To Hold His C&W Audience, Bobby Bare Is Usually 500 Miles Away from Home—or More
It's a honky-tonk Friday night in Nashville and the beer joints down on lower Broadway are acrawl with broken dreamers and marginal pickers throwing sidelong glances at each other over mournful country songs. In Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, a haunt as long and narrow and menacing as a rifle barrel, Bobby Bare is having a beer with a one-armed poker player and fending off the drunken advances of a woman twice his weight. The plaintive strains of Bare's Detroit City drift from upstairs—a legendary venue where Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson first plied their tunes—but Bobby ignores the call to perform one of his biggest hits. The hour grows late, and it's almost time for him and his band to leave their Nashville home base and begin yet another leg of his 1982 Ain't Got Nothin' to Lose tour.
For a star of Bare's stature, with a string of hits dating to 1962's Shame on Me, touring is as much good business sense as a bittersweet romance with the road. The way Bobby tells it, about two months of the year are devoted to cutting an album, the remainder to salesmanship—or, in record-biz lingo, "pushing the product." So year in and year out he crisscrosses the United States, coast to coast and border to border, playing dates at clubs both big and small—"I've worked a blue million of these honky-tonks"—as well as fairs and rodeos. The 150 one-nighters he averages annually blur into one endless show. In the next eight days Bare will hit five states and cover 2,532 miles to do nine shows and a raft of appearances and interviews. "There's so many people doing country now that you can't just sit back and let it slide," he says. "You either give it the whole shot or get out of the business."
Saturday: At 12 a.m. Bare arrives at Music Square West, where his side-men are loading. Bare's first road trip, when he was 19, consisted of driving a beat-up red convertible through the Southwest, playing for gas money and meals. Now, at 47, his vehicle is a 40-foot-long bus with a private stateroom, nine bunks, bathroom, lounge and demi-kitchen. The gigs are larger, too, and the money is better; even though it costs Bare almost $20,000 a week in salaries and expenses, touring amounts to half his annual net income.
Climbing aboard the customized Silver Eagle are Bobby, his wife, Jeannie, his road manager, the sound man and the five members of his band, Pulley-bone (a Southern expression for wishbone). The bus pulls out and heads for Columbia, S.C., 437 miles away. After a few beers, Bare changes into maroon pajamas and, still wearing his cowboy hat, joins Jeannie in the stateroom to watch a videocassette of Arthur. The movie also plays up front in the lounge, followed by Wolfen and Time Bandits. Slowly people drift off to their bunks; only the driver and a couple of insomniacs see dawn break over the Great Smoky Mountains in a dreamlike tableau of thick, rising mist and lush, glistening forests.
That afternoon Bare and Pulleybone shrug off their weariness as they arrive at the University of South Carolina's Bell Camp. Though the day is molten with heat and humidity, they dive into a rousing 23-song set that soon has the students singing along to such Bare hits as 500 Miles A way From Home, Marie Laveau and Tequila Sheila. After an encore and an hour of autographing—some women even proffer their chests and thighs for his signature—everyone reboards the bus.
Years of constant travel have worn comfortable grooves in the habits of this tightly knit group, producing neither surprises nor friction. "I have this theory that if you want to get to know somebody, just take them on the road with you," Bare says. "You need about three days." As the bus rolls northwest, Bare stays in his stateroom reading. The videocassettes on board are limited, but several members of Pulley-bone watch them until they're numbed by the repetition. Others sleep the boredom away. Another common way to combat road fatigue is eating: "Since I started with Bare three years ago," groans lead guitarist Dave Hargis, "I've gained 20 to 30 pounds. We eat every time we stop because we never know when we'll eat again."
Sunday: At a rodeo in Merrillville, Ind., Bare is headlining a double bill with Steve Wariner. He finds himself, in the high heat of the afternoon, facing an empty corral of mud and manure; the audience has been confined to distant bleachers. Without its feedback, Bobby closes the set after just 11 songs. That night Bare asks that the audience be allowed closer. With the crowd pressed against the stage and the arena swept by cooling breezes, Bobby animatedly does 19 songs and returns for an encore.
Jeannie, his most devoted fan, is ready with a lit cigarette and a hug when he closes the show. "Bobby is so shy that I swear I don't know the guy onstage," she says. "Yet when he walks off, he's back to being Bobby." They've been together since 1963, when he hired her as a "girl singer" for a long engagement in Reno. On lengthy tours she often joins him for 10 days of the last leg. "The relationship has to have input," Jeannie explains. "I can't expect our marriage to flourish unless I get in there with Bobby."
The Bares' mutual solicitude and commitment has strengthened and renewed their 17-year bond in a business where more marriages fail than succeed. They were severely tested six years ago when Cari, Jeannie's daughter by an earlier marriage, died suddenly at age 15 from heart and lung complications after routine surgery. "We had a very difficult time," Jeannie says. "Bobby took time off from work. For so long, he had to be strong because I wasn't doing well. Then we took turns falling apart. He just suffered with grief." Eventually the demands of career and their other three children brought equilibrium to their lives. "But losing a child never goes away," Jeannie observes. "For years, you don't think you can laugh."
Monday: Spirits buoyed by the second Merrillville show rise further in anticipation of the next stop, Nashville. While Bare busies himself with a syndicated TV show and radio interviews, the others will enjoy two days at home. It is after midnight when the bus pulls out. Drinking wine and beer, dipping snuff and occasionally passing a joint—which Bare always refuses—most of Pulleybone remains awake all night listening to cassettes of George Jones and Rosanne Cash. At 7 a.m. the bus is back on Music Square West.
As a man intimate with nearly every Holiday Inn in the country, Bare obviously savors the brief visits to his sprawling, five-bedroom lakeside home with its private dock. There he can pursue his passions for reading and fishing, not to mention indulging his children, Bobby Jr., 16, Shannon, 14, and Angela, 6. "This is the only family that Bobby's ever had," Jeannie confides. "He really didn't have a family when he was growing up. He never had a Christmas tree until we were married. He was 29 years old. He still can't get over gifts."
Born into the wrenching poverty of a strip-mining family in Hanging Rock, Ohio, Bobby's most vivid childhood memory is of standing on a porch in a mining camp in Blackey, Ky. at 5, watching the body of his mother, who had just died, being "hauled off on a flatbed truck." After his father remarried, bitter feuds with his stepmother and yearly moves fostered a gnawing sense of pain and dislocation, soothed only by novels and music. An excellent student who entered third grade at 6, Bare taught himself to play guitar when he was 11. "I could hear a song once and know it. All my earlier years were spent just walking over hills singing a cappella," he says. "It's a wonder I have any meter at all now." At 16, Bare left home—at his father's insistence—and was soon supporting himself as a garment factory bundle boy.
On the side, he sang. And before long Bobby was doing live radio shows and club dates with his own band. At 19, flush with success, he headed for Los Angeles and began a steady climb—interrupted by an Army hitch—toward his goal of becoming a recording artist. "I never lost sight of what I wanted to do," he says. "I wasn't setting the world on fire, but I was getting just enough action to keep working." In 1962 he signed with Chet Atkins at RCA and struck pay dirt with Shame on Me. Two years later he and Jeannie moved to Nashville "because I was beginning to be seen as a West Coast pop singer—as country as I am." To forever bury the pop image, he immediately signed with the Grand Ole Opry.
Tuesday: Bare's first gig is taping That Nashville Music, a syndicated TV program on which he sings Ain't Got Nothin' to Lose, New Cut Road and his current single, (I'm Not) A Candle in the Wind. After a dinner break, he drives his blue Chevy van to Nashville's WSM, a radio superstation that broadcasts via satellite to 75 affiliates. For 90 minutes listeners from Norwich, Conn. to Boca Raton, Fla. phone in questions. Bobby's heard most of them 100 times over ("Where are you playing next?") but manages to make his answers sound fresh—and even fields with aplomb the improbable query "Why don't you sing about snowplows?"
Thursday: Back to work 169 miles away from home, the band arrives in Louisville, Ky. and checks into yet another Holiday Inn. Bare rushes to WAMZ for a radio interview ("Where are you playing next?") and then to a shopping mall. There, for the next hour, he signs albums and chats with fans at Beethoven's House of Music. Perhaps because success came relatively early in his career, Bare seems less insecure and temperamental than many entertainers. Professional but warm, he makes an effort to put fluttering fans, as well as promoters and stagehands, at ease with small jokes and comfortable silences that suggest an underlying well of gentleness.
That night in Doc Holiday's, a capacious nightclub, Bobby's appearance onstage is akin to dangling raw meat in front of starving animals. The crowd stomps, hoots, hollers, whistles and storms the stage. Gratified, Bare extends the set to 24 songs, breaks for four Pulleybone solos, then returns for an extended encore.
Friday: The roisterous mood carries over to the bus. At a truck stop, drummer Gary Kubal drops a quarter in the jukebox. Pleads Bare with mock balefulness: "Please don't play anything with home in it." Two cases of beer and 11 hours later, the hungover musicians arrive in Gainesville, Ga., where they have five hours to sleep it off.
That night, before two sellout crowds of 4,300 each, Bare opens for Hank Williams Jr. Although the first set goes well, a severe snuff crisis rages backstage. In Bobby's decades on the road, he has met scores of club owners, disc jockeys and journalists, and he rarely forgets their names. Yet he never seems to remember guitar picks, cigarettes or snuff, and he has been known to leave home for a five-week tour without a cent in his pocket. Now he's flat out of snuff, so immediately after the second set, before the stores close, he splits to score several cans of Skoal. Bare admits sheepishly that his is an unsightly habit: "But I got so good-looking that I had to take up snuff to keep the girls away."
Saturday: After the luxury of sleeping in a motel, Bare and band head northwest to Tullahoma, Tenn. and their final stand of this trip. With Pulley-bone opening, Bobby varies the songs so that each set is substantially different. He is careful to assess his audience before shows and will not include the more risqué songs like Quaaludes Again or Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother if there are children or senior citizens present. Tonight, with no restraints, he lets it rip. When the last song is sung, the last drink emptied and the last autograph given, he lopes to the bus. Nashville lies 75 miles away.
As Bare opens a fresh beer, he stares out the tinted window. The blackness of the night reflects back a slightly worn, middle-aged country singer with an open-jawed rattlesnake head striking from his hatband. It's an image he can live with. Pondering the grind and the countless times he's sung the same songs, Bare insists he still enjoys his job because of a promise he made to himself when he started. "I never let anybody coerce me into cutting a song I don't like," he drawls. "Otherwise it might be a monster hit and I'd have to sing it for the rest of my life."
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