What’s 22 years?
While not exactly a lifetime, it can feel like one. For a country artist content in self-imposed obscurity, the last few decades could equal alternate dimensions of existence. If one of country music’s mavericks from the ‘60s or ‘70s hibernated in ignorance of Nashville’s devolving climate, only to emerge in the early 21st century ready to work once again, would he recede back into hiding like Punxsutawney Phil? Would that non-verbal statement of disgust and defeat signal another two decades of awful country music?
If Bobby Bare’s paying any mind to the world he’s once again operating within, he’s not letting on. His first record since 1983’s Drinkin’ from the Bottle, Singin’ from the Heart, The Moon Was Blue sounds nothing like Nashville’s contemporary product, nor does it fumble for a piece of the post-irony pie; instead, it’s like a time capsule from a more genuine era, a worn and weathered artifact of outlaw countrypolitan. The resistance to feed ravenous trends and coddle anyone’s muse but his own is a Bare trademark. In fact, his reluctance to float along with Nashville’s changing tide in the early ‘80s is one of the reasons why he drifted away from the spotlight. The Moon Was Blue, then, could be motivated by purity—perhaps it was simply time for Bare to make a record again.
This is not an “announcement” record; Bare makes no strained effort to impose his importance or elicit an re-examination of his abilities. The Moon Was Blue sounds like a record made by a man who hasn’t been absent from the public forum for decades. At 70 years old, Bare discloses an accountable consequence when he sings. His voice is weighted, moves in a predictable gait, fraying and searing on the edges. It’s not exactly extraordinary, but, like Johnny Cash’s voice in his later years, it’s confident and powerful as a mortal instrument. You can hear the tatters of whimsy flutter in his reading of Shel Silverstein’s “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”; his throat’s a singed wisp in a rendition of “Everybody’s Talkin’”. Like Harry Nilsson’s version, Bare’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” seems to be caught off-guard in preoccupied fancy, but his echoes reverberate through time. A lot of the songs here—“I Am an Island”, “Yesterday When I Was Young”, “Love Letters in the Sand”, “My Heart Cries for You”—touch on past arrogances and regrets, loves and longings, obscurities made clear with patient perspective.
Despite the unself-conscious production (by Lambchop’s Mark Nevers and Bare’s son Bobby Bare, Jr., who persuaded his father back into the studio) and classic song selection, The Moon Was Blue runs the risk of being written off as just another Country Comeback by a less prominent figure simply by its association with the trend. But it’s more unassuming than that: Bare, though not as well-known as either Johnny Cash or Loretta Lynn, delivers his performances as if nothing was riding on them. Nevers and Bare, Jr. drape a weary haze of string gloss over the performances, lulling yet circumspect, offering up an aural connection to country’s past; simultaneously, they usher in noise and unorthodox vocal arrangements to anchor the record to a contemporary sensibility.
If The Moon Was Blue is going to be pegged as another comeback record from the dank den of retirement by another hipster-approved country artist, it’s only because people like to organize things into sensationalized categories. But there’s no gimmick here that needs cataloging, no tailcoat-riding fad that needs exploiting. On each and every track, it’s just Bare and a song, all other dynamics be damned. For a guy who waits decades to release an album, Bare sounds like a natural.