‘One of Nashville’s oracles’
Tommy Womack writes about odd ducks, square pegs, and losers — losers who are smart as fuck, have your number, and aren’t afraid to look you squarely in the eye while they’re sizing you up. It’s not that Womack is fearless, but more that he can’t help himself.
And that’s why Namaste, Womack’s recently released album, works so well. After a lifetime of smart-pop, post-punk, Westerburgian snark ’n’ snarl with a big undertow of Big Star melodicism and Ray Davies detail and odd characters, the Kentucky-cum-Nashville alternative force settles into his knowing without flinching. Of course, a lot happened on the way to this unblinking look at adulthood from the world’s oldest 15-year-old boy.
Years of drug use. Government Cheese. Aging parents. Tourette’s. bis-quits. Local fame. Rehab. Almost/not quite. Cheese Chronicles: The True Story of a Rock & Roll Band You’ve Never Heard Of