Gather ’round, fellows, I’ll tell you some tales…
“If I had known what you were doing in the studio, I would have stopped it,” Bobby Bare recalled RCA Victor’s Jerry Bradley telling him upon hearing the singer’s 1973 double album Sings Lullabys, Legends, and Lies. Happily, Bradley had to live with the album that marked Bare’s return to RCA after a brief sojourn to rival Mercury Records. RCA’s Nashville chief Chet Atkins wanted Bare back on the label, and gave him the freedom to create the sprawling collection of story-songs with one thing in common: they had all been written by Shel Silverstein.
Silverstein was a cartoonist, a playwright, a folksinger, a songwriter, a poet, a satirist, a screenwriter, and perhaps most notably, the author of such classic and once-controversial children’s books as Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and The Giving Tree. Born in Chicago to Jewish immigrant parents, he had found his voice in the beatnik culture of New York’s Greenwich Village – hardly the milieu of Grand Ole Opry member Bobby Bare, the singer who had started as an early rock-and-roller before finding his voice in classic country-and-western and contemporary folk at RCA in the early 1960s. (His complete 1956-1965 recordings have been anthologized by Bear on the All-American Boy box.) Despite their outward differences, Bare and Silverstein shared much in common. Both men were Midwesterners, veterans, and cartoonists. Both were storytellers, and moreover, American originals. Bare – who popularized Mel Tillis’ “Detroit City” and his own, co-written “500 Miles Away from Home” – found a kindred spirit in Silverstein, whom he had first met through Chet Atkins. The slyly subversive Silverstein enjoyed pushing the envelope of language and taste, even in his works for children, which dovetailed with the progressive Bare’s transformation from the mainstream to the vanguard of “outlaw country.”
The gravelly-voiced Silverstein – already a recording artist for labels including Elektra, Atlantic, and Cadet – was making inroads in Music City. Johnny Cash took an interest in him, recording “25 Minutes to Go,” “Boa Constrictor,” and in 1969, the chart-topping “A Boy Named Sue.” Atkins produced Silverstein’s RCA debut, Boy Named Sue and Other Country Songs, that same year. Waylon Jennings and Loretta Lynn found major success with his quirky compositions. The prolific Silverstein also made the pop charts as the chief writer for Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show and author of “Sylvia’s Mother” and “The Cover of the Rolling Stone.” The partnership of outlaw Bare and hipster Silverstein turned out to be a long and productive one, spanning decades and over 100 songs. Now, that collaboration has been celebrated by Bear Family Records on the impressive Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein Plus, an 8-CD anthology drawn from Bare’s recordings between 1972 and 1983 on the Mercury, RCA, and Columbia labels. It’s truly expansive, with six complete albums focusing on the Silverstein repertoire (Lullabys, Legends, and Lies; Singin’ in the Kitchen; Hard Time Hungrys; Great American Saturday Night; Down & Dirty; Drunk & Crazy) plus stray, Shel-penned tracks from Bare’s other LPs and singles, and a whopping 25 previously unreleased tracks.
Lullabys, Legends, and Lies, presented on CD 1 of the box set, stood out on the RCA Nashville roster. Double albums were the métier of rock artists such as The Beatles or Bob Dylan and hardly commonplace in country – let alone ones on which the artist had complete creative control. Taking full advantage of his newfound creative freedom, Bare envisioned a concept album made in the studio but with the immediacy of a live recording. To achieve that end, he invited friends and family to join him and his band. He recorded the audience on separate tracks and would later add their applause, whoops, hollers, and enthusiastic interjections back in.
That first album showcased all sides of Silverstein: his irreverence (“The Winner,” “She’s My Ever-Lovin’ Machine,” “The Mermaid”), his folk storytelling (“Paul,” “Marie Laveau”), and his sensitivity (“Daddy What If”). He’d dusted off some tunes from his old songbook, and wrote others to order. Bare’s approach was half-spoken, half-sung in the conversational manner of Silverstein himself. While injecting plenty of his own innate charm, he didn’t veer from the author’s original intent. Intimate and rollicking, Lullabys placed listeners at home squarely within the in-studio audience. In Bare, Silverstein had found the perfect conduit for his plain-spoken yet fantastical story-songs laced with humor and pathos.
