He's released thirty-nine albums, charting over fifty Country Top 40 singles including "Marie Laveau", "500 Miles Away From Home" and "Daddy, What If". He's probably best known for his recording of "Detroit City", which won a Grammy Award! In 2017 Rolling Stone named him one of the 100 Greatest Country Artists Of All Time. In 2013 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame. Some people refer to him as the "Architect Of Outlaw Country." Others refer to him as "The Bruce Springsteen Of Country." He likes to be called Bobby Bare.
Q - I didn't know that you had a hand in helping design the Fender Stratocaster. You said that Leo Fender didn't play guitar very well.
A - That's true.
Q - Did he ever ask you to come onboard and be a designer for Fender guitars?
A - Oh, no, no. It wasn't my decision. The thing was, I was working in a club in Orange County about a half a block from Fender's and Leo's office and Leo depended mostly on guitar player's opinion. Like the original Telecaster, he hooked up with Jimmy Bryant out there. That's all that Bryant played. This is like in '55, '56, he would come into the club in the evening before we started. We were setting up and tuning up. He'd come in there and said he was designing a new guitar. All he had was a big chunk of wood. It wasn't painted or anything like that. Of course he had those great pick-ups on it. He'd have my guitar player, who was a real good guitarist, test run it. He would ask, "Do you think I should take a little more off of this? Should I make this indentation a little deeper? What do you think?" That kind of stuff.
Q - In today's world he would have created a line of Bobby Bare guitars.
A - Yeah. (laughs) To start with, it'd be a high-tech, computerized shaping of it. Leo was a good guy. He was making those GVL guitars. I was working out there in Crazy Horse in Orange County, Santa Ana and he gave me one of 'em. I've been using it on the road. It looks a lot like the original Telecaster. It's a good guitar. I wish he had given me that piece of wood guitar, (laughs) the design for the Stratocaster. I'd be a rich man right now.
Q - You certainly would be. When you signed with Capitol Records in the beginning of your career, you recorded a couple of Rock 'n' Roll songs. What did those songs sound like? Were you trying to sound like Elvis or maybe Jerry Lee Lewis?
A - I think it was a combination of me searching for an identity. Elvis had just taken over everything. Ken Nelson didn't really know what to do. I'd do Country one session and do another session and Ken wanted it to sound like "All Shook Up". He finally found his way with Gene Vincent. He found him an Elvis, but I covered Buck Owens on one song. I did "Down On The Corner Of Love" that Buck had written and recorded. I was friends with Buck. I loved his singing. I told Ken, "Yeah. I'll cut that song. I love Buck Owens' singing." Ken said, "Buck's a good guitar player, but he can't sing." (laughs) Later Buck was his biggest act.
Q - Whoever said you needed to have a great voice to sing Pop, Rock or Country?
A - Of course not. You have to be able to communicate. You have to be believable, but you don't have to be a great vocalist. You don't have to have a great voice. You need a voice that doesn't distract from the story you're trying to tell.
Q - Who came up with this description of you as "The Bruce Springsteen Of Country"?
A - I don't know who came up with that. That's about as far away from what I am as you can get, even though I love Bruce Springsteen. I don't have any idea where they got that.
Q - Could it have been Bill Graham who gave you that title?
A - No. I don't think it was Bill who did it. I think it was a P.R. person at Columbia Records. Bill managed me for two or three years back in the early '80s, but he didn't come up with that. It's kind of funny.
Q - You've traveled all over the world. Just how popular is Country music outside of the U.S.?
A - Well, it used to be really big. Me, Jim Reeves and Chet Atkins in the Spring of 1964 took the very first Country show to Europe. They had never seen a Country show before. It was a mixture of Country and Pop. This was right after Jim had "He'll Have To Go". He had Country cross-over hits that were on the Pop charts and I was right in the middle of "Detroit City" and "Shame On Me", "500 Miles". All of 'em were like Top 10, Top 20 in the Top 100 charts in Billboard before it ever came on the Country charts. Of course Chet Atkins was Chet Atkins. Everybody knew Chet Atkins was the greatest guitar player in the world. So, we had huge crowds. They had never seen a Country music show. And even now Europe is a funny market. If you say Country music show, it better be a Country music show. If you say Pop or you say Blues, they come to see you. One record company tried to do what we did, go over and tour the markets, but if was after Country music had gone almost '50s - '60s Rock. They had Pop groups and they would boo 'em. To them it wasn't Country. I go over there and do festivals. They're all Country festivals. By God, it better be Country! They'll accept Americana, but there's no way in hell they'll accept the modern Country music over there. They would feel short-changed. They love Classic Country, but I'm sure that will change.
Q - Did you and Charles Williams...
A - Charlie.
Q - Did you and Charlie Williams write "500 Miles Away From Home"?
A - No. That's an old, old, old Folk melody. That's an old campfire song.
Q - So, it was your arrangement then that people liked?
A - No. What happened was, I was living in North Hollywood at the time in '63, '64, whatever it was, and Glen Campbell lived right down the street from me. He was just getting all them good sessions, that good session work out there. Whenever he'd get out of the studio at 10 o'clock, he'd come by my house. We'd go to the Palomino Club and drink beer or whatever. He had an album out at that time. Sort of a Bluegrass time. He called his group The Green Valley Boys. He had just brought me that album and I hadn't listened to it, but I was driving back from San Diego one night and I was surfin' the radio and I heard Peter, Paul And Mary singing the old campfire version of "500 Miles" and I thought boy, that's great! Soon as I got home I got Glen's album and it was an instrumental. There were no lyrics. I called Charlie Williams up. I said, "Hey Charlie, come over and let's write some lyrics to this." He came over and we wrote the lyrics. The lyrics were all new. Somehow Edie West got her name on it. She had noting to do with it, the song. I think she had a copyright on some version of "500 Miles". She was a writer for the same publishing company that was publishing what me and Charlie had just written. So, I think she raised a lot of hell. The publishing company didn't want to make her mad.
Q - I know you didn't write "Detroit City", but when that record came out, what did it do for your career?
A - The first time, it dawned on me that I'd never have to get a real job for as long as I live. I'd had a couple things I'd written and recorded in '58 called "American Boy", which is a talking Blues thing. It was a bit of a Rock 'n' Roll hit. (#2 on the Billboard Hot 100 on Feb. 2 1959) Then, before "Detroit City" I had a Pop hit that sold a lot of records called "Shame On Me For Hurting You". (#23 on Sept 15 1962). Nobody really cared who it was singing it. They just loved the song, loved the record. Me and Jimmy Bryant had been fishing out in the valley and believe it or not there's a little lake out there and we'd been out there fishing, driving back to L.A. I was listening to KFWD, which was the biggest Rock station on the coast. I heard 'em say, "Here is our Pick Hit Of The Week" and I heard that guitar and I heard me singing and they said "It's Bobby Bare and 'Detroit City'." I said, "Oh, my." I told Jimmy Bryant, "Buddy, I'm never going to have to find a job, ever. That thing is going to do something for me." And it did! People were interested in who was singing it. Then I followed it up with "500 Miles" and "Four Strong Winds" and I had myself a career going. That's what did it for me.
Q - Did you hear the Tom Jones version of "Detroit City"?
A - Yeah. (laughs) I thought it was pretty lame.
Q - You were acting for a time in TV and movies. Did you give it up because you didn't like it very much?
