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The story behind the song about making cars in ‘Detroit City’

In his current book “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” the revered musical artist Bob Dylan critiques 66 popular recordings to explain how music reveals the character of a culture.

Wouldn’t you know it, Page 1 of Chapter 1 presents “Detroit City,” Bobby Bare’s 1963 crossover country classic about a disillusioned Southern white man who comes north to the Motor City.

The fella makes cars and he makes money, but he feels homesick. As many might remember, Bare pronounces the place as “DEE-troit City.”

“Home folks think I’m big in Detroit City,“From the letters that I write, they think I’m fine,“But by day, I make the cars,“By night, I make the bars,“If only they could read“Between the lines.”. . . I want to go home . . . “

Country singer Bobby Bare had a hit in 1963 with his song

Country singer Bobby Bare had a hit in 1963 with his song “Detroit City,” which is featured in a new book by Bob Dylan.

Bare recorded and released the song 60 years ago this spring. On the Billboard charts, it reached sixth on the country-western list and 16th on the pop list and launched his successful career.

“It wasn’t till `Detroit City’ came along that I realized I was never going to have to get a real job, which was a big relief for a guitar picker,” Bare told the website “All Access Pass.”

Bare was born in Ohio and grew up on a farm in Kentucky. He now lives in Nashville. Bare’s son — Bobby Bare Jr. — said in a telephone interview from there that his dad is “doing good, this week. You know, he’s 87. It’s tough. Really tough.”

Detroit’s musical heyday

Bobby Jr. also a guitarist and songwriter and he said his son, Beckham Bare, spent time with his grandfather to learn the tricks of the trade.

“He teaches my son guitar chords when my son’s over there playing music,” Bobby Jr. said. “He’s an extremely good piano player and guitar player and he’s 16 and he’s creating music.”

Bobby Bare is inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.  His son, guitarist and singer Bobby Bare Jr., often sings Bare's hit

Bobby Bare is inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His son, guitarist and singer Bobby Bare Jr., often sings Bare’s hit “Detroit City,” at his own shows.

When Dylan’s book was released late last year, the Bare family was pleasantly surprised by a black-and-white photograph that showed Bobby Jr., his brother and his parents standing by the shore of what looks like a lake.

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Everyone is hugging and smiling. The photo appears to be from the early 1970s and is credited to the Country Music Hall of Fame and museum.

“Dad got a message from Bob Dylan’s management that it was going to be in there and they sent Dad the book,” Bobby Jr. said. “And Dad called me and said `Hey, we have the best picture I’ve ever seen of our family in this book.’ ”

Bobby Sr.’s big hit came early in a musical decade best remembered in Detroit for Motown’s assembly-line brilliance; for the raucous rock-and-roll concerts at the Grande Ballroom; and for young Canadian artists like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young clubbing their way to fame around the Motor City.

In addition, Dylan’s essay cites “Detroit, the home of Motown and Fortune Records, birthplace of Hank Ballard, Mitch Ryder, Jackie Wilson, Jack White, Iggy Pop, and the MC5.”

‘I Want to Go Home’

And with the migration from Dixie, Detroit also spoke with a country accent. According to Dylan, when “Detroit City” was written by Danny Dill and Mel Tillis, “Detroit was a place to run to; new jobs, new hopes, new opportunities. Cars came off the assembly lines and straight into our hearts.”

But some of those hearts were broken in the men who left the gentle fields, streams and woods of the mild, rural south for the concrete streets, sidewalks and alleys of the cold, urban north.

Dylan opens his essay with “In this song, you’re the Prodigal Son;” and he ends it with “Like thousands of others he left the farm, came to the big city to get ahead, and got lost.” Bobby Jr. agreed, and he cited the same, recurring sentiment in other songs, like his father’s exquisite version of “500 Miles.”

“Dylan pretty much nailed it,” he said. “At the time, there were a lot of people a long way from their homes in the South, going up to Michigan and Chicago and things like that.”

The song was originally titled “I Want to Go Home,” a phrase that dominates the chorus. The record found little success when it was first recorded and released by Billy Grammer in 1962, but Bare loved it.

“I heard Billy Grammer’s record of `Detroit City’ while I was driving down the street one day and I damn near wrecked my car,” Bare said on his website “I thought it was the greatest song I’ve ever heard in my life.”

‘Drop Kick Me, Jesus’

At its worst, a critic might pan “Detroit City” as a lachrymose and maudlin expression of self-pity and overwrought sentimentality.

At its best, its fans know it is a realistic depiction of honest emotion about real-life depression for some folks who live around here. In other words, it is an ideal country-western lyric.

Of course, such themes are not limited to one musical genre. With a much different style, the soul singer Otis Redding delivered it with his posthumous hit “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” which was released five years later. Like Bare, Redding sings of cognitive dissonance after leaving the South.

“I left my home in Georgia / Headed for the ‘Frisco Bay / I have nothing to live for / Looks like nothing’s gonna come my way.”

And Gladys Knight struck the same chord in that same era with “Midnight Train to Georgia” because “LA proved too much for the man / He couldn’t make it / So he’s leaving a life he’s come to know.”

That train trope echoes on the narrated bridge spoken by Bare in “Detroit City.”

“… I rode the freight train North to Detroit City / And after all these years, I find I’ve just been wasting my time / So I just think I’ll take my foolish pride / And put it on a South-bound freight /And ride…”

This part impressed Dylan.

“What is it about lapping into narration in a song that makes you think the singer is suddenly revealing the truth?” Dylan writes.

Bare later recorded other hits like “Drop Kick Me, Jesus (Through the Goal Posts of Life),” “Marie Laveau” and “I Drink.” One of his writing collaborators was Shel Silverstein, better known to some audiences as the author of the classic children’s book “Where the Sidewalk Ends.”

Bare was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013. Many artists have recorded “Detroit City.” One was Tom Jones, whose slick version includes horns, strings, Elvis-like inflections and an ad-libbed “Somebody help me!” that is unintentionally on point.

Regarding the Jones version, Bare told the website “I thought it was pretty lame.” His son said the success of “Detroit City” inspired his dad to record an album of city songs about places like Abilene and Memphis. Bobby Jr. still sings it in his shows and he estimated that Bobby Sr. performed “Detroit City” “thousands” of times and never got tired of it.

According to his son, Bobby Sr. often says “Thank goodness I love this song. Because, if I had a hit that was a song I didn’t love, I’d be a miserable guy.”

Joe Lapointe is a metro Detroit journalist.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: The story behind Bobby Bare’s song about making cars in ‘Detroit City’