The man on the cover of Chaney's new album, "Things Change," is bald, bearded and fierce, clad in boots, faded jeans, sunglasses and a black sleeveless shirt. He towers imposingly over a cloudy industrial setting - smoking, pissed off, ready to get the hell off work.
But listen to "Things Change" or his first album, 1997's "Things Fall Apart," and you'll know big Bob of Nashville with the extra large voice is capable of much more empathy than you would have ever thought at first glance.
Perhaps, the character who most seems to exist on a different planet than that rough man on the cover is the Volvo-driving office worker in "Heather's All Bummed Out." Heather's blue, and it's hard to explain why, Bob sings, other than she's 35 and running out of time. She looks for love on the Internet and fails miserably: "There's something missing from her life and today it's making her cry/and she'll never take another chance, and that's the crying shame."
The biggest crying shame is that not more people know Chaney's music. Compare him to fellow Americana musician Mike Ireland (who recently released his first effort in four years, the excellent "Try Again"), another guy whose reward for laying it all out emotionally seems to be indifference from record buyers.
However, Chaney's music is even more emotionally raw than Ireland's countrypolitan confessions. He simply rages and rocks, soft and hard, with humor and sadness. Hell, he actually has warnings on "Things Change" and "Things Fall Apart," telling listeners to avoid taking songs like "Plans We Made," a dandy murder ballad duet with Allison Moorer, or "Got Away With It," a dandy murder rocker with Moorer, too seriously. They're just songs, after all.
But it's hard not to take songs like "Where Are You Tonight?" or "Dreaming the Lie" seriously. These songs are among several on the new album that deal with the death of Chaney's son, Zachary, who died in 1998 at age 18 of hepatitis, contracted after he used a dirty needle.
"I sit, I stare, I wonder, I swear," he howls on "Where are You Tonight?" (the vocal was recorded in one take) as you find it impossible to ignore the suffering of a father. He played the song live just once at an in-the-round in Nashville.
"People were pinned to the back of their chairs," Chaney says.
He grew up in Mount Ephraim, N.J., a "classic suburban" town outside of Philadelphia, where he graduated from high school in 1974 and learned to love the Grateful Dead. "I deprogrammed myself from being a Deadhead," he explains.
After high school, Chaney attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he played basketball for two years. By 1984, five years after Zachary was born, he moved to New York City and joined the Ben Vaughn Combo as a drummer. As a member of the combo, he played songs like "Lookin' For a 7-11" "blotto, balls to the wall, as crazy as you can make it." Vaughn, a high school friend, has gone on to do the music for television shows like "That '70s Show" and "Third Rock From the Sun."
After the group broke up in 1988, Chaney began his brand of country music around New York. "I was looking around New York City, where there are a chunk of people big into country. People told me you're not never to get anywhere playing country here. All of the country music industry is in Nashville...I was told I needed to come down here if I was serious enough about it."
In 1994, he decided he was serious enough and made the big move to Music City USA. Once it got there, it wasn't exactly what he expected. "I guess I should have listened to country radio to at least know what to expect," he says. "Robbie Fulks ran into the same thing, with a publishing deal where you basically write bad songs for people who suck. Robbie left before the next wave (of talented musicians) came to Nashville."
That next wave includes people like Greg Trooper, Gwil Owen, Tim Carroll, Phil Lee, Tommy Womack and Moorer.
"We're the same 12 people at each other's gigs," Chaney says.
He established a special musical relationship with Moorer, who sings on both of Chaney's releases. Bob remembers the first time he heard her sing.
"My draw just dropped," he says. "It was like, 'Where have you been?' It was amazing. And I really haven't worked with anybody else since."
He and Moorer even performed together on the Grand Old Opry at the Ryman Auditorium. "They're over really fast," Chaney says. "You think about it. This is going to be cool. What am I going to wear? I hope I don't fuck up."
There was a tense moment, however.
"I walked up to sing the first line, and the monitor's not on. There's a panic. I thought, 'I'm going to suck.' It's a really great way to break the ice."
After "Things Fall Apart," Checkered Past, which released the album decided not to exercise its option on Chaney and set him free along with fellow Nashville artists Tom House, Paul Burch and Womack. "We all scrambled and found new homes in varying lengths of time," he says.
One year after "Things Fall Apart" was released, Zachary died in April 1998. "It was hard to put one foot in front of the other," he says, "much less make a record."
He eventually got back to writing songs and completed "Things Change" with former 20/20 guitarist Steve Allen serving as co-producer. The album was released this spring on Leap Recordings. Chaney says he's pleased with the results. "I'm looking forward to getting sick of it."