Bobby Bare sings Shel Silverstein
Bear Family Productions
At first glance this would seem to have been a strange collaboration – Shel Silverstein, a Chicago writer, cartoonist, playwright and songwriter and Bobby Bare, a Nashville country songwriter who had previously enjoyed success with “The All-American Boy” and “Detroit City”. But when Bare, casting around for material heard and cut Silverstein’s “Sylvia’s Mother” (a hit for Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show), a life-long friendship came to be. Bare then cut the landmark Lullabys, Legends and Lies, a collection of Silverstein’s songs. It became Bare’s largest selling record, and, as Peter Cooper remarks in an essay included in the box set, created a new paradigm of the way artists would be thought of in the country music scene – giving birth to the “Outlaw country” movement, where songwriters and singers would produce their own music, not beholden to the “system”.
This eight CD set collects six complete albums – 1973’s Lullabys, Singin’ in the Kitchen from 1974, 1975’s Hard Time Hungrys, and two from the ’80s, Down & Dirty and Drunk & Crazy. Also included is the great “lost” record, Great American Saturday Night in full from 1977, where Bare, as he did on Lullabys assembled a studio of Nashville friends listen to the album, and record their reactions to lyrics such as “It’s the Great American Saturday Night/Drink a little more until the world looks better to ya/Anybody here wanna fuck or fight?”. Two CDs of additional material are included, giving the listener everything the two recorded together, over 120 songs.
In this wealth of material the pairs genius is abundantly evident. Songs such as “The Winner” or “Marie Laveau” show Silverstein’s gift of wry observation, perfectly executed by Bare. Singin’ in the Kitchen featured Bare’s family – including future Guided By Voices guitarist and indie songwriter Bobby Bare Jr on the touching “Daddy What If”. Hard Time Hungrys sounds like it could be recorded today. Mired in a dreadful economy Bare had interviews with people on the street about how they were managing the hard times, and it is shockingly similar to interviews you hear today, 45 years later. The lament “Things To Sell” rivals anything Townes Van Zandt ever wrote in terms of pathos, and the whole album is an unnerving, unrelenting listen. Now, not everything Shel wrote hit the mark, and on moments such as “If That Ain’t Love” they are positively cringe-worthy, but those moments are few and far between on the whole.
Kudos to Bear Family for assembling this great set, which showcases the unlikely, but masterful partnership between Bobby Bare and Shel Silverstein. As always, the box set is lavish, including a 128 full color hardback book that includes recording information, interviews and essays documenting the pair. The vast amount of material they created is daunting, to be sure, but one suspects a listener will be returning to it often. They changed country music, and the proof is here. Essential.