Bobby Bare - Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein Plus Music Album Reviews

Bobby Bare - Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein Plus Music Album Reviews
Shel Silverstein’s reputation rests on his children’s books, but he also had a long, illustrious songwriting career in Nashville. No one performed his ribald, irreverent songs more than the progressive country singer Bobby Bare, and this box set collects their work.

Buried within the book for the hefty box set Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein Plus lays a disclaimer by liner notes author Dave Samuelson: "Newcomers to the Bare/Silverstein catalog should note several of these recordings contain language that may surprise if not shock more sensitive ears. Always the iconoclast, Silverstein generally directed his ribald, often dark humor to a predominantly male audience. His world straddled both the 'Playboy' philosophy and the bohemian Beat Generation of the 1950s. Anyone offended by his depiction of women should remember his work mirrors the attitudes, sensibilities and humor of an earlier era." A content warning may be necessary for listeners who are only familiar with Shel Silverstein as the author of children's books, blissfully unaware of the existence of such gleefully pornographic records as 1972's Freakin' At The Freakers Ball.
Much of Silverstein's reputation rests upon the enduring popularity of The Giving Tree, Where The Sidewalk Ends and A Light In The Attic, children’s books published between 1964 and 1981, years where he also worked as a cartoonist, a Playboy satirist, and a folk singer, a vocation he pursued despite the inconvenient fact that he couldn't sing, he shrieked. He might not have been able to carry a tune, but he could write one, a talent recognized by Johnny Cash, who was drawn to the literal gallows humor of Silverstein's “25 Minutes to Go” and put it on his 1965 LP Johnny Cash Sings The Ballads Of The True West. Four years later came “A Boy Named Sue,” a near-novelty written by Silverstein and delivered with thundering menace by Cash—a combination that gave the Man In Black his biggest hit and opened up Nashville for its songwriter.

Silverstein found some kindred spirits in Nashville—he wrote Waylon Jennings’ 1970 hit “The Taker” with Kris Kristofferson and authored Loretta Lynn's 1971 “One’s on the Way” on his own—but he discovered his muse in Bobby Bare, a towering progressive country singer who had been kicking around Nashville or over a decade. Bare had a hit straight out of the gate in 1958 with “The All American Boy,” a loving parody of Elvis Presley, then scored a pair of career-making singles in 1963 with the lonesome “Detroit City” and “500 Miles Away from Home.” The country Top Ten was no stranger to Bare throughout the 1960s, a period where he demonstrated an ear for distinctive songwriters, helping bring Tom T. Hall, Mel Tillis, and Tompall Glaser into the spotlight. Before he met Silverstein, Bare cut “Sylvia's Mother,” the number five hit for Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show..

"Sylvia's Mother" was one of the last hits Bare had at Mercury Records before he returned to his old home of RCA Records, lured back to the label by then-president Chet Atkins’ promise that he could produce his own records. Ever since he heard Joe South's Introspect on the radio in LA, he wanted to make a concept album, asking all of his songwriter friends to write him a song cycle but they all demurred. Then, Bare met Silverstein at a Country Radio Seminar party one Saturday night in early 1973. The singer told the songwriter about his hard luck. That next Monday, he got a call from Silverstein saying he had an album's worth of songs ready to go.

The resulting Lullabys, Legends and Lies kicked off a lifelong collaboration between the pair. Until Silverstein's death in 1999, Silverstein wrote country songs with Bare in mind, while Bare turned to Silverstein whenever he needed a new project, as he did for his 1998 supergroup Old Dogs. That record isn't featured on Bear Family's hefty new box set Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein Plus, as the box set focuses on recordings made between 1972 and 1983, a period where Bare released three full albums devoted to Silverstein songs, recorded another complete set that sat in the vaults for decades, released another two where Shel dominated all other songwriters, and then regularly fit a Silverstein song or two onto his other LPs, leaving a handful of other tracks unreleased. All told, Bare recorded well over 100 Silverstein compositions during this period, and that sheer number is proof of their symbiotic partnership: the singer found his songwriter, the spinner of yarns found his storyteller.

Their potent chemistry was palpable on Lullabys, Legends and Lies, the concept album Bare longed to make. Silverstein gathered some old tunes of his, wrote a few new ones, then handed Bare a bunch of songs hanging off the very loose notion conveyed in the title. Acting as his own producer, the singer kept things cheap and lean, creating the impression that he and his band were singing and picking at home. The immediacy of this intimacy was striking but Silverstein came up with an ingenious notion: record an in-studio audience’s reaction to the playback of the album, then add their whoops, laughter, and off-key singalongs to the finished product, giving the illusion of a concert album.

Their gamble paid off. “Marie Laveau” gave Bare his first number one country hit and “Daddy, What If,” his sticky-sweet duet with his young son Bobby Jr, almost cracked the Top 40, sending the album into Billboard's Country Top Ten, its success paving the way for other self-produced mavericks like and Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger. If Lullabys, Legends and Lies didn't prove to be as enduring as what followed in its wake, chalk it up to the album's contrived charm working a little bit too well: some of Silverstein's stories are a bit too cutesy, as is the framing device of the crowd. Still, the record is powerful, particularly in how Bare's casual authority undercuts Silverstein's impish tendencies, a quality evident in the still, plaintive "In The Hills of Shiloh" and, especially, how the singer keeps the winding story-song "The Winner" compelling, delivering each successive punchline with an widening smile.