A - No, no. This was about the same time period I'm talking about, '63, '64. Where I lived was right across from Ventura Boulevard from Warner Brothers. I could look out my window and see Warner Brothers. Jack Webb was head of the TV department at Warner Brothers at that time. They were looking to do a TV series on the old Andy Griffith thing, No Time For Sergeants, and my management wanted me to go over and talk to Jack Webb. I said, I'll do it. It's only about three minutes from here and I'd like to meet Jack Webb, Joe Friday from Dragnet. So, I went over there and talked to him and he liked me. He said, "Let's do like a screen test in one of the scenes from No Time For Sergeants." So, I did that. I got to meet the Jack Warner, the old man. They liked me because I wasn't taking none of it serious. But it was so boring. Just sitting around in dressing rooms. I didn't like it at all. I wanted to be on the road singing my hits. I wanted to see America. I went back and said, "This is not what I want to do. I know you got a lot of people that would kill for a chance to be a lead in a TV series and movies." At the time I had just fallen in love and I wanted to get married. I told my girlfriend at the time, she was from Long Beach, I said, "Let's move to Nashville, get married and have some kids." She said, "It sounds great to me." So, I told 'em I quit and moved to Nashville and got married and had kids. We've been married almost fifty-three years. That's a long time for a Country singin' star.
Q - That's true. When you were starting out, you had a radio show. Did being on the radio lead to more bookings?
A - Yeah. The thing was you'd be on the radio every morning and hopefully on a big station like WSM or one of those Grand 'Ole Opry stations. A lot of people move into town and get an early morning show on the radio and then they would book out into the high schools and different places that were covered by the radio signal. But with me, the station I was on was just a little bitty thing, but it was in Western Ohio and it was in a little farm house way out in the middle of a field. I was on Saturday afternoons. I was working a club in that town on the weekends. But on Saturday afternoons it was "Bobby Bare is on the air," Saturday Afternoon Jamboree. Me and my band would be playing 'live' on the radio station. I looked up at the window one day and there must have been four hundred cars in that field. It was weird. They'd all sit there and watch that building and listen to the radio. (laughs) It was a crazy, I know.
Q - Too bad the radio station didn't charge for parking.
A - Oh, no. They were glad. They had sponsors that were dying to get on there. I worked there on Friday and Saturday nights at that place and it was the same time, like in '55, that Elvis came out. I remember listening to "That's All Right Mama" on the jukebox. But the crowd I was drawing in there, I was just a teenager. I was about eighteen. The crowd I was drawing was all young people. You might see two or three old people in there. But, it was the same crowd that Elvis was bringing to life.
Q - Did you by chance ever meet Elvis?
A - No, I never did. By the time I came along Elvis was already isolated.
Q - I suppose we can credit Colonel Parker for that.
A - Yeah. That's a shame.
Q - Did you ever watch yourself on old TV shows on say YouTube?
A - No, I don't. That goes way back to those shows that me, Chet and John Reeves did in Europe that made big stars out of us. All TV was black and white then. It's real funny to see a real skinny Bobby Bare in black and white, (laughs) playing a twelve string guitar. But, everybody has recorded one or two or my songwriter TV shows. That'll come up every once in a while.
Q - I would make this observation about your career in music. Since you've titled your CD "Things Change", you've seen all of the changes.
A - Oh, yeah. I've seen it all.
Q - That's what I thought you would say about the record business.
A - There is no record business now. The record business is gone. Nobody wants CDs. The record business is over. The record companies, whenever they sign an artist now, it's called a "360 deal." They sign 'em up not for how many records they're gonna sell, but use that for promotion. They get a piece of everything the artist does. They get a piece of the arena. If they can create an arena act, they're happy.
Q - I never heard of this "360 deal" before.
A - Oh, yeah. That's the new record business.
Q - So, an act like Luke Bryan who plays an arena has to pay a booking agent and a manager.
A - Well, that's 10% and 10% or whatever the manager gets. You're talking 20%, and the record company is going to come in and get 40%, whatever the traffic will bear. They get a piece of the songs. They publish your songs.
Q - Merchandising.
A - Merchandising. They get a piece of that. That's what they're going for. When I started out it was everything was based on record sales. The going deal was 5% of 90%. 10% was for breakage that came from way back there when there were vinyl records. So, they had that 5% of 90% all the way through, even with CDs, but that was the going deal based on a dollar and you got nine cents for every record you sold, hopefully. Hopefully. I'm amazed at how they make up the charts. It's supposed to be based on record sales. There is no record sales. It might be a certain amount, but it's quickly disappearing.