The Bare Truth
Country artists have always sung nostalgic tunes about yesterday. Even Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country music, yodeled tunes about the good-ol’ days back in the ‘20s. With all the changes in American life that occurred during the ‘60s, one shouldn’t be surprised that many country musicians from that turbulent decade sang about simpler times as compared to the present condition of contemporary life. By today’s definitions, some of the classic albums from the era in this mode would be called Americana or roots music, but works such as John Hartford’s Housing Project, Waylon Jennings’ Folk Country and Kris Kristofferson’s eponymous first album are sui generis in their detailed and literate depictions of the devolution of life in these United States from the point of view of a reflective and poetic common man. The pair of Bobby Bare albums gathered on this Omni two-fer belongs in this esteemed company.
Bare’s 1967 album A Bird Named Yesterday explicitly addressed a lost America, but even his 1966 release Talk Me Some Sense, with tracks like “All the Good Times Are Past and Gone” concerned this Romantic ideal of a vanished paradise. The better world was marked by a sense of innocence and the natural beauty of the landscape. Some of this no doubt was biographically connected to growing up and seeing the world differently as an adult than as a kid, but the country was going through great transformations. These records offer a revealing snapshot of those times.
Bare possesses a rich, baritone voice that conveys an aura of authenticity. (In later years, rock impresario Bill Graham would promote Bare as “the Bruce Springsteen of country music”.) While his vocal range is higher than Johnny Cash’s, the two men embody the same kind of mythic national persona, as if they were true, timeless American native sons. Bare sang about urban sprawl and industrialization as expressed in big topics like farm bankruptcies and the death of small towns. He also addressed these concerns on a more personal level by noting the lack of swimming holes and the sound of air conditioning. Bare didn’t write these songs. He’s dependent on songwriters like the great Cowboy Jack Clement, who penned most of the tunes on A Bird Named Yesterday and covers Bob Dylan and other notables on Talk Me Some Sense. But Bare always makes it sound like he wrote these tunes through his warm, expressive vocals.
The liner notes claim A Bird Named Yesterday as country music’s first concept album. To put this in perspective, this disc came out the same year as The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers. Bare’s disc tells thematically linked tales about different geographic locations, from big cities like New York City and Seattle, Wash. to unnamed small towns and remote hamlets in the South and Midwest as told by a series of different narrators with names like Bob, Bill and Joe. The metaphoric story of a bird as the collective memory of the characters weaves through the narrative. Bare also offers seven spoken word explanatory “Recitations” that introduce each track. This lends the record an earnestness that might be tedious, if the songs weren’t so good and Bare didn’t sing them so damn well. He compassionately protests the pain of economic development on Somebody Bought My Home Town”, “They Covered Up the Old Swimming Hole” and “The Day the Saw Mill Closed Down”. He compellingly notes the vanished past in “The Old Gang’s Gone” and “I’ve Got a Thing about Trains” without getting maudlin. Although Bare laments what is gone, he’s aware of the positive effects of technological progress. For example, while the interstate might have asphalted over his favorite childhood woodland spots, he also celebrates the promise of the open road.
This is especially true of the songs on Talk Me Some Sense, whose narrators claim to be to wild to stick around one place or be bound by love. Titles like “Passin’ Through” and “You Can’t Stop the Wild Wind from Blowing” reveal the centrality of moving on to Bare’s worldview. The women who populate these tales often share the same restlessness and urge to ramble. While there may be a certain amount of sexism in some songs suggested by a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do message, this is tempered by depictions of the opposite on other tunes where Bare gets abandoned by women who just aren’t ready to stick with one man.
Bare also offers a protest against racism on “What Color (Is a man)” during a period when no black people were allowed to grace the stages of the Grand Ol’ Opry, which takes a certain amount of chutzpah. He compares the poor and hippies to Jesus Christ on the sardonic “The Law is For the Protection for the People” and even takes a swipe against military leaders (and implicitly the Vietnam War) on the angry “If There’s Not a Hell (There Ought to Be)”. For country music in 1966, this is pretty heady stuff.
The vantage point of time allows one to better understand these two records as artifacts, but their value as art should not be overlooked. These albums feature fine songs performed well. Forty years has not dimmed their value.