That Rick Bartow was a multidimensional artist is well-known among the many admirers of his paintings, sculptures, and works on paper.  What is less known is that Bartow was also a prolific musician who wrote the words and music to songs he also performed.  Music was an important aspect of Rick Bartow’s creative output.  Not only did he compose and play music, but it was sometimes a component in his visual art as well, particularly his drypoint etchings.  Titles such as Origin of Song 4, Sing Song, Song Approaching as well as his portraits of composers such as Giuseppe Verdi and Niccolò Paganini indicate the importance music played in Bartow’s artistic life.

Although some might argue otherwise, song lyrics can also be poetry (think Alan Jay Lerner, Oscar Hammerstein II, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim) or, at the very least, they can simply be poetic.  As with his visual art, Bartow managed to express his fears, doubts, emotions, and questions about life through his music and lyrics.


 Origin of Song 4 by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint on handmade mitsumata paper, Image size: 5 1/4” x 4”; Paper size approximately 11” x 10”; Edition of 16 plus 2 artist’s proofs, Moon & Dog Press (2009).  PROVENANCE: 2016 Irrevocable Trust.  Image courtesy of the Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR and the Bartow Trust.

In fifty-one song lyrics from his four CDs – Painted Tin (1980), Bartow Minus 2 (2000), Bone Road (2007), and Dry Ground (2011) – Rick Bartow revealed himself in beautiful, sometimes dark imagery.  Some of the songs are humorous, others tell of his life and the people in it, and many deal with his personal anguish.  The four CDs contain a wide variety of tracks that range from plaintive to quirky to playful to troubling, but all are compelling. In all of the songs, Bartow’s voice is beautiful and tender. Although the music is generally considered bluegrass, it also has a country/western vibe, often with a mix of swing, jazz, blues, and rock and roll.  The listener feels as if the singer is alive in the same room because Rick Bartow’s voice is incredibly moving and the songs are so infectious that it is hard to resist the urge to sing along with them.

Painted Tin, Bartow’s first album released in 1980, consists of eleven songs.  “The Fault’s All Mine,” “Could Have Been a Dream,”  “High on the Street,” and “Summer’s Dyin’ in Canada,” are particularly beautiful and compelling.  Set to a gentle toe-taping beat “The Fault’s All Mine” is a plaintive narrative in which the singer tells of loving a woman, yet not knowing whether he could be a lover or a friend.  In the end, he blames himself for his hesitation.  “Could Have Been a Dream,” which is set to a rock beat, relates another wistful story about hitchhiking from place to place, picking up a girl, and sleeping together in a sleeping bag near a freeway.  The next day the girl is gone and the singer doesn’t know if it has all been a dream.   Employing a combination of country swing and rock and roll, “High on the Street” tells of life on the street and time lost because of marijuana and alcohol.  “Summer’s Dyin’ in Canada” mourns a lost love at the end of summer.  The song is filled with beautiful imagery – the sea tides, waves crashing, leaves washed with rain, and fog like Victorian lace.

Sing Song by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint on handmade Mitsumata paper; Image size: 5” x 4”; Paper size approximately 15.5” x 11.5”, Edition of 15 plus 1 artist’s proof (2015).  Image courtesy of the Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR and the Bartow Trust. 


Released in 2000, Bartow Minus 2 contains twelve songs and features Julie Swan, Bartow’s wife.  The subtitle for the album is a.k.a Cyrano and the Snub Nosed Dullards, which is yet another of Rick Bartow’s references to his nose, which became the symbol of his sobriety and an allusion to his alcoholic past.  The songs on this album have a quintessentially bluegrass rhythm.  Some are narratives, often laments, about Bartow’s hard-scrabble existence before he became sober, while others convey worry about our collective future    “Houseful of Love” and “Save Somethin’ 4 the Kid” are songs about our responsibility to the next generation for things such as water and air.  Bartow, ever the jester, sings about someone who talks so much that they never listen in “Big Mouth,” while “Stinkin’ Thinkin’” is a somewhat humorous take on drinking to stop from thinking in which the names Bill and Dr. Bob, which refer to Alcoholics Anonymous, and “dropping the ball” means the same as “falling off the wagon.”

SongApproaching by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint on handmade Japanese Kozo paper, dyed with Sumi ink; image size: 4 1/2” x 3 3/4”; Paper size: 7 1/4” x 5”; edition of 16 (2012).  Image courtesy of the Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR, and the Bartow Trust.

            Rick Bartow’s third album, Bone Road was released in 2007.  Of the thirteen songs included on the CD, “Crazy Daddy,” “Hard Life,” “Coyote – Raven,” “Holey Man,” and “Piute Tom” are particularly moving.  “Crazy Daddy” is filled with a sense of hopelessness symbolized by a man sitting by a city limits sign. The song laments the loss of individuality in society with the refrain “just another cog in the wheel”.  Despite the song’s theme (the fact that life is not fair), the tempo of “Hard Life” is decidedly upbeat.  “Coyote – Raven” is a fast paced song that employs the use of Native rattles, drum, and chanting  In it Bartow sings about many of the creature’s that feature in his artwork – coyote, raven, salmon, bear, hawk, rat.  The title “Holey Man” is a play on the word holy and in the song Bartow describes himself as a man full of holes.  The most disturbing song of the thirteen is “Paiute Tom,” which tells the story of an Indian sent to Alcatraz for an unknown reason and is murdered two days later.  The song is made even more poignant by the sound of a Native flute, rattles, and chanting.

Verdi by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint etching (white paper);Image size: 6” x 4”; Paper size: approximately 13” x 10” (2000).  PROVENANCE: 2016 Irrevocable Trust.  Image courtesy of the Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR and the Bartow Trust.

Dry Ground, Bartow’s final album released in 2011, includes fifteen songs.  “Devil in the Dry Ground,” “Chief Pomponio,” and “Boxcar Bob” are standouts.  A symbolic song about desire and Woman as the channel for the forces of God and Nature, the lyrics of “Devil in the Dry Ground” are made more powerful by the use of rattle, drum, and Bartow’s chanting in Wiyot.  “Chief Pomponio,” the story of a reclusive Native man who is lynched because people believe he is hiding a horde of gold, is made hauntingly beautiful by the use of a flute throughout.  Set to a hard rock tempo, “Boxcar Bob” addresses the causes of Bartow’s alcoholism (“woke up one day lonesome”) and states that he wants no more of it and will take one day at a time.


One of the very few regrets of my life is never having met Rick Bartow.  After listening to his songs I had a second regret: Never having attended one of his performances.  Although Rick Bartow was celebrated for his art, those closest to him have said that he was equally passionate, perhaps more so, about creating and singing his songs.  Fortunately, thanks to modern technology and the foresightedness of the Bartow Trust, we can all enjoy Rick Bartow’s music.

To hear a selection of songs from Painted Tin click on the link below: