Where it clicks, Bobby Bare’s The Moon Was Blue was one of the most alive non-hip-hop recordings of 2005, and totally bananas—title should be expanded to The Moon Was Blue, So I Jumped Over It—but entirely straight and authoritative in its leap over the sky, no hint that one might come off a bit anachronistic singing “Are you sincere?” from deep in one’s belly while women coo “Bobby Bobby Bobby” in the background. “Everybody’s Talking” has a supremely strange false start: Instruments get to their feet and start to shuffle, then it’s as if someone off-mic had interrupted, “Wait, we’ve got to plug in some gizmos—oops, not that one”—[hum and buzz]—”er, we’ll try this”—[hum and buzz now in rhythm]. The album—produced by alt-rocker son Bobby Bare Jr. and Mark Nevers and covering an array of songs, many of which had a history as ’30s–’40s pop standards that crossed to country or country standards that crossed to pop—may be calculated to appeal to the alt world’s eclecticism and said world’s need to distance itself by hearing everything in quotation marks. But it doesn’t wear quotation marks itself, not that I can hear, anyway. Just expressivity: 101 strings for 1,001 lush nights, laced with sorrow and exuberance.
Bare has a history of mixing things up. In early-’60s Nashville he’d sung folkie standards like “500 Miles” and “Four Strong Winds,” with hard guitar twang up front but a countrypolitan orchestra and square, swingless choral singers in the rear. He had the potential to jump to rock, but stuck with country, which allowed for sentimentality and cornpone sincerity that the hard cool world of ’60s pop wouldn’t have tolerated. Yet he flew with the ’60s wind, addressed social concerns, made a concept album about franchise stores and unemployment. As country historian Bill C. Malone points out, Bare’s early hit “Detroit City” is basically “Sloop John B” set in industrial Michigan (but sans humor, so no cooks throwing fits and grits and no first mates going bonkers). “I wanna go home.” His concern with displaced workers could play to either left or right. In the ’70s he stuck with Nashville but got along with the outlaws, mixed the sap and the scruff.
“Detroit City” hadn’t been the world’s most restrained performance, but it fit well enough in its time. Whereas everything about the new album feels ready to hurdle beyond itself. Everything but Bare’s voice, that is: Age has put holes in it and made it heavier and less flexible. This weakens some of the later tracks, and the arrangements sometimes seem as if they’re overcompensating. But only on the final three songs do horns and reverb effects become intrusive enough to be irritating. And even so, on one of these, “Shine On Harvest Moon,” all the camping it up and rib-jabbing unleash genuine joy in Bare’s singing. And it suddenly dawns on me what a great song “Shine On Harvest Moon” is. All of these old ones are good ones, it turns out.
Gene Watson is a country vet who started off a decade after Bobby Bare and hasn’t lost a bit of his power. He’s as commanding and beautiful a singer as anyone in the genre, with an understated twang and an underlying sweetness. The understatement, though, can sometimes make his music too unassuming.
2004’s Gene Watson . . . Sings was great; 2005’s Then & Now is comparatively pallid: the lyrics vaguer (“I was singing the blues and the jukebox played along,” a scenario that country has thrown at us countless times already), the drunken crack-up song not as big a crack-up, the comically rueful I’m-a-loser song not as funny or lost. There’s still good material, especially the wistful “You Could Know as Much” (“You know the size of clothes I wear/And you know how I comb my hair/But you could know as much about a stranger”); when Watson sings “Tomorrow’s just like yesterday, and there lies the danger,” he elongates “theeeere” until it almost breaks in sorrow—though with nothing in the music to suggest that tomorrow, after all, won’t sound like yesterday.