Uncle Shelby Rocks: Bobby Bare Jr. on the Songs of Shel Silverstein
Best known to most parents as the author of timeless children’s books such as The Giving Tree, poet and cartoonist Shel Silverstein was also a songwriter and recording artist—and not only with the Grammy-winning album version of his book Where the Sidewalk Ends. Between 1959 and his death in 1999, Silverstein released more than a dozen records. He wrote Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” and the Irish Rovers’ “The Unicorn Song,” and he partnered with country singer Bobby Bare on many songs, including 1973’s Grammy-nominated “Daddy What If,” which Bare performed with his then five-year-old son, Bobby Bare Jr.
Today, Bare Jr. performs the song with his own four-year-old daughter, Bella, on a new tribute album for his late friend, Twistable, Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Shel Silverstein (Sugar Hill). Singers include his father, Silverstein friends Kris Kristofferson and John Prine, and alternative-rock artists like My Morning Jacket, Dr. Dog, Andrew Bird, and Frank Black and Joey Santiago of the Pixies, along with Lucinda Williams, Ray Price, and others. The album isn’t, strictly speaking, a children’s record (themes addressed include drugs, prostitution, and violence). But we called Bare Jr. to ask him about how children might relate to the songs that are appropriate for them, including Nanci Griffith’s moving rendition of “The Giving Tree.”
Do you remember when you first met Shel Silverstein?
I just remember being in the studio as a kid, late at night in RCA Studio B, watching them work, and how much fun it was to stay up late. Shel was just a really fun guy. He was just a big kid—that’s why he’s good at what he does. He was like another five-year-old.
Did he talk like he does on his records?
Yeah, that’s his voice. He had this scratchy, screetchy, crazy voice.
How much did you collaborate with Silverstein over the years? Did it all go back to singing on “Daddy What If?”
He critiqued every song I wrote up until he died, and we even cowrote a song together. That was when I was an adult. When I was a kid, [it started when] Dad was doing an album of nothing but Shel Silverstein songs, which had never been done in the country music world: Using one songwriter for the whole record. And all the songs tied together in some way.
Were you nervous, singing with your dad?
I was in there before I knew what was going on. There was no time to be nervous.
How did you feel about doing this song again with your daughter?
Well, I wanted to do “This Guitar for Sale,” but my dad pointed out that “Daddy What If” is one of the biggest hits that Shel wrote, and if anybody was going to do it, it would be me. And he was right.
Was there any reason you were hesitant?
Just ’cause I wanted to be cool. But what’s more amazing than having your daughter on the same album as Lucinda Williams? That’s just too bad-ass. I’m actually singing it with my son in the video, because my daughter would only sing songs about dolphins by that time.
Have the words in Shel Silverstein songs sort of opened up to you over the years as you get older?
I still look at them with the same five- or six-year-old view. But I love the songs. Music was just a way for him to sneak his poems in your ear.
“The Giving Tree” in particular seems sadder and more profound to me as an adult.
The tree is happy, but the story is really sad. Shel said to me once that he would never have written that as a grown-up. This was when he was 60-something. He wrote it when he was a younger grown-up.
Do you find yourself thinking about these songs differently, now, when you’re recording them?
The hardest part is Shel’s gone, but when you listen to his music, he’s there, he’s alive. And it was just hard to remember, after listening to him sing or talk, [that] we’re not going to get a phone call from him. It helped with healing, to give my dad closure. This is the last Shel project he’ll work on.
It’s interesting that the Andrew Bird song puts a Silverstein poem to music, because I’ve seen somebody do kind of the reverse: Brother Ali has done a rap version of “A Boy Named Sue.”
Really? Check out “Father of a Boy Named Sue” on YouTube. It’s the most X-rated, dirty thing you’ve ever heard in your life. It’s Shel’s follow-up to “A Boy Named Sue” from the point of view of the father. He ends up sleeping with his son. It’s really dirty, really funny.
What influence did Silverstein have on your songwriting?
Just the whole ethic of being fearless and taking an idea and pushing it as far as you can, and then pushing it a whole lot further. The only thing people remember is when you really push through and do something that nobody else would have done.
Support the artists who support Rainbow Rumpus! You can buy Twistable, Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Shel Silverstein at http://twistableturnable.sugarhillrecords.com/ and help Rainbow Rumpus bring more great writing, music, and video to you.