Alt-country crooner honors Shel Siverstein

Bobby Bare, Jr. had the ultimate music education. Not only did he grow up singing with his country hit-making dad, Bobby Bare, he also had every song he ever wrote critiqued by his dad’s best friend—Shel Silverstein.

Although the latter is known best for his quirky contributions to children’s literature, Silverstein also wrote an impressive collection of songs made famous by others. He penned “A Boy Named Sue” for Johnny Cash, “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” for Dr. Hook, and the Grammy-nominated “Daddy What If”—a 1974 duet featuring then five-year-old Bare Jr. and his dad.

Now a prolific alt-country mainstay in his own right, Bare Jr. put his solo act on the backburner for the last four years to team up with dad once again and pay tribute to the late Silverstein, who passed away in 1999. The result is Twistable Turnable Man, a collection of Silverstein tunes reinterpreted by a generation-bridging cast of Bare family friends, including My Morning Jacket, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Todd Snider, and Andrew Bird. Bare Jr. chatted about the project and his next solo release.

Why was it time to pay tribute to Silverstein?
He was a precious, important part of our family. If anyone was going to do this, it had to be us. My dad and Shel started making records together in 1972. He also critiqued every song I ever wrote. He’d look at the lyrics and give it to me straight. He’d tell me when I was getting lazy, and he’d be a cheerleader. I was writing really bad songs for a long time, and his encouragement kept me going.

Silverstein’s body of work is a lot greater than most people know.
People have no idea how diverse his talent was; he did so many things with it. He would be drawing for Playboy while writing a children’s book and working on a play with David Mamet in New York City. He was a renaissance guy in the realest way.

How did you pick the album cast?
It was really either my friends or dad’s friends, but we picked people who loved Shel. We’re lucky we have really talented friends. We mapped out which songs we wanted everyone to sing, and the artists were mostly agreeable. For instance, we didn’t want anyone singing “A Boy Named Sue” except Todd Snider.

Andrew Bird was the only one who couldn’t find a song he was comfortable with, so he got special permission to put music to the poem “Twistable Turnable Man.” It worked out great, because the words sound exactly like Andrew Bird lyrics. He’s the first person to put one of Shel’s poems to music, and it took a lot of legal permission.

Tell me about reworking “Daddy What If” with your daughter.
My daughter had just turned four, and she really wanted to sing it. We put her in the studio with both of her granddads, who were both part of the original recording. They were coaching her the whole way through and it was really special. It was like passing the torch to the next generation.

What can you tell me about your curiously titled new solo album, “A Storm – A Tree – My Mother’s Head,” which hits stores on the final day of this month?
It’s been four years since my last record. I’ve been busy coordinating the Shel tribute, having a new baby boy, getting a divorce, and getting my new girlfriend pregnant. My mom also had a tree fall through her house and hit her, while she was sitting on the couch. She’s OK, but it was obviously pretty traumatic. I found time to call some friends and knock out an album over two days this past winter. Let’s just say I’ve had a lot to write about.

TWISTABLE, TURNABLE MAN
A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Shel Silverstein

Like many children who came of age in the late 20th century, my bookshelf included the books of Shel Silverstein. I can remember wiling away the hours perusing the pages of such collections as Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic, drawn by both the quirky (and sometimes profane) poetry of Silverstein’s stories and his delightfully bizarre illustrations.

Silverstein was an illustrator (for Playboy and The Pacific Stars & Stripes, among others), a writer of over 100 plays, an author, and Grammy-winning songwriter. It is his prolific songwriting that has recently been honored here. The fifteen-song collection includes a deliriously eclectic menagerie of artists, with folkies John Prine, Nanci Griffith, and Todd Snider, indie rock faves Dr. Dog, Andrew Bird, and My Morning Jacket, country vets Ray Price, Kris Kristofferson, and long-time Silverstein collaborator Bobby Bare, Sr., among others, lending interpretations of Silverstein’s tunes.

Produced by Bobby Bare, Jr.—who takes a tender turn with his daughter Isabella on “Daddy What If,” for which he and Bare, Sr. were Grammy nominated in 1974—Twistable, Turnable Man is a fascinating glimpse into the musical work of Silverstein. It is only appropriate that such a wide range of artists take shots at these songs—the beauty of the record comes in its sheer diversity. Prine’s “This Guitar Is For Sale” is stripped down and somber, while Kristofferson, on “The Winner,” and Price, on “Me And Jimmie Rodgers,” seep vintage country. Dr. Dog takes on “The Unicorn” with its trademark 60s pop style, and My Morning Jacket’s “Lullabys, Legends, and Lies” is an acoustic departure.

Perhaps the most celebrated Silverstein tune, “A Boy Named Sue,” made famous by Johnny Cash, is admirably rendered by Todd Snider, and multi-instrumental genius Andrew Bird’s original melody for the title track is mesmerizing. Twistable, Turnable Man offers a telling glimpse into the work of Silverstein’s underappreciated skill as a songwriter and gives new voice to songs that still need to be heard.