After the heaviness of last week’s pair of live records from The Band, it’s nice to kick off this week with country singer/songwriter Bobby Bare’s The Winner and Other Losers. While Bare is no lightweight, and most of The Winner’s songs (including the title track) were penned by Shel Silverstein, there is a kind of breeziness to these songs that feels refreshing after last week.
That breeziness is actually a tribute to Silverstein’s gifts as a lyricist and Bare’s as a performer and storyteller. Concrete storytelling has always been one of country music’s strongest suits, and Bare, who was signed to RCA by Chet Atkins and who was recording blues by the age of fifteen, is certainly aware of that tradition. As its title suggests, this album is made up of songs about individuals, told with an eye for the individual detail: “Vince” runs his hands through his grey hair before telling a waitress that he’s twenty-nine years old, the wife of the protagonist in “Put a Little Lovin’ On Me” has a photo of Burt Reynolds tacked over their bed (and “He ain’t hardly got nothin’ on”), Mr. Rodgers hears how his daughter and the singer are living in sin over a scotch and water. The songs are believable as stories because of their details, and Bare sings them in a plain, clear voice. The music behind him is enjoyable, if plain, mid-seventies country, with fiddles and pedal steels tacked on to your standard folk-rock ensemble, and most of the players do their best to keep the focus on Bare’s particular yarn. Bare unrolls them with a simple nudge, and their in-built narrative power does most of the work. That the stories are largely novelties (this is Shel Silverstein we’re talking about, after all) doesn’t seem to particularly matter when they’re arranged and delivered this well.
Which is a strange phenomenon, actually, that’s maybe unique to music. The joke that underlies Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue” loses its flavor after the first few listens, but Johnny Cash’s live rendition of it remains classic, and it would be even if he hadn’t been stomping out the footlights as he sang it. A song like “Lost in Austin,” a Texas travelogue written by Charlie Williams and someone named Panama Red that appears here, is built around cheesy pairings of city names and rhyming drunken euphemisms (“Lost in Austin, “Juiced in Houston,” etc.) that loses its “huh” factor before the second chorus. But as the flimsy cover of the song’s joke slips off, it reveals the song’s core: the singer doesn’t remember Dallas, but Dallas won’t be forgetting him. That one half-line, with all that it implies, suggests a story much wider and deeper than the jokes would like to permit. It’s something that Bare had to have been aware of, and he sings “Lost in Austin” from a sullen place; the band drags their weight, too. Like “A Boy Named Sue,” it uses novelty as a cover, and it keeps one corner of itself exposed in a kind of tease. Pull at it and see what you find.
There’s more thematic weight to The Winner and Other Losers than its surface would imply. Opener “Climbin’ the Ladder and Climbin’ the Walls” is sung from the perspective of a showbiz husband whose wife spends all of her time on the road. He and his young son turn the TV up when she performs, and, accordingly, the song is taken over by a female singer who pines for “home,” while the son pesters his father with questions about why, if his mama misses them and their home so much, she stays on the road. “That’s showbiz,” the dad says. By the time The Winner and Other Losers was released in 1976, Bare was already a successful country singer; when he sings “The only place I ain’t been is home” in the chorus of “Lost in Austin,” it’s hard not to hear wind flapping at the corner of a cover that’s been placed over the entire record. Even “Dropkick Me, Jesus,” the album’s best-known song, conceals the singer’s desire for a clean and carefree life. The lines “Dropkick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life/End over end, neither left nor to right/Straight through the heart of them righteous uprights” are funny enough, I guess, but check out the action there: the singer doesn’t want to have to bear the weight of any kind of agency or responsibility, or to have to make any decisions or live in a certain way. Put differently, he doesn’t want to engage. That the album ends on the title track, in which the singer decides not to fight a grizzled barfly after the man details all of the injuries he’s suffered on his way to becoming The Winner, seems like a pretty perfect conclusion. The track was recorded live, with the audience’s laughter left in.