And yet, Junior has already recruited his daughter as a supporting voice. In what has now become a Bare family rite-of-passage, Isabella reprised Bobby’s original role as the younger half of a father-and-child duet on “Daddy What If,” which was nominated for a Grammy in 1974 when six-year-old Bobby Jr. sang it with Bobby Sr. (They lost to the Pointer Sisters, which still sticks in Junior’s craw 30-odd years later.)
Isabella’s heart-melting performance with her pop is a highlight of Twistable Turnable Man, a tribute album to the late, great songwriter/children’s book author Shel Silverstein co-produced by the Senior and Junior Bobby Bares. It’s an engaging and enlightening collection that draws upon disparate generations and genres of musicians who all share a sincere fondness for the songs that Silverstein wrote.
The Silverstein tribute isn’t all that Junior has had on his plate lately. He also has a new album of his own songs, and there’s a family tie there, too: It’s titled A Storm — A Tree — My Mother’s Head, and the title track features a cameo by his mom. Screaming. We’ll let Bobby explain that.
Video from early ’70s of Junior singing “Daddy What If” with his father:
So what’s the deal with the title of your new record?
Mom was sitting on the couch, the last day of January in 2008, and there was a big, windy storm outside. And a big branch broke off halfway up the tree. It fell on the house, and literally split the house in two and landed exactly on top of her. She’s as lucky to be alive as she was unlucky that the tree fell exactly on top of her.
And so, she’s OK and everything; it broke two vertebrae in her neck. She went from watching TV to figuring out if her legs were gone — “Am I alive or dead, can I crawl out from underneath it and call for an emergency?” and all that. But they fixed the house up real nice. We’ve got vaulted ceilings in that room now and it looks really awesome. But, she’s fine. She’s screaming on the song. I’ve gotta put the YouTube up of Mom screaming, because it’s funny.
The new album also has tunes like “Rock And Roll Halloween” and “Liz Taylor’s Lipstick Gun” and “Your Goat Is On Fire.” Humor seems to be a big part of songwriting for you.
Yeah, I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but when I do a serious song, people just laugh. They think it’s hilarious. Like, “You Blew Me Off’” was from a really sad part of me. That was from a really horrible breakup. But, you if you can get people laugh at your scary feelings, it helps a little bit. It makes them seem not so big.
Your ties to your dad’s music are well documented. Has your mom influenced your music too?
Mom’s the best singer in the family. She would travel with Tex Ritter all over the country. If you go to my website on the videos, there’s a video of her on a thing called the Town Hall Party, in Long Beach, California. She’s not country by any definition; she’s so Californian. She would do like the Doris Day hit of the era. But she’s a really good singer. My favorite parts of myself come from her. She’s the most social, bubbly person.
How has your dad’s music influenced your songwriting specifically?
I don’t know. We co-wrote two songs on my new record together — “One Of Us Has Got To Go” and “But I Do.” I think it’s just a quality-control thing, maybe. His level of how good a song has to be is in the back of my head, I think. And that’s real important. But Shel has more of an influence on my writing than dad. Dad quit writing songs when Shel and he met, pretty much. Which is a bummer because Dad’s a good songwriter. He’s writing now, a lot.
In what ways was Shel Silverstein a bigger influence?
I write poems and turn them into songs, and that’s what he did. Music was just a sneaky way for him to get his poems in your ear. It was just a tool. It was so secondary. He was a great songwriter, but it was very secondary.
I understand that there had been talk of a Silverstein tribute record for many years.
Yeah. We started one in 2001, just after he died, and then the record label folded. But it had to happen, and if anybody was going to do it, it was going to be me and Dad.
Even though there’s a pretty broad range of artists — from Ray Price and Kris Kristofferson and Nanci Griffith to My Morning Jacket and and Black Francis and Andrew Bird — the album really fits together well as a whole. How was it all assembled?
We got to produce, lay down and create the tracks for over half the songs. We used Shel’s acoustic guitar on a whole lot of it. My former father-in-law, Chip Young, played on the original Shel recordings, and he’s playing Shel’s acoustic on most all the tracks we did.
And then, the rest of them were just like, we’d get an mp3 from Lucinda Williams, you know, and Dr. Dog spent a week on layering and layering and layering, and did everything that Dr. Dog does, and then came up with some new shit, all in one song. So we didn’t have anything to do with some of them.
When did you first think of doing “Daddy What If” with Isabella?
That was Dad’s idea. I wanted to do “This Guitar Is For Sale” [which John Prine did on the album]. And Dad said, No, you’re doing “Daddy What If.” But he’s right.
Video from this year of Junior (in the father’s role) singing “Daddy What If” with his daughter
I could see having a period when you loved that song as a little kid, then disowned it as you were growing up, and then coming back to it again as a father:
I just wanted to hang out with my Dad; I just wanted to be onstage. I’ve always listened to it, though. Even when my friends tried to make fun of me in college for it, I was like, “OK, you got me. But listen to the song!” And then they’d go, “That’s a great song!” There’s a YouTube where Shel and Johnny Cash do “A Boy Named Sue” [done by Todd Snider on the tribute album] for like a verse together, and then Shel does “Daddy What If” all by himself. Which, I had no idea that he had ever done that.
Your duet with Isabella is one of the best vocal performances you’ve ever recorded
We did it in the same key Dad did it in. I think it was a good key for my voice too. I keep singing lower; I’m not yelping all the time. Dad would always beat me up for singing too high. I just keep singing lower and lower, and it’s like, “Oh yeah, this is where I’m supposed to sing.”
Did you consider naming one of your kids Bobby Bare III?
No. My ego did not need that. I didn’t want to impose that on somebody!