At the time when I was either in Middle Tennessee or making plans to book more extortionately priced flights back to Nashville, WSIX was the best company. While I was there, mornings in the car were soundtracked by the country music radio station that made me feel less like a visitor and more like a resident with every traffic update, weather report and new single I had no hope of hearing at home. On glumly returning to the UK, listening online brought Nashville closer. There was something comforting about hearing 'Mallory Lane' or 'The Opry Mills Mall' in ads during what was then the timezone-unfriendly afternoon breakfast show for me.
As DJ Bobby Bones mentions in his new memoir, Bare Bones: I'm Not Lonely If You're Reading This Book, before his tenure as guardian of the country airwaves there was Gerry House. During that increasingly distant period when Nashville was my everything, those early morning car journeys there and afternoons in my university office here were punctuated by the deep, dulcet tones of Gerry and the House Foundation. It was an old-school setup, really. An ageing yet amazingly switched-on host who seemed at times richer and more powerful than the artists crossing their fingers for his influential airplay. Accompanied by a team of giggling comedy co-pilots of equal age, it now seems everything I don't look for in a radio show. It was, though, impossible not to like Gerry House. He was an institution for a reason.
Over a few years, I had reason to leave Nashville behind, deliberately letting country music stay firmly off my radar. Once it stopped making me itch, I felt an urge to turn the radio back on again. On my return to the fold in 2012, I found that Gerry House had hung up his headphones and a new team was due to inhabit his studio in the coming weeks. That fresh gang of friends was headed up by Bobby Bones. I liked them all instantly and they were just the thing I needed to help press reset on music I thought I'd have to forget forever. What's infinitely surprising to read in Bare Bones, considering his outward nonchalant attitude to almost everything, was that Bobby was hugely intimidated by the shoes he had to fill. This game-changing milestone in his life and how he handled it is just one of many turnarounds that appear in his reluctant life-story-so-far.
You probably wouldn't think to pick up a memoir written by someone you don't know. Outside the niche but dedicated UK country music community, Bobby Bones may be entirely unknown and yet in the US, via his syndicated morning show booming out of Nashville and his new comedy band The Raging Idiots, he's one of the few radio hosts to reach national fame. Not an achievement to be sniffed at considering America's extensive geographic girth. Even if you don't recognise his name or that trademark sulk, Bobby Estell's journey from abject poverty in Arkansas to becoming Nashville's gatekeeper as Bobby Bones is fascinating. Avoiding the fanciful fluff he'd recoil from himself, his is a story that epitomises the idea that you can do anything if you want it badly enough and don't deviate from the path. It's a universally recognisable and laudable accomplishment.
What comes across most in his casual and chatty writing is just how much Bobby's past explains his adult temperament. He can be a bit Marmite. He'd be the first to admit that there seems to be little middle ground between loving him or finding him insufferable. The endearing honesty and self-awareness that sets him and his co-hosts apart on-air also appears in the book. Whether discussing cringeworthy moments involving unexpected erections and later than average sexual experiences, feuds he should have avoided getting into, or the brutal reality of what it was like growing up with hardly a penny to his family's name, trusting the readers with the information is appreciated as you make your way through his 36 years.
Most touching is the faith Bobby has in the readers as he offers up the details of his mother's alcoholism and what a painful road it is to walk when you have to truly understand what drives addiction. Especially if you feel drawn toward it yourself. It's something he's never avoided talking about on the radio, but laying it out from childhood to his mum's subsequent death at the hands of drink brings into sharp focus that addiction doesn't only damage one person. It also explains quite beautifully and matter-of-factly that even when people are caught in something they just can't give up, we don't stop loving them or wanting to help, no matter how much they hurt us. This difficult predicament, along with Bobby's absent father and his financially crushing start in life, gives clues as to why he's now this weird combination of confidence and self-deprecation. Generous and frugal. Loud but also anti-social.
The book isn't all somber introspection, though. Much of it discusses the path his career's taken and how sheer will to do well in everything put in front of him gave him the radio career he'd craved since childhood, begging to help out at the local station. Bobby runs through the extensive rap sheet of stunts and pranks he's come up with to promote his shows. Some of which are so incredibly stupid you wonder what he could possibly have been thinking. The theme of honesty runs to his own stupidity too. He also speaks warmly of the handful of women he's allowed to love him, even if he found it nearly impossible to verbally express the affection he definitely felt for them. The bravery in admitting he now wants the contentment everyone around him experiences feels like the biggest breakthrough of the book.
Most lovely, is the knowledge that Bobby's friendships with on-air best mates Amy, Lunchbox and Eddie are as genuine with the microphones switched off as they are turned on, if not more so. In fact, possibly the most satisfying feeling you're left with after Bare Bones is done is that there appears to be no public mask. What you hear is what you get, whether sad and grumpy or elated. This is who both Bobby Bones and Bobby Estell are. You don't have to like him. Sometimes he doesn't even like himself! But he certainly deserves far more credit for what he's achieved than he will ever give himself. Maybe with Bare Bones he's tipping his reflection a nod of congratulations, though he'd probably feel very uncomfortable admitting that.
Bare Bones: I'm Not Lonely If You're Reading This Book is available now in Kindle and Audio formats. The hardback book is available for pre-order and released in the UK on 16th June. All from here.