Blue Moon

Photo by Alan MesserAstonishing. That’s the word to describe The Moon Was Blue, Bobby Bare’s first recording in 20 years. Nothing short of a masterpiece, it’s an improbable yet most fortunate series of collisions: the veteran country singer taking on pop tunes ranging from “Shine On, Harvest Moon” to “It’s All in the Game,” all served up with high indie-brat production from Bobby Bare Jr. The Bares share a decidedly offbeat DNA code. Senior, one of country’s more rugged individualists, has always reached out to styles and subjects largely alien to Nashville, from folkie story-songs to the twisted novelty tunes of Playboy magazine cartoonist and children’s-book author Shel Silverstein. (This album also features a real Silverstein lulu.) Junior, of course, is the Music City upstart whose rock & roll career has been as ambitious and unpredictable as his hit-making father’s was 40 years earlier. The drastically unlikely idea of a collaboration could have originated only with themselves. And while the album draws from country music’s ancient tradition of covering pop standards — as well as the inevitability of collusion (as in the Billy Joe/Eddy Shaver model) — the Bares’ version of crossover/collusion is spectacularly fresh. It may even trump Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson’s similar, titanic efforts.The Moon Was Blue combines freak-pop arrangements, space-loop blipology and the bottomless depth of Bare Sr.’s profoundly languid vocals to create an artful piece of work, touching and filled with metaphor and message. The set list, mostly pop standards or country songs that became pop hits, reads like a pretty dry twilight-of-life session, but Bare — whom Waylon Jennings once characterized as “the best song hound in the business” — transforms each selection with remarkably understated yet electrifying interpretations. The opening, “Are You Sincere” written by Nashville cat Wayne Walker and a 1957 Andy Williams hit, comes across with such penetrating force that Bare seems to be asking the question not only of the lyrics’ fickle subject but also directly of the listener, in the process elevating the query to a universal karmic scale. Bare achieves a sort of all-encompassing conviction, tempered with empathy and humor, conjuring a transportive power that he shrewdly exploits throughout the album. Loose yet laconic, Bare’s deadpan, dry-ice delivery almost diverts attention from the constant pulse of scarcely suppressed psychological information. This disarming, seductive approach springs from a masterful combination of his showman persona and a subtle, intensely communicative artistry similar to that developed by king krooners Crosby and Sinatra. He elevates “Love Letters in the Sand” from Pat Boone’s dreamy seaside to the slightly bitter shadows of reflection, and shifts the cozy me-and-my-gal mood of “Shine On, Harvest Moon” to an almost ceremonial pagan chant. Bare inhabits and informs each track with an appealing experiential gravity, even as Junior’s production keeps tipping the axis and upping the ante with strident vocal chorales and flippy instrumentation — everything from a clarinet to a kitchen knife on the guitar strings. The way each man complements?the other constantly brings the elements — material, style, performance — closer and closer together, to the state of intimacy that typifies the album’s unorthodox allure.The orthodox has never interested Bobby Bare. Born dirt-Depression-poor in rural 1935 Ohio, he hand-built his first guitar as a child and was soon working in various Springfield tonks; at 18, he made the only sensible move anyone serious about country-music artistry could — he moved to Los Angeles. Here, Bare hung with steel-guitar pyrotechnician Speedy West, who convinced Capitol to sign him. The records made little noise, and by ’56 Bare was playing bass for Wynn Stewart, the brilliant Missouri-born singer who single-handedly initiated the modern California sound appropriated by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Los Angeles was wide open, and Bare enjoyed the rare atmosphere of freedom that allowed Coast country to steer a course far more progressive than that of Nashville’s regulated product. Drafted in ’58, he returned to Hollywood and toiled a spell in the pop field (Bobby Darin, even) before heading for Music City and finally striking it big.“Detroit City” and “500 Miles From Home” established Bare as one of a new, intriguing breed. It’s not just what he sang, but what he did: ceding his trusty sofa, alternately, to Kris Kristofferson and Billy Joe Shaver, and convincing Chet Atkins to sign Waylon Jennings to RCA. The Bare pedigree is formidable, and that his two-decade absence has now ended is the best news out of Nashville since Garth Brooks quit the business.The Moon Was Blue seems entirely about where Bare has been, and each re-examination, nine months pregnant with meaning, is so acute that, again, it seems to point a direction for all of us. It closes with “Fellow Travelers,” a slab of cosmic camaraderie that brings to artistic fruition the initial demand he makes with “Are You Sincere” — Bare suffers no foolishness, and like a Music Row superhero, expects all to abide by the universal code of good conduct. It’s an impressive finale, but the track before is perhaps most affecting of all: Carl Belew’s “Am I That Easy to Forget” (a big record for Debbie Reynolds in 1959), rendered with an infinite, smoldering tenderness through which Bare clearly rejoins the title’s question. Answer: No. BOBBY BARE | The Moon Was Blue | Dualtone


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