“Hey, this is Lonesome Bob,” the phone message began, answering a troubling question: How do you address the man? Just “Bob” seemed a little too familiar and just “Lonesome” seemed, well, a little too weird.
“I wore a cowboy hat to a band rehearsal when I was 19, and the name stuck. I was going to drop it when I moved to Nashville, but my friends threatened to start calling me The Artist Formerly Known As Lonesome Bob.” That’s how the former Robert Chaney explains his nom de forlorn when we connect for a phone interview a few days later. He finishes with a burly but warm laugh that makes me want to buy him a beer long distance.
So it’s important to note that the name and the music started for Lonesome Bob long before his move to Nashville. His first truly visible gig came when Ben Vaughn asked him to sit in on minimalist drums at a showcase so Vaughn wouldn’t come off “too folky,” giving birth to the two-man Ben Vaughn Combo. He played on three albums with Vaughn (a kind of Jersey Nick Lowe with a penchant for clever, tuneful little numbers like “I’m Sorry [But So Is Brenda Lee]”) and dabbled in a few other neighborhood projects.
His next medium-sized break came when, after “playing songs at a mutual friend’s place until 5 in the morning,” his tune “Point Of No Return” ended up in the hands of Jon Langford and the Mekons, who included it on their I (Heart) Mekons album in 1993.
After 10 years in New York City and at the urging of friends, Lonesome Bob moved to Nashville in 1994, not really knowing what to expect. Happily, he found an out-of-the-mainstream community of kindred spirits, a roll he’s eager to call — Tim Carroll, Tommy Womack, Duane Jarvis, Kevin Gordon — stopping only out of fear that, as the list begins to creep towards inclusive, he’s going to forgot someone.
“We’re trying to be an alternative to what I call the Chinese menu method of writing songs,” he explains, “where it’s one metaphor from column A and two from column B.”
With the help of Carroll, Jarvis and other gifted players such as Rick Schell, Mark Horn and Bill Dwyer, Lonesome Bob has succeeded in crafting a gruff but appealing alternative with his solo debut. Things Fall Apart, the third release from Chicago’s Checkered Past label (run by ex-Bloodshot guy Eric Babcock), is a blend of rants, ponderings and recollections backed by country-influenced rock seasoned with varying degrees of twang.
The album’s title fits. When things start to fall apart, the questions and pronouncements soon follow, and out come things like “Do You Think About Me”, “Love Is Not Blind”, (“Yeah, that one is a total rant,” Lonesome Bob admits, “but you know what you’re getting into”), and the all-encompassing “What Went Wrong” — each delivered in a direct and almost conversational style.
“Someone told me that I sing just like I talk,” he says. “It’s not premeditated, it’s just the way I do it. There are not two separate personalities, one that writes and one that shmoozes.” And these autobiographical lines from a thumping rave-up called “My Mother’s Husband” certainly support his claim that as a writer he tries “to be as honest as I’m capable of being with myself”: “Well, it’s not some complex psychological dynamic/It’s just that loneliness is so much more problematic/I’ve got a girlfriend, but we’re not in love.” It’s doubtful Lonesome Bob will be writing his own vows.
Other highlights on Things Fall Apart are equally revealing, and occasionally dark. “My grandfather was reportedly the meanest son of a bitch in the valley,” offers Lonesome Bob by way of explanation for “Someone Watching Over Me”, a tale of a legacy of hatred and hopelessness on which Horn’s banjo ups the twang ante considerably. “Waltzing On The Titanic” (hey, when he does reach for a metaphor, it’s a good ’un) is a look at one final night in a sinking relationship, while “The Plans We Made” looks at the bloody end of two relationships and the terminal consequences. The latter is a perfect blend of murder ballad and ’40s B movie, and its dual narration gives Lonesome Bob’s gifted vocal partner Allison Moorer a well-deserved turn in the spotlight.
When I try to wrap things up by confessing that it still throws me when a drummer wanders upstage to become a frontman, sort of like a catcher dropping his mask and shin guards and taking the mound, Lonesome Bob points out that he was a songwriter before he was a drummer. “[That perception] is part of why I walked away,” he admits. “It’s like that joke: What’s the last thing a drummer says in a band? Hey, I’ve got a song.” Or, in Lonesome Bob’s case, a bunch of ’em.