Grin 'n' Bare It
Photo by Jay BlakesburgThose Nashville cats just get weirder and weirder: John Carter Cash escorting father Johnny to a Metallica show; Waylon Jennings' boy Shooter is, come to find out, a stone NIN freak, while Bobby Bare Jr. gets his kicks cranking up Ministry and Korn. Nashville, in fact, has seen no less than 10 local rock bands sign record deals in this year alone, and one, Korn-krazy Bobby Bare Jr., has just turned out Boo-Tay (Immortal/Epic), an uneven but highly intriguing disc.
Bobby Bare Sr., of course, is one of Nashville's finest redneck growlers, a wise-guy iconoclast whose disregard for convention has clearly not been lost on Junior. With a fair share of Daddy's tricky use of meter and ironic bite, plus the undeniable fact that he's a natural-born screamer - squalling an adept mix of Robin Zander-esque abandon and gaspy Lux Interior-ish psychosis - Junior comes definitely through more often than not.
It's not a great album, nor is Bare Jr. a great songwriter, yet sandwiched between the dollar-courting midtempo confessionals are some wrenchingly tuff rock bashers. When Junior's on, it's arrestingly vivid and fresh, a clattering mix of wild, chaotic big-beat, lyrics peppered with deft phraseology, and vocals that at times crash into a catastrophic dimension of barely controlled nuttiness. Not too all-fired surprising, as he was raised around some of the greatest country songwriters who ever drew a breath. Yet he didn't try songwriting until a decade ago.
"I started writin' when I was 22 or 23," Bare says, "and I wrote really bad songs for a really long time. Dad saw some of the horrible ones, and he wasn't really into it - but what good is his criticism if he isn't really sincere about it? When I started writin' good ones he really appreciated it, and then I started sending them off to [songwriter] Shel Silverstein, he's my dad's best friend. And Shel would critique them, he'd say, 'Well, you got lazy here, you can take this a lot further.' He was mostly a really good cheerleader, but it helped so much to have someone like him to serve as a beacon."
Junior came to rock & roll relatively late in life; at 32, he had knocked around on the edges, working odd jobs, running lights for friends' bands and rip-roaring in the grand ole Music City tradition, until a monthlong jail stint put an end to that. "It's the American Indian blood," he says. "I'd drink eight beers and black out, and I'd do it over and over and over and get into terrible trouble. And I miss it - it really pisses me off, because I hang around my friends and they can all drink but they don't end up in jail. I got three DUIs, which means a lot of jail time in Tennessee, and I spent a lot on rehab. I just don't want to get into that kind of trouble again. Seeing yourself in jail, down in the bowels, is really scary."
Trouble brought an unusual muse to inform Bare Jr.'s lyrics, which explore a psychology that's often perverse, twisted, thriving on rejection. Shot full of fury and self-loathing, with lines like "I want to feel and pay no price" and "If you ignore me, you get my respect/When you turn to hug me I like you less," the mix of candor and shame is oddly appealing.
"I beat up on myself pretty bad," he says of the album, "but everyone's felt that way at one time or another. The way I figure it is, I've got to be loyal to what little talent I happen to have . . . you have to be a total slave to the song."
Musically, Boo-Tay is wound tight while deliberately sloppy and punk-primitive, bristling with chunky, chuggin' electric rhythm lines and plenty of close harmonies, keeping the hillbilly bloodlines close at hand. While he is his father's biggest booster ("I get to hang with him all the time, and I really really dig what he does - he is an extremely effective singer"), the otherwise near total disregard for what his forebear perfected has bred its own spawn that, in some bizarre aspects, remains linked to country. Many of the album's screamingest solos are provided by a dulcimer hooked up to a distortion pedal, making for an earful of sonic mystery that Mother Maybelle never dreamed of.
"I had Tracy Hackney, who I knew studied with [dulcimer wizard] David Schnauffer, audition as a guitar player," he says, "but I asked him to bring the dulcimer too, and we got it down there and ran it through a distortion pedal, and he was just blown away, just couldn't believe the kind of stuff he was doin'. He has to approach it totally differently - it only has four strings, and two are tuned to the exact same note. But he always comes up with something fascinating - on one song it sounds like a piano, on another like a mandolin or some kinda drunk fiddle player; he'll use it like a lap steel, he'll use a bow on it, a bunch of stuff."
The key for Bare Jr. is freedom, even above front-man ego. The band maintains an unusually wide-open democratic process: "It's weird, I'll bring a song to them that I really love," he says, "and they'll just say, 'No, we're not going to play that.' So there's a lot of collaboration going on - though I'm the one who looks down at a blank piece of paper and creates a song, they have a lot of input."
After two years with the band as a unit, Bare Jr. is not all that successful. Some of the album's mid tempo romance groaners ("Love-less," "Naked Albino") seem flaccid, overtly commercial, while others hit with an emphasis that damn sure nails it, particularly "I Hate Myself" ("while I should be hating you"). Gutsy and idiosyncratic, even the milder tunes contain flashes of unexpected power, mostly the result of Junior's unconventional vocals - he phrases like a rodeo bull rider, barely managing to hang on, yet still in control. Boy-meets-girl pounders like "The Most" (she asks Junior, "Do you care enough about me/To beat the hell out of the/One who loves me the most?") and "You Blew Me Off" reveal Junior as a legitimate rock & roll thug.
The real thriller is the flat-git-it closer, "Why Won't You Love Me," an episode of breakneck delirium that reaches meltdown intensity in magnificent style. Equal parts impotent rejection-rage and arch, self-deprecating humor, the song features one of the wildest screamy-sobby vocal freak-outs ever perpetrated.
Boo-Tay is part of the grand, sneering American tradition that connects bands like Paul Revere and the Raiders to the Seeds to the Droogs to Flat Duo Jets, straight up to Bare Jr.: unfettered, selfish, sweet and outrageous all at once. He may have his shortcomings, but Bare Jr. understands something that few contemporary rock & rollers have grasped: You just do not bullshit the audience.
Says Bare, "There's nobody that I see who is totally fuckin' fearless, and that's what appeals to me, hearing someone who is really disrobing, not hiding anything. And that's the deal, that's what I hope for."
Bare Jr. appears at the Troubadour on Friday, November 13.
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