Bobby Bare Jr. is 'Undefeated'
Neil Sedaka wasn’t kidding when he sang “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.” Some people choose to let a breakup ruin them only to become that sad drunk guy at the bar nobody can stand. Others, however, can turn a breakup into something positive. In the case of Nashville singer-songwriter Bobby Bare Jr. that positive comes in the form of a brand new album aptly titled Undefeated (Bloodshot Records). The album is his first full-length in four years and sees him returning from a long stint of mostly solo acoustic outings to his rock band the Young Criminals Starvation League, a hodge-podge lineup of musicians that has changed throughout the years but always remains a highly talented group of players.
Most importantly, the album is a return to the Bobby Bare Jr. we know and love. Like his previous works, Undefeated offers up a selection of ten very different tunes that all share in common Bobby’s distinctive twangy rasp and a core root of hook-driven rock with pop sensibilities. Much like an actual breakup, the songs are a rollercoaster of emotions ranging from resentment on “If She Cared” to reflection on “Blame Everybody (But Yourself),” and even tongue-in-cheek optimism on “The Big Time.” As a whole Undefeated is one of Bobby Bare Jr.’s finest records to date. Fans can look forward to a big year from Bobby as he releases this album plus a documentary, Don’t Follow Me (I’m Lost), chronicling his life as a touring musician, which will be followed by a live soundtrack. To cap it all off he is hitting the road for a string of tour dates with a full band that includes an opening slot for Guided By Voices throughout the month of June. Amidst the craziness of his musical career and life as a father of three children, Bobby Bare Jr. recently took the time to speak with me about music, family life, and dealing with it all.
Neil Ferguson: Why did you wait four years to release a new album?
Bobby Bare Jr.: I had three babies and I had a breakup and two baby mamas, just a lot of complicated stuff. And the documentary I was hoping to get finished.
Speaking of the documentary, how did that come about? Were you approached or was it something you had wanted to capture?
I played New York City and a drunk guy came up and said, 'man that was great, I really think I'm gonna do a documentary about you.' I said, 'sure, cool man' because I've heard that more than a couple of times from drunk people in bars. But the guy really was legit and he got it all together. I don't know where they got the money. They had this girl Erin [Nordstrom] who did the Wilco documentary [I Am Trying to Break Your Heart] and they got her for free, it was unbelievable. It's not my film, I'm just in it.
Can you discuss this idea of Undefeated as a “breakup” record and the whole notion of an “an emotional survival guide?”
I guess during the breakup the ex-girlfriend did not want to hear anything about my emotions and feelings, so the only way I thought that I could get through to her at all is maybe she'd listen to the record some day. That's why I wrote the songs. That's why most all of it's there.
That's interesting when you put it like that because there’s a pretty wide range of emotions expressed on this album (resentment, reflection, love, optimism, etc). What was the song process like for you?
[It was] literally being a date with some girl and thinking if my ex-girlfriend cared where I was I wouldn't be with this girl right now, and writing that on a napkin. The songs find me more than I find the songs.
You co-penned “My Baby Took My Baby Away” with Hayes Carll. How did you connect with Hayes?
I've known Hayes since he first came to Nashville 10 or 12 years ago, and I knew that he had a son like I do. I've always said that having a baby with someone is like having the best looking guy who ever lived move into your house and steal your woman. That's exactly what it is and as a dad all you can do is love the baby, and that part is really easy. At the same time as the boyfriend or the husband you're no longer number one at all, you've been moved to the backseat. I will also say that having a kid is like having the drunkest roommates you've ever had in your life. All kids care about is the bottle, they stumble everywhere they go, they scream 'I hate you' and then one minute later 'I love you!' I knew that Hayes would get that, he and I are just like-minded. We also wrote a song called "One Bed, Two Girls, Three Bottles of Wine" that he sings.
You’ve spend many of the last several years playing house concerts kind of grass roots style. How did this idea originally come about and what do you think you and the audience get out of it that’s different from a typical show?
I had heard that Will Oldham was doing some and then Will Johnson started doing them. I just started hearing my friends talk about it and it sounded really exciting. Then I found out much fun they were, and then I found out how profitable they were. There's no agent, no soundman, no club - there's nothing except me walking into a house with a guitar and playing. It's just the most raw, simple, direct [thing]. It's so intimate that it's uncomfortable for me and the audience, in a good way [laughs]. It could only get more intimate if I just sat in people's laps, which I kind of do sometimes. Like if somebody requests a song I'll just walk up and sing it right to their face. ‘You want it? Ok man here we go!’ So much fun. It's a whole performance art in its own.
How does that contrast with the band experience?
It's completely different and opposite. They're both good. I just did a bunch of full band shows, and I love my amplifiers. I love worrying about all of my guitar effects. I love thinking about gear and slapback and delay. I like both things, it's kind of weird.
Is the current lineup of the Young Criminals Starvation League the same as it was years ago?
There's probably thirty or forty Young Criminals in Nashville [laughs]. I was at a show last night where all but one of the five people onstage knew all my songs. I've got a lot of Young Criminals. It's weird because you can have average players who do every single gig with you, or you can have the best players in the world off and on. I choose to work with the best players ever, that's who I get to use and it's great. Different band members of mine play with their own bands too.
As someone who's been in the Nashville scene for your whole life what do you think about all of the great music coming out of there now?
It's a total complete explosion and it's amazing. Everybody's moving to Nashville for all the right reasons and it's so much fun. People have always been moving to Nashville for music and stuff, [but there are] so many more rock bands [now] and people who aren't just moving here to be a singer-songwriter. It's people moving here to be in a punk band or do garage rock, and it's just amazing.
Undefeated is currently streaming in full on the Wall Street Journal! Check it out HERE!
Photo credit: Joshua Black Wilkins