As the '60s gave way to the '70s, Bobby Bare left RCA Records for Mercury, beginning a two-year stint that found him with mixed fortunes, as he scored Top Ten hits without making much headway on the album charts. Despite the uneven commercial fortunes, this was an exceedingly rich time for Bare if judged solely in terms of music. He picked up on the rolling blend of country, folk, and rock & roll that marked his best '60s singles from "Detroit City" to "(Margie's At) the Lincoln Park Inn" and followed through on its promise, creating a layered, inventive body of work that stands as one of the peaks of progressive country and points the way toward the outlaw movement of the mid-'70s. Part of the reason that his recordings for Mercury worked so well is that Bare demonstrated exceptional taste in songwriters, covering new writers Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson, and Billy Joe Shaver regularly while relying on such Nashville stalwarts as Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran, as well as dipping into the pop charts on occasional crossover pop hits, such as John Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane," heard on this, the first of three volumes from Bear Family covering his complete work for Mercury. Bobby Bare always favored stories and character sketches, so these are all sharply written, evocative tunes, sometimes moving, sometimes funny, and they're given layered, slyly adventurous productions that give his warm, nuanced voice support that hints at rolling folk, roadhouse country, the introspectiveness of singer/songwriters, sweet pop, the spirit of rock & roll, and the professionalism of Nashville, without belonging to any particular style. It's a wonderful sound, and, as this extensive Bear Family set proves, it was one that offered plenty of possibilities, almost all of which were explored on Mercury, which resulted in a consistently fascinating and enjoyable body of work. Of the three volumes, the first is the best, not only because it has the most consistent selection of songs -- from the hit "That's How I Got to Memphis," several Kristofferson classics (including "For the Good Times," "Help Me Make It Through the Night," and "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends"), plus lesser-known gems like the genial, silly "I'm Her Hoss if I Never Win a Race" and the sweetly melancholy "The Fool" -- but also because it has the excitement of discovery, as Bare finds his groove. All three volumes are necessary, but this first installment is the first among equals.
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