Country Music Hall of Fame member Bobby Bare once scored an iconic country hit with a tenderly homesick tune about being “Cold and tired and all alone/500 miles away from home.” When his son, Bobby Bare Jr., sings about trying to get back home in a limping tour van, the younger Bare opts for fractured realism, leaving the listener with such indelible images as a transmission “slipping like a pigeon through a tiger’s teeth.”
That’s a pretty good illustration of the contrast between the legendary father and his left-of-roots-rock, singer-songwriter son.
The pigeon simile is one of many spiky turns of phrase on Junior’s new Bloodshot Records album, Undefeated. His take on growing up around some of country’s more colorful characters is every bit as engrossing as the emotional sleight-of-hand in this batch of songs about heartache.
CMT Edge: We typically expect breakup albums to be intensely personal, confessional and cathartic, whereas in your work, you haven’t necessarily differentiated between role play and confession. In what sense would you call Undefeated a breakup album?
Bare: It’s a “getting dumped” album, more than anything, unfortunately. I mean, really, the breakup I went through, my ex-girlfriend was clear that she did not want to hear anything more about my feelings and emotions. And the only way that I knew that I could possibly, maybe get her to hear anything about my feelings and emotions was to get radio stations all over America to blast it, and maybe she’d hear it once. Or listen to the CD. I don’t even know if she’s heard it.
So it sounds like this is one of your more confessional efforts, on the whole.
I think they’re all pretty confessional. Getting up and singing personal songs, it’s exactly like being a stripper, you know? People are there to see the dirty parts. … If you’re not gonna show your ugly parts, nobody’s gonna be that interested. If you’re not truly unveiling yourself, then you’re not really taking any chances. You’re not doing anything really that ballsy.
I go see Billy Joe Shaver, and I know what he’s been through. I know what he’s talking about. And that’s why it means so much. That’s why I cry at every single Billy Joe Shaver show or Neil Young show. Because I know they’re really exposing part of themselves. And I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where that was a big deal. That was something that I knew was important to my family — really great songwriters that were able to do that.
The difference between yours and other breakup albums is that yours isn’t a straightforward expression of emotion. For instance, you veil the pain with a layer of sarcasm or apathy.
There’s a really strange thing that happens in most of my songwriting, and that is, I write really heavy stuff, and people think it’s hilarious. Like [the song] “You Blew Me Off (And Turned Me On)” — “Oh, that’s hilarious!” Or “Flat Chested Girl From Maynardville” — “That’s a hilarious song!” No, that’s a pretty sad, miserable [portrait] of someone. … Have you ever hung out with many comedians?
They’re some of the darkest people I’ve ever been around. There are not many comedians that I know of who are really just happy-go-lucky.
How’d you get from the mindset where you preferred to sign with a West Coast rock label that didn’t know or care who your dad was to producing an album on him in hopes of introducing him to your audience? In other words, how did you get from needing your distance to really working closely together?
Not until this past January had I ever covered one of my dad’s songs. I remember growing up how gross my dad thought it was seeing the children of other performers kinda make a living being somebody’s child and really playing up that side of them. I knew how gross he thought it was, so I always steered away from that.
I knew my parents really only liked hanging out with creative people — and mostly only songwriters. I mean, Tammy Wynette and George Jones lived next door, but we never saw ‘em or hung out with ‘em, ‘cause they were on the road all the time. We would do Christmases sometimes with Johnny Cash and his family and June’s. But we mostly hung out with Shel Silverstein and other songwriters. Those were the people that I knew my parents valued the most — other songwriters. … I was lucky in that way.
You’re talking about songwriters who pushed against boundaries and let their imaginations run wild. How’d that influence the path you envisioned for yourself down the road?
There’s nothing I wanted to do more than be my dad, period. But I knew my dad respected and loved Shel Silverstein, also. So I shot for somewhere in between those two. I like doing really loud rock ‘n’ roll, too. So I knew the guys in California that signed Korn and Incubus would get my stuff.
I always say it’s like my dad sold trucks, and I sell motorcycles. We’re kinda in the same business. I just chose something in a totally different genre. Even though at its core, straight-up country music’s in the songwriting. It’s just artsy fartsy loud instrumentation and arrangements.