"The Winner" would wind up as the template for much of the work Bare and Silverstein would do together, but first they had to attempt to replicate the success of Lullabys, Legends and Lies. Inspired by Studs Terkel's oral history Working, Silverstein decided to address the plight of those downtrodden by the recession of 1973 through Hard Time Hungrys, but it took a long time to weave his stories with man-on-the-street interviews, so the pair decided to bash out Singing In The Kitchen first. Billed equally to Bare and his family, Singing In The Kitchen built off the success of "Daddy What If," finding the amiable patriarch singing kid-friendly songs with his children. Listening to it is like viewing snapshots of another family, one you might not know particularly well: their affection is evident, but not quite contagious. Still, Singing In The Kitchen bought Bare time to complete Hard Time Hungrys, the most ambitious record he ever made. The attempt to cross-pollinate Silverstein's storytelling with audio vérité is admirable but also exhausting. Every time the music gains momentum, like when the tongue-in-cheek blues "Alimony" rambles into view, the interviews cut in and derail the record.

These three albums may have flaws, but they’re flaws born of ambition, and that adventurousness helped place Bare in the vanguard of the burgeoning outlaw country movement. He also was scoringhaving just enough hits to gain the attention of other labels, so he decided to jump ship for Columbia in 1978, a move that coincided with a brief ill-fated association with rock manager Bill Graham. RCA, particularly its Nashville president Jerry Bradley, didn't take well to this news. Bradley never agreed with Atkins' decision to let Bare produce his own records, so when the singer decided to leave the label, RCA buried Great American Saturday Night, a Silverstein-written concept album capturing all the different kinds of debauchery and despair on a random weekend night. Originally planned for 1977, the version on this box is longer than the BFD release from earlier in 2020 and, in this narrative-filled edition, it's the clear bridge between the duo's earlier records and Bare's sleazy, Silverstein-heavy 1980 records Down & Dirty and Drunk And Crazy; it tempers its cinematic scope with earthy lasciviousness.

Bare recorded songs by other writers during the latter half of the 1970s—1977 brought Me And McDill, a salute to Bob McDill—but he still found a way to fit Silverstein songs onto his other concept albums (1975's Cowboys and Daddys) and kept him by his side when he took a stab at crossover success with Bare, his 1978 debut for Columbia. This box collects these tunes, as well as several unreleased cuts, as a pair of “"Stray Bare Tracks”" discs, collections that have more in common with the middle- aged crazies of Down & Dirty and Drunk And Crazy than the redneck hippie dreamer of Lullabys, Legends and Lies. The contrast between these two phases is startling. The first three records are intimate and sweet, sometimes hinting at earthier concerns, but their good intentions triumph over their devilish instincts.

That's not the case with the rest of the material on the box. Once Bare and Silverstein grew comfortable with each other, they indulged in each other's strengths and excesses as only a pair of close friends can. Appropriately, as the pair's familiarity increased, the music turned bolder, even burly, with the productions accumulating some slick period flair. Bare's records wound up pitched halfway between swaggering outlaw and smooth Urban Cowboy country-pop crossover, a transition that suited Silverstein’'s narrowing of vision.

Where he once devoted himself to myths and finding the mysteries in everyday lives, he now busied himself with mundanities of modern life: telling dirty jokes, sucking on a glass of wine at TGIFridays, and cursing diets. He still could summon some genuine pathos—as late as 1983, Bare cut the hard barroom weeper "Drinkin' from the Bottle"—but these Stray Tracks also show how Silverstein sometimes like to push Bare right up to the edge and the singer happily went along. With its chorus of "does anybody here want to fuck or fight," the title track of Great American Saturday Night itself is testament to this fact, but "They Held Me Down"—an unreleased Bare track Silverstein recorded for his 1978 LP Songs And Stories—is a veritable index of immoralities, delivered with a sideways grin.

Bare channeled some of this cheerful perversion onto Drunk & Crazy, an album where he laments his hard-rocking band and celebrates the sloth of “Drinkin’ and Druggin’ and Watchin’ TV.” Drunk & Crazy is also home to “If That Ain't Love,” a song that could have earned the box set's disclaimer all on its own. With his tongue firmly in cheek, Silverstein's narrator chronicles a list of domestic terrors, and while the abuser is clearly the one the songwriter is targeting as the butt of the joke, the intensity of the imagery (“"Baby I’'m sorry I done you like that/I called you a name and I gave you a whack/I spit in your eye and gave your wrist a twist/And if that ain’'t love, what is”") is as jarring as the rowdiness of the performance. That seediness illustrates that it was a long road from the genial tall tales of Lullabys, Legends and Lies and the dive-bar soundtrack of Drunk & Crazy. Hearing Bare and Silverstein make that journey over the course of these eight CDs leaves you with a new appreciation for their funky, off-color chemistry.
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Bobby Bare - Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein Plus Music Album Reviews Bobby Bare - Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein Plus Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Thursday, October 15, 2020 Rating:

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