You may not know his name, but you know Harlan T. Bobo. You've seen him anyway. He's a perennial sideman, best known as the bass player for Nick D. Ray's Viva L'American Deathray Music. Now, after too many years of riding shotgun, he's moved into the driver's seat with Too Much Love, a beautiful collection songs about one man's magnificent obsession.
If you've ever driven through Midtown, you've probably noticed Bobo walking down the sidewalk or riding some ramshackle bike. You've probably said to a traveling companion, "I wonder what that guy's story is." He's a lean one, skinny to the point of being sunken with long arms dangling out of a grubby T-shirt, like Stanley Kowalski. He wore a cowboy hat so broken-down even Bob Dylan wouldn't adopt it and a pencil-thin moustache that looked like he mugged John Waters and made off with the director's personal grooming habits. If you've seen him traveling west, guitar in tow, you may have felt compelled to stop and offer a little advice: "Nashville's the other way, buddy."
Of course, Bobo, who began his musical career as a West Coast pedal-steel player, knows exactly where Nashville is, and he knows he doesn't want to live there.
"I lived in Waynesboro for a while when Yvonne [Bobo] was doing an internship with these master woodworkers who live there in a place called Hippie Hollow. And we would go into Nashville, or we would come to Memphis for work. I worked at a steakhouse in Lawrenceburg back then for this guy named Beefy. He'd put his arm around me and call me 'Little Buddy.' He'd have me drive him around so he could shoot at mailboxes on the way to the private club to get drunk. I was fresh out of San Francisco and that was some kind of foreign to me. But we were looking for a city to move to, and Nashville is too much like a little L.A."
Yvonne Bobo, a sculptor and installation artist, isn't Harlan's wife. She's not his sister either. Right now, she is his boss. And there can be no denying she's the muse fueling Too Much Love. Every hand-made cover (each one unique) bears a dada-inspired dedication, and the nine-song cycle tells the story of a difficult love affair. Difficult to describe anyway. It's a personal yarn but never self-absorbed: revealing but never voyeuristic.
Harlan took Yvonne's name as a "kind of unofficial wedding vow" after he met her in California. Everything that followed was, to hear him tell it, unofficial. It was also impossible to avoid.
"Her name is Bobo, how could I resist?" he says. "What a great name. When I met her I was living in a halfway house in San Francisco. They let me go out at night because playing music was my job. It was kind of weird for everybody else they kept there, because I'd come home smelling like booze and perfume."
The San Francisco band Bobo played in was called Minnie Pearl Necklace, a punked up country-western burlesque extravaganza fronted by a drag queen.
"But not your every day drag queen," Harlan points out.
Then along came Yvonne and an adventure that took Harlan from California to Brazil, from Brazil to Waynesboro, and from Waynesboro to Memphis.
"I can't imagine a better place musically. I was able to go up to all of these guys like Greg Cartwright [of the Reigning Sound] and [Matador recording artist] Tim Prudhomme and ask them if they would help me record. To my surprise, they all said yes, and that's where [Too Much Love] came from. All these guys would say, let's try this, or let's do that, and it worked out. I guess."
Too Much Love is a folk-rock concept album cut from the same fabric as the Reigning Sound's debut, Break Up, Break Down. As one might expect given the stellar cast of local talents (Prudhomme, Geoff Soule, Elizabeth Venable, Doug Easley, and Cartwright), it's quality stuff. Musical content ranges from gentle Spanish guitar on the seductive Tom Waits-inspired opener "It's Only Love" to the angular guitars riffs and manic ranting on "Too Much Love," which call to mind "Psycho Street"-era Richard Thompson. The peculiar Billy Swan-ish vocals of "Left Your Door Unlocked," perhaps the album's finest cut, wrap themselves around the story of a reluctant stalker passing an ex's house and knowing it's temporarily unoccupied. He takes a look around just to see if things have changed and to pretend that nothing's changed. The song is beautiful, heartbreaking, and maybe even a little creepy.
"I didn't even know it was about a stalker," Harlan says, laughing. "Really, I was totally welcome in that house. My presence was almost required."
Harlan wasn't born Harlan any more than he was born Bobo, but that's who he is today. Actually, he's not entirely sure who he is today let alone what he's becoming.
"When my mom writes me she writes 'Dear Harlan," he says. "She paid $125 to get my birth certificate legally changed to Harlan." But what's in a name, right? Gone these days are the crumpled cowboy hat, the pencil-thin mustache, the grubby T-shirt, and the ragged paint-spattered boots. All the visual tropes that made Harlan T. Bobo stand out in a crowd the way his name stands out on a page have been discarded like last year's next big thing.
"I saw a picture of myself," he explains with a shrug. "I guess I've been trying to market myself lately. I've been making all these one-sheets and taking pictures, stamping my name on every single cover: Harlan T. Bobo, Harlan T. Bobo. After a while it's like, who is that guy Harlan T. Bobo? Tim Prudhomme says I have to imagine myself like a character on the stage. I used to try to write songs like that character in the cowboy hat. They just weren't true. They just weren't honest. They just weren't me." n
Harlan T. Bobo
Too Much Love record-release party
The Hi-Tone CafÇ
Saturday, May 22