Rich Mahan smiles when he sings. And it’s not just because the songs on the Nashville artist’s freewheeling solo debut Blame Bobby Bare are laced with ribald humor and 101-proof wisdom.
The biggest reason for the guitarist/singer-songwriter’s ear-to-ear grin is that his album features several musicians he listened to growing up in St. Louis and Los Angeles. Music City legends like harmonica master P.T. Gazell who played for years with Johnny Paycheck and pedal steel guitarist Robby “Man of Steel” Turner who’s worked with everyone from Waylon Jennings to Frank Sinatra.
Also appearing on the album and providing background vocals is Bekka Bramlett, a solo artist, former member of Fleetwood Mac and daughter of ’70s rockers Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. “When I was a teenager, I saw Delaney play at Trancas in Zuma Beach in the late 80’s. He had a fantastic singer with him, and I remember thinking she was giving Bonnie a run for her money. Not long ago, I was hanging out with Bekka and asked, ‘Was that you singing with your daddy back then?’ She just laughed and said, ‘You think?’ Turns out, I was enamored with her singing even before I knew who she was.”
Everyone Mahan invited to take part in the recording sessions said yes. “Even more unbelievable,” he says, “Each of these super heavy players dug recording these songs so much that they offered to come and play live too.”
They agreed to join Mahan and producer/engineer Brian Harrison (Shelby Lynne) based largely on the strength of songs like “Mama Found My Bong,” “Rehab’s for Quitters” and “Tequila Y Mota,” which mix country and rock in a way that recalls the outlaw country movement of the ’70s. “P.T. indirectly paid me a huge compliment after a recent gig,” Mahan recalls. “He told a couple of my other band members that these songs reminded him what he was doing with Johnny Paycheck back in ’78.”
The warm, natural sound at the heart of Blame Bobby Bare is deliberate, says Mahan, who insisted that the album be recorded with vintage analog gear. Tracked to 24-track, two-inch tape, the music was then mixed and mastered to preserve the music’s natural dynamics (i.e., no brickwalling). “I truly believe music sounds better when it ebbs and flows. Much of that’s been lost today where loudness is king, which is why so many albums sound like a shouting match instead of a conversation.”
That emphasis on dynamics highlights the tasteful arrangements, which provide ample space for the instruments to shine. Mahan says his approach was influenced by Grammy-winning producer Billy Sherrill (George Jones, Charlie Pride). “His productions were so great at stating a theme at the top and then having different instruments take turns riffing through the song — guitar under the verse, pedal steel for the chorus and then harmonica for the solo. It’s about focusing on what serves the song best and getting rid of everything else.”
As you would expect from its title, one of the album’s primary influences is Bobby Bare, a legendary country artist whose hits span nearly three decades and range from the playful (“Tequila Shelia,” “Quaaludes Again”) to the poignant (“Streets of Baltimore,” “How I Got to Memphis.”) For this album, Mahan chose to cover “Put A Little Lovin’ On Me,” a hit for Bare in 1976 from his album The Winner and Other Losers.
“Growing up, I remember how stressed my dad would get from work. But on the weekends, he would cut loose and crank these great records by Bobby Bare. Those songs made him so happy. I wanted to tap into that power and make a record that makes people feel good.”
As for Bare, Mahan believes the Nashville legend will appreciate the album, even if it does “blame” him. “I hope a copy finds its way to him and he gets a kick out of it,” Mahan says. “Who knows, maybe we’ll end up fishing together and I’ll get a chance to thank him for all the smiles he’s given me and my dad over the years.”