—David Menconi, Down on Copperline
While UNC alumnus John Bare hasn’t lived in Chapel Hill for decades, you could say Chapel Hill still lives in him. Bare has published two novels, 2021’s “Fair-Skinned Brunette With the Porcelain Shine” and the new “My Biscuit Baby” (both on the Chapel Hill imprint Wisdom House Books), and they’re both love letters to Chapel Hill. Each is set in and around Bare’s beloved alma mater, with numerous references to local people, places and things – from Time-Out Biscuits to Silent Sam, Gimghoul Road to He’s Not Here.
Music is also a major plot element of both books, most notably the original song lyrics penned by Bare. In fact, he admits that there have been stages of the process where he was spending a lot more of his writing time on the books’ lyrics than their prose. So it was only natural that those songs would be brought to life.
Enter Bare’s collaborator (and fellow UNC alumnus) Don Dixon. A bona fide legend of North Carolina music, Dixon is longtime co-leader of the band Arrogance and a producer with an impressive resume of studio work, including R.E.M.’s first two albums. He took Bare’s lyrics and constructed musical arrangements – better tunes than his lyrics deserved, Bare admits.
“‘My Biscuit Baby’ has a long-ago band of college freshmen and sophomores who were together a few months,” says Bare. “They were called Snow Camp and their songs are supposed to be amateurish. But the thing is, Don just can’t record a bad song. I’d send him lyrics to what was supposed to be a song by a cheesy college garage band, and he’d come back with an astonishingly good rock and roll song. He really brought the music to life in a way that exceeded my expectations.”
Bare’s novels are both part of his “Lassie James Mystery” series, starring a titular character who may or may not be a fictional stand-in for the author himself. Bare earned degrees ranging from undergraduate to PhD at UNC between 1987 and 1995, then went on to work in journalism and non-profit communication.
At the same time, Bare always wanted to write fiction, too. “Fair-Skinned Brunette” started out as a project for “National Novel Writing Month” a few Novembers back. He cranked it out over the span of several months with the encouragement of his late wife, Betsy, who passed from Covid in September of 2020 (the book is dedicated to her).
“Fair-Skinned Brunette” is a wide-ranging mystery, centered around the murder of a beloved UNC professor. “Biscuit Baby” brings back many of the same characters with a plot involving political chicanery, a long-lost recording and a (thankfully still fictional) shady real-estate deal to sell UNC’s Battle Park to developers.
“What I had in my head was living in this disorienting world,” says Bare. “If the first book was about love stories, the second is about yearning for permanence in an impermanent world – the loss of things we thought would be there always.”
For the first book’s songs, Dixon enlisted a band featuring his R.E.M. co-producer Mitch Easter (another UNC alumnus) and The Right Profile vocalist Jeffrey Dean Foster. “Lassie James Songbook, Vol. One” was recorded at Easter’s Fidelitorium studio in Kernersville, a dozen songs with titles like “She’s a Baptist and a Communist,” the Emmylou Harris ode “I Fell In Love With Emmylou” and “No Songs About Mamas or Trains.”
Volume two is “Snow Camp 1982: The Lost Springfest Tapes,” based on songs the fictional band in “My Biscuit Baby” left behind on a tape. Dixon did this batch at his own studio, singing the majority of songs himself and handling most of the instrumentation. Dixon’s wife Marti Jones handled vocals on the songs from the book that called for a female singer, and Brigid Kaelin played saw on one track.
As “My Biscuit Baby” arrives in bookstores, there will be a handful of area book-signing events in March featuring Dixon playing the songs and Bare reading from the book, including dates in Chapel Hill and Wake Forest. The “My Biscuit Baby” songs should be available for hearing by the time those readings roll around.
“The music will mostly be online,” Bare says. “There’s a romance to LP records, but it’s just not practical to make them. We might burn a small number of CDs, even though I have a lot of friends who don’t play those anymore either. So it will be on all the streaming platforms, that’s where to hear it.”
Meanwhile, the third “Lassie James Mystery” book is already in progress, in which Lassie and his wife Pearl are to become parents while Lassie takes a journalism professor job at UNC. And will there be songs to go with this one, too?
John Bare reading and signing books, and Don Dixon and Brigide Kaelin playing music at:
March 8 – Page 158 Books, Wake Forest.
March 10 – Lapin Bleu, Chapel Hill.