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Bobby Bare - Hard Time Hungrys / The Winner ... And Other Losers

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Artist: Bobby Bare

Album: Hard Time Hungrys / The Winner ... And Other Losers

Label: Omni

Review date: Apr. 20, 2012

Socially-conscious concept albums were still a relatively nascent commodity in country music when Bobby Bare waxed Hard Time Hungrys in 1975. He had been one of the pioneers of the format back in 1967 with A Bird Named Yesterday, a loose collection of songs lamenting the paving over of comforting old ways with ennui-inducing new. Hungrys covered comparable topical territory, but turned a specific lens to the trials and tribulations of the unemployed, incarcerated and working poor. All are demographics foundational to country song, but under Bare’s progressive-minded scrutiny their shared disenfranchisement took on an intimate, almost travelogue-like immediacy.

Conscripting blue chip collaborators had been a Bare specialty since he first entered the RCA Studio offices under auspices of Chet Atkins in 1962. Fruitful associations followed with Pete Seeger, Jack Clement and Tom T. Hall, but Bare formed his most prolific bond with libertine poet and songsmith Shel Silverstein. Silverstein may have penned his biggest hit for Johnny Cash, but the relationship with Bare allowed entire albums worth of his work to find a receptive commercial audience. That kind of faith was easily justified by the consistent quality of Silverstein’s lyrics, which almost catholically avoided cliché in favor of off-kilter imagery and layered humanistic observation.

In preparation for the project, Bare and Silverstein took a page from James Agee and taped hours of field interviews with the everyday people symbolized in the songs. Ten of Hungrys 12 tracks use snippets of these interviews as stage-setting preludes. An elderly couple recounts the auction of a neighbor’s family farm on “Two for a Dollar,” while an ex-con speaks candidly of his struggles to stay straight on the prison ode “Back Home In Huntsville Again.” Silverstein’s “Alimony” offers a sharply cynical take on divorce and “Warm and Free” is similarly humor-rich in celebrating the not-so-obvious “advantages” of the homeless life. Bare’s voice and delivery amplify the humanity in each case, whether it’s comedy or heartbreak, and he also wisely keeps the instrumentation free of strings and other orchestration. The focus here is on a combination of rhythm and steel guitar, bass, drums and occasional au courant Rhodes for added color.

Omni’s reissue pairs Hungrys with The Winner… and Other Losers, another album from the following year weighted with Silverstein numbers. The 12 tracks lack the thematic cohesiveness of their counterparts and the production on some of them errs into the overly-slick, but Silverstein’s lyrics are often just as clever as ever. “Climbin’ the Ladder and Climbin’ the Walls” paints a picture of celebrity-driven spousal jealousy just as evenly as Bob McDill’s “Put A Little Lovin on Me,” the latter finding Bare convincingly cataloguing how crushes on the likes of Johnny Cash and Burt Reynolds can’t provide for the quotidian wants and needs in his woman’s life.

“Bald Headed Woman” threads in some surprising, if good-natured, misogyny into a tallying of the merits of the titular subject, chief among them a propensity to stick with her man since no one else will have her. “Brian Hennessey” carries a heavy wiff of Kristofferson, both in cosmic-minded content and Bare’s languid inflection, while “Dropkick Me, Jesus” wins instant points for the title alone with a song that does it justice through a bruising football metaphor for spiritual redemption.

Their partnership continued off and on for another seven years, but Bare and Silverstein rarely hit the highs together as they did on Hard Time Hungrys or on previous albums, which makes Omni’s decision to bring the work back into circulation all the more valuable. Country concept albums don’t get much more classic or sincere than this.

By Derek Taylor

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