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New Bobby Bare box set celebrates Shel Silverstein's songwriting

Nobody has recorded Shel Silverstein's songwriting more than his friend Bobby Bare, whose new 137-song extravaganza presents six LPs plus stray Bare tracks.

By Bruce Sylvester


BEAR FAMILY (8 CDs and 128-page hardbound book)

A songsmith, playwright, and children's book author and illustrator, not to mention Playboy cartoonist, Chicago native Sheldon Allan Silverstein (1930-99) was a modern-day renaissance man of the arts – and a genius at penning songs for children for adults. His most famous song may be “A Boy Named Sue” (Johnny Cash's final number-one country single). Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show drew heavily from his catalog. From Canada, the Irish Rovers took his “The Unicorn” to the top ten in 1967. Marianne Faithfull, The Weavers (reunited), Steve Goodman, Loretta Lynn, and Tompall Glaser covered him.

Nobody has recorded him more than his friend Bobby Bare, whose new 137-song extravaganza presents six LPs plus stray Bare tracks (the discs' term). About 100 are by Shel, including 25 previously unissued cuts. Being a Bear Family box, the book boasts sessionography, an interview with Bare, an article on Shel, song lyrics [with unrecorded verses in brackets], Shel's illustrations, and photos galore (many from a few photo shoots).

Bare relates, “Shel's songs were often like movies to me. I could visualize the characters I was singing about. His song lyrics were almost like movie scripts. It made it very easy for me to interpret or perform the songs.”

Robert Joseph Bare Sr. was born in Ohio in 1935. His first hit, 1958's “The All American Boy,” wound up credited to his bud Bill Parsons simply because Bill's name was on the master tape's box. Under his own name, Bare had major country/folkish hits with “Detroit City,” “500 Miles Away from Home,” “Miller's Cave,” and “Four Strong Winds.” A later contract with RCA gave him control over producing his own discs – a then-novel but huge concession he gained in part by assuring the label that he could do it more cheaply than their in-house producers. Bare's contract negotiation preceded Waylon Jennings' and Willie Nelson's similar breakthroughs that jumpstarted country music's much-needed outlaw movement.

Bare's work with Silverstein began by coincidence. At a party he mentioned his difficulty finding a writer to provide all the songs for a concept album. Within two days, Shel gave him the songs for his best-selling album ever, 1973's Lullabys, Legends and Lies including numero-uno country single “Marie Laveau” (a Louisiana voodoo tale) and, with a very young Bobby Bare Jr., tender “Daddy What If.” Subsequent Shel-heavy LPs in this box include Singin' in the Kitchen (with his family), Down & Dirty, and Drunk & Crazy (neither with his family). Tracks on recession-era Hard Time Hungrys begin with words from everyday people living the life of a song's character. David Alan Coe is the excon speaking before”Back Home in Huntsville, Alabama,” whose line [in a bracketed verse] “A guy can go crazy from just being free,” shows how perceptive Shel could be.

Taped in 1977, Great American Saturday Night was held back from release by an angry RCA official when Bare dared to leave RCA for Columbia. Only this year did it finally appear on disc. Its “Red-Neck Hippie Romance” laughs at a culture gulf. Leading into Shel's “They Won't Let You Show It at the Beach,” Bare mentions “our Constitutional right to swim bare-assed” (which our Founding Fathers likely did).

Bare can sound so congenial and like he's enjoying himself that recording live seems ideal. Or at least coming across like an album's live could be ideal, as with Great American Saturday Night. The box's text relates, “Bare and his co-producer Bill Rice were eager to capture the feel of a live performance without sacrificing the control and efficiency of a studio album.” After recording the songs, they and Shel brought in friends, handed out lyric sheets and plenty of booze, and then urged guests to shout along during a playback. A tape of the boisterous audience was dubbed onto the album-to-be to make it sound like it's all live.

Shel's writing was variously sympathetic, fiendishly funny, ribald, and open to a taboo or two. A few songs look critically at the male ego, as when “The Winner” raises the question of whether apparent winners aren't really the losers after all is said and done. Others touch on rising political or human rights issues – and, for that matter, on previously unissued “From the Jungle to the Zoo,” animal rights.

On Lullabys, “In the Hills of Shiloh” portrays a deranged Civil War widow but speaks to the families of any war's dead. Bare's delivery is totally unlike Judy Collins' poised, pristine rendition ten years earlier. He apparently never recorded some of Shel's gems, perhaps because no singer wants his potential version compared to Cash's approach to “A Boy Named Sue” or imminent-death goof “Twenty-Five Minutes to Go.” Or Silverstein's over-the-top vocal calistenics on his own spoken-word "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (Would Not Take The Garbage Out)." Though he never cracked a top-forty list, Shel's deliveries could be priceless.

An aneurysm took Shel from us decades ago, but Bare at 85 is still here. He says of Shel, “I'll give you an example of how big a fan I was of his songwriting Years ago, I heard a record by Burl Ives called 'Time.' Then years later, I heard a song by Marianne Faithfull called 'The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.' I had no idea who wrote either of them at the time. I found out years later that it was Shel.” Which of his songs may we have dug for years without realizing that he wrote them.

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