Bobby Bare's country career is positively Gumpian: Willie Nelson's roommate in the early '50s, supporting Roy Orbison in the late '50s, palling around with the original country gentleman Chet Atkins in the early '60s and part of the folk scene later in the decade, and a Top Ten country singer in the '70s. Bare fell out of favor in the '80s and '90s when country ditched its soft shuffle, but his comeback might just start now with the wonderful The Moon Was Blue, his first proper studio record since 1983.
The best moments of The Moon Was Blue — and make no mistake, there are many — recall prime George Jones. Like Jones 'essential Mercury recordings, this album employs strong-lunged backing singers for choruses, reverb on Bare's vocals and simple backing instrumentation that showcases the songwriting more than the performances. The arrangements — played by, among others, members of Lambchop and Silver Jews — place Bare front and center, and his baritone swings wide and true in the open spaces. Johnny Cash's American recordings are a rougher and sparer approximation of the style.
Virtually every song here hails from the ’50s and ’60s, and some of them were big hits for Pat Boone, Dean Martin and others back in the day. The album leads off with Wayne Walker's classic "Are You Sincere" (Andy Williams and Elvis both had hits with it), which Bare originally recorded in the early '70s; this time around, he approaches the song like an estranged lover, familiar but suspicious, prodding hazy memories back to life. His take on Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'" — a song that is impossible to screw up — sways to a fidgety shuffle as the layers of instruments (piano, mandolin, acoustic and electric guitar, pedal steel, drums, percussion and bass, to name a partial list) collide and blend. Above it, Bare stays forthright and forlorn: the arrangement makes him sound even more resolute in his loneliness.
Bare's melancholy gives way to complete and utter heartbreak on a version of Roy Clark's autumnal 1969 hit "Yesterday When I Was Young." Lamenting the loss of his youth ("Yesterday when I was young/ So many happy songs were waiting to be sung/ So many pleasures lay in store for me/ And so much pain my dazzled eyes refused to see"), Bare's voice cracks with the song's gentle lilts. And then, after a false fade-out, the song returns with a spellbinding coda of shaky voices and reeds, reprising the melody as a funereal march. You're unlikely to hear a better country record this year.