The considerable risk on Lullabys paid off. It became Bare’s biggest-selling LP to date, peaking at No. 5 in a 30-week run. “Daddy What If,” featuring young Bobby Bare, Jr., went to No. 2 Country and very nearly made the top 40 of the Pop survey (No. 41). When “Marie Laveau” was issued on 45 RPM a year after the album’s release, it shot to No. 1. The LP went to No. 5 Country.
With a solid hit under his belt, Bobby was off to the races. He would place one of Silverstein’s songs on his next album: “You Know Who” was actually recorded before Lullabys, Legends, and Lies but held until I Hate Goodbyes/Ride Me Down Easy (1973). It’s the most “Nashville Sound” production here, with Buddy Spicher’s fiddle and Pete Drake’s pedal steel, The Jordanaires’ choral support, and the participation of Hargus “Pig” Robbins, Harold Bradley, Bob Moore, Buddy Harman, and Charlie McCoy of the “Nashville Cats.”
It wasn’t gonna be easy, but what the hell…
Bare and Silverstein began work on a second, ambitious concept album before briefly interrupting it in favor of a lighter offering. 1974’s Singin’ in the Kitchen was credited to Bobby Bare and The Family and, as the back cover read, featured songs “mostly by Shel Silverstein.” Bobby actually took The Family on the road – wife Jeannie, sons Bobby, Jr. and Shannon, and daughter Cari – and their rapport and affection are obvious on Singin’ in the Kitchen. “The Kitchen” was actually RCA Studio B, and The Family was supported by such luminaries as Lloyd Green, Tommy Cogbill, and Bobby Wood, but the feel was loose on Silverstein’s sing-alongs for children including “The Giving Tree” and “The Unicorn.” The latter was first recorded by the author in 1962 but popularized by The Irish Rovers in 1968 (and covered by everyone from Bill Anderson to Robert Goulet).
Singin’ in the Kitchen sufficiently motivated Bare to finish the album he and Silverstein had put on hold. Hard Time Hungrys (subtitled A Concept by Shel Silverstein) was inspired by the American recession of 1973-1975 in which gasoline prices jumped by nearly 40 percent as well as by historian-author Studs Terkel’s Hard Times: An Oral History of The Great Depression. Produced by Bare and Bill Rice, the album’s songs were interspersed with audio-vérité excerpts of interviews primarily conducted by the author (though Bare’s voice is heard playing the interviewer on the record). Silverstein spoke to farmers, a preacher, a shopkeeper, a construction worker, and others affected by the recession. Up-and-coming songwriter David Allan Coe, whose early, outré songs were championed by Shel, candidly discussed the difficulties of adjusting to life after release from prison. The album speaks powerfully today, as on the title track: “They got the hard time hungrys, doin’ the best that they can/I see the hard time hungrys spreadin’ all over the land…” Silverstein wasn’t optimistic. “If the dollar keeps droppin’ and prices keep risin’,” Bare sings, “the worst is yet to come.”
Humanity and empathy are inherent in Hard Time Hungrys, with the songs coming from various perspectives including that of a trucker, an ex-con, a man waiting in “The Unemployment Line,” and a hitchhiker. Silverstein and Bare render these characters with dignity and without the faintest whiff of condescension. The Family even joined in to sing as the children and wife on “Daddy’s Been Around the House Too Long.” Typical of Silverstein, humor flecked the album, as on the bluesy “Alimony” and wry “$100,000 in Pennies.” Bare and Silverstein recorded more songs than needed for the LP; six newly-mixed outtakes are appended to the presentation of the album on the box set’s second disc, among them “Door to Door” sung by a modern-day Willy Loman, the clever but ultimately gut-punching “Too Much Blues” (“Too much oatmeal, not enough meat/Too much shiverin’ and not enough heat/Not enough shoes and too much feet/I’ve got the too much, not enough blues”), the tender lament “It’s Good to Know the Sun’s Still Shinin’ Somewhere,” and the shattering “Things to Sell” in which a daughter “put on lipstick, picked up her beaded purse, [and] walked toward town with a tear in her eye” to aid her impoverished family. With its strong chorus and universal lyric, it’s particularly surprising that “It’s Good to Know the Sun’s Still Shinin’ Somewhere” wasn’t issued as a single, or indeed at all.
1975’s Cowboys and Daddys – another concept album – only had a couple of Silverstein offerings. The very off-color “The Stranger” spoofs the traditional western hero, complete with yodels and “home on the range” imagery, whereas “Chester” is a “Mr. Bojangles” for the cowboy set. Bare’s next long-player, The Winner and Other Losers (1976) featured five original Silverstein melodies plus the title track which had been oddly reprised from Lullabys, Legends, and Lies. The new material was top-shelf, from the O. Henry-esque “Brian Hennessey” to the boisterous “Baby Wants to Boogie.”
Go and roll yourself another reefer, and I’ll go pour myself another beer…
Bobby rounded out his RCA tenure in 1977 with Me and McDill, a salute to another songwriter, Bob McDill. But that shouldn’t have been so. Before leaving the label, he recorded what should have been a bookend to Lullabys, Legends and Lies. As with that LP, Bare and co-producer Bill Rice sought to achieve a live sound on a studio album. So, during sessions, they held an album playback party for a few dozen friends, liquored them up, handed out song lyrics, and invited them to sing along while tape rolled. The result was Great American Saturday Night, and the sometimes coarse, sometimes affectionate tales of hippies, rednecks, boozers, brawlers, dreamers, and schemers should have comprised been Bare’s strongest and most outrageous album to date.
Laced with Bare and Silverstein’s by-then trademark juxtaposition of comedy (“They Won’t Let Us Show It at the Beach,” “The Diet Song”) and drama (“I Can’t Sleep,” addressing PTSD before the term was commonly used, and the environmental plea “Someone to Talk To”) – as well as clever items like the hypocrisy-exposing look at “Kids Today” – Great American Saturday Night was a raucous, earthy, and roadhouse-ready affair with your host, Bobby Bare. When the artist migrated in the summer to Columbia Records, however, Jerry Bradley exacted his revenge. He pulled the novelty-esque “Redneck Hippie Romance” as a single but shelved the rest of the LP which had already been assigned an RCA catalog number. It took until early 2020 for the album to see release via third-party label Better Noise Music. Bear Family’s box reprises it, but with three additional tracks not heard on the Better Noise release. (15 songs had been recorded, and 12 were selected by Bare and Silverstein at the time to fit on a single LP.)
Bobby made his Columbia debut, and a major bid for crossover stardom, with 1978’s Bare. The LP welcomed Chet Atkins and Waylon Jennings (both “through the courtesy” of RCA, natch) as guests. Neil Young pal Ben Keith played steel guitar and, on backing vocals, Willie Nelson and Shel Silverstein appeared. Shel penned eight of the album’s ten songs, and had an impact (at least) on one of the remaining two. He had pitched a ballad by young writer Don Schlitz to Bare. That song for which Silverstein advocated was “The Gambler,” and Bare’s raw recording was its very first. Considering its significance, it’s curious why Bear Family opted not to include this album in full. Instead, its songs are presented out of order on Discs Four and Five (Stray Bare Tracks) among unreleased tracks from the period like the jolly “From the Jungle to the Zoo,” the comic but ultimately heart-tugging “There’s an 18 Wheeler in Front of the Ritz Hotel,” and the tongue-in-cheek “They Held Me Down,” a prison-set litany of depravities that Bare sings with a knowing impishness.
Among the highlights of Bare are the tender “February Snow,” sad “Too Many Nights Alone” (written by Silverstein and Even Stevens), and goofy “Greasy Grit Gravy.” Heart and ribaldry, as always, went hand in hand for Bare and Silverstein, but as the Columbia years marched on, they would rely less upon the keenly observed character studies and more on bawdy laughs seemingly aimed at their male listeners. (This was nothing new for Shel, who had risen to prominence writing for Playboy.) Concurrently, Bare would begin to flirt with the slicker, more commercial sound he had largely avoided at RCA.
Gonna let the good times roll…
Sleeper Wherever I Fall, released later in 1978, didn’t have any of Shel’s good luck charms on it (though it did offer intriguing covers of The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time” and The Byrds’ “Feel a Whole Lot Better”). Bobby’s next two albums (both from 1980) offered a whole lotta Silverstein: eight out of 13 songs on Down & Dirty and eight out of 15 on its nominal sequel, Drunk & Crazy. Unlike Bare, both of these LPs are presented in full, with other songs by fellow outlaws Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Charlie Daniels. Note that the original sequence of Drunk & Crazy has been amended to include an outtake, Silverstein’s “Too Much Rain,” between the original Tracks 6 and 7.
Kris Kristofferson’s “Good for Nothing Blues (Funky Water)” set the tone for Down & Dirty, with Bare admonishing to the usual crowd, “Hide your dishes and your daughters/Anything that might get broke/I prefer your condemnation to your suckin’ sympathy/Baby, good for nothing’s good enough for me.” The louche persona was further delineated in Shel’s politically incorrect songs. “Numbers” (in which Bare sits in a T.G.I. Fridays rating the women around him on a scale of one to ten) was one of his “building” songs, in which each verse builds to a punchline or a gut punch; Bare always executed these with impeccable timing. (The song was issued as a single around the time of Blake Edwards’ film comedy 10, though it was written before the movie.) Continuing the mood were such offerings as “Tequila Sheila” (by Shel and Mac Davis), “Rough on the Living,” “Quaaludes,” and “Goin’ Back to Texas” in which the refrain celebrates “goin’ back to Texas and be one more horse’s ass.”
Unsurprisingly, Drunk & Crazy was in the same rowdy vein. Its cover photo of Bobby, lasciviously clutching a woman with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, reflected its love ’em-and-leave ’em contents. This time, Shel wrote a title song that set the tone of the LP (“Well, hello, everybody, I’ve come to say/I didn’t come to stay/I just come to play/So lock all the doors and open up the wine/Tell all the pretty ladies to get in line”) in addition to an ode to the “Rock and Roll Hotel” (“…where the maids sing three-part harmony/And they don’t kiss ‘n’ tell”) and the jauntily trashy “Drinkin’ and Druggin’ and Watchin’ TV.” But Silverstein’s most ear-opening composition is “If That Ain’t Love,” a list song in which Bare catalogs in unpleasant detail all of the awful things he’s done to his woman. It’s all delivered quite knowingly, but this track alone practically justifies the box set’s disclaimer which reads, in part: “Newcomers to the Bare/Silverstein catalog should note several of these recordings contain language that may surprise if not shock more sensitive ears.”
Bobby recorded more of Shel’s compositions – all of which are included here – on two of his final three Columbia albums, Ain’t Got Nothin’ to Lose (1982) and Drinkin’ from the Bottle, Singin’ from the Heart (1983). He wouldn’t record another solo studio album for more than two decades, during which time Shel Silverstein passed away at the age of 68 in 1999. Naturally, when he returned to recording, Shel’s songs were right with him. But those late-period recordings fall out of the purview of this collection.
With Shel Silverstein primarily remembered today for his beloved children’s books, this beautiful box set should go a long way in painting a fuller picture of his art. Whether writing provocatively of debauchery or matters of social conscience, Silverstein brought wit and a deep knowledge of the human condition and the world around him. In Bobby Bare – with his clear voice and genial, down-home demeanor – he found the ideal interpreter. Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein Plus, produced by Bear Family founder Richard Weize, annotators Dave Samuelson and Hank Davis, and “more bears,” does their legacy proud.
The 128-page hardcover book is worth the price of admission. It features an introduction by Peter Cooper, a new interview with Bobby Bare by Hank Davis, a biographical feature on Shel Silverstein by Dave Samuelson, Bear Family’s signature discography by Richard Weize and Samuelson, and most excitingly, complete lyrics for every track. While lyrics are meant to be sung and poetry is meant to be read, Silverstein was adept at both, and his words are often an enjoyable pure reading experience. The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs of both men as well as album artwork. The discs are housed in four digipaks, each holding two CDs. When placed in the box’s tray, they create one large image with their covers. An 8 x 10″ publicity-style photo of Bare and Silverstein has been placed within each box; early copies ordered directly through Bear Family found these autographed by Bare. Mixes of the unreleased material have been created by Vic Anesini and Mark Wilder at Battery Studios, and the subtle mastering is by Marcus Heumann.
There are still other Bare-sings-Silverstein recordings to explore further, including the 1998 album Old Dogs on which Bobby teamed with Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis, and Jerry Reed for another set of Shel’s songs. That Atlantic release is a coda to this collection worth seeking out, as is Twistable Turnable Man, a 2010 tribute to Silverstein produced by Bobby and his son Bobby Bare Jr. who by then had become an acclaimed artist in his own right. In Samuelson’s text on Silverstein, it’s revealed that Bobby Sr. spoke to Shel on what turned out to be his final night on earth. Their close, brotherly rapport is evident throughout these eight discs of enduring music. Bear Family’s box is a stunning tribute to their collaboration. Head down to the dive bar, crank up the jukebox, and raise a glass – or more likely, a bottle – to the great American Saturday nights of these two country renegades.