By Colin Woodward
Every now and then I like to write about my favorite solo artist and native southerner Bobby Bare, Jr. In September, I caught Bobby again at the White Water Tavern, where he has played twice in the last few months. He had never visited White Water until earlier this year. In September, as always, Bobby put on an entertaining show.
A few years ago, his life on the road was filmed for the documentary, Don’t Follow Me (I’m Lost). The title comes from a song on his 2004 album At the End of Your Leash. It also serves as something of a warning for those who want to pursue a career in music.
I recently finished watching the movie for a second time. The documentary is a godsend for Bare fans, and it gives much insight into the life of a working musician. We see Bare hustling from gig to gig, dropping off a CD for a deejay (who isn’t even there to open the door to the front of the building), avoiding a pesky homeless person, and the anxiety of not sure some nights where you’ll be staying. Sometimes Bobby gets a few hundred dollars, another time as much as a thousand. But after a show, it’s back to the van, which Bobby shares with his underpaid backing players. At one point, Bobby is interviewed in a bar. He is asked, “What’s your dream?” Bobby’s response: to make enough money so that people leave him alone.
His family is on the road
Amid the musical madness, Bobby, who has three children, juggles a home life. Early in the movie, we see him on stage, where he discusses his girlfriend going into labor. Why isn’t he home with his newborn child? He needs to keep gigging. The film understands the high-spirited nature of live music. But for Bobby and his band, there’s no glamor here, and not much money. Imagine the pressure of a job that provides you with no health benefits, retirement, or even job security.
Bobby lives gig to gig, but he was born into country music royalty. The movie opens with him singing with his father–who is in the Country Music Hall of Fame–at the Grand Ole Opry. Bobby might have become a Hank Williams, Jr., type. But he didn’t, thankfully. Bobby’s music has country flare, but it would leave most Opry types bewildered. And as much as Bobby tries to be a good father, his large family of touring musicians see him more often.
From alternative to alt-country
Bobby established himself in the 1990s alternative scene before taking a turn into what is now called alt-country. His first two albums were the fruit of the still vibrant grunge scene. Since then, he has become more eclectic and introspective. Bobby couldn’t become part of the Nashville establishment, even had he wanted to. And yet, one could say he has done for Nashville what Kurt Cobain did for Seattle. BBJ’s music can be twangy, but it owes more to the Pixies, the Smiths, the Who, and My Morning Jacket than to what you’re likely to hear on Music Row. Still, Bobby says for all the bad music Nashville produces, it also makes some of the best music anywhere. And he can claim much of that good music as his own. Nashville is lucky to have him.
Approach with caution
The film rarely strays from showing Bobby at work, and because of this, he succeeds in remaining something of a cipher. He has a great sense of humor and is passionate about his music. But he’s the kind of guy that a fan would be cautious to approach. When one woman in Richmond has him sign her copy of A Storm, a Tree, she says, “I had never heard of you before tonight.” Bare responds without missing a beat, “I had never heard of you either.” When another fan congratulates Bare on refusing to sell out, Bobby claims, somewhat testily, he would, That is, if he could only find the right person to sell out to.
More than one person the film wonders why Bobby isn’t more famous than he is. Bobby is probably tired of hearing such talk. He knows the music industry doesn’t owe him anything. he could be much worse off. Sure, there are much better paid musicians, but there are many more who can’t earn a living at all from their songs.
The music industry has changed dramatically from where it was twenty years ago. Don’t Follow Me could serve as both an inspiration for musicians who stay true to themselves or a cautionary tale in how pursuing your art will destroy any chance you might’ve had at a normal, stable life. The movie illustrates well the highs and lows of being a niche musician. One minute, you’re flanked by people in animal costumes, playing for young kids who have never heard of you. The next minute your invited to a house party where the host has everything you’ve ever recorded. And he had plenty of free booze.
Bobby admits that he is not cut-out for a 9-5 job. He doesn’t say it, but he’s an artist. Music may not be the only thing he could make a living at, but it certainly is the only thing he wants to do. And it’s clear that it’s the only thing he should do.
I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to Bobby’s albums. Hundreds of times, altogether. His music may never appeal to a wide audience, but it has an addictive quality. It hooks you. It’s rare for me to connect at a personal level with a rock musician. But I probably feel a lot like Hayes Carll, who was interviewed for the film and said he liked Bare’s music so much when he first heard it that he wanted to know everything about him.
Rock and Roll Halloween
If you like Bobby Bare, Jr., you may be somewhere in this film. I discovered Bobby’s music in Richmond back in October 2010. Much to my amazement, footage from that weekend was used in Don’t Follow Me. In Richmond, Bobby was in full rock star mode. He had an uncharacteristically heavy cough and looked like he hadn’t slept in days. The movie shows him downing lots of whiskey, and later, we see him “resting” on the ground outside the National Theatre. he was on the same bill that weekend with Drive-By Truckers. And Richmond was probably short of Jack Daniels come Monday.
Before that Halloween weekend, I didn’t know who Bobby was. Despite that, I could remember every song from the warmup set he played before the Truckers came on. The next day, I went to a record store and bought A Storm, A Tree, My Mother’s Head. I loved it. Still do. In fact, it’s one of my favorite albums.
Leave them wanting more
Don’t Follow Me gives one of the best inside looks at a touring musician you’re likely to see. But as for the personal Bobby, we don’t learn all that much. We see things get rocky with his girlfriend, but when pressed to give us details, Bobby declines.
At another point, he says that the ever-changing nature of his backup band has kept him back professionally. But why? Why has he chosen to work with so many different musicians over the years? Is he difficult to work with, or does he like the freshness that comes with so many different players interpreting his music? I’d like to know more.
What is certain is that Bobby’s music is ingenious. And the next time he’s playing in town, I’ll be there.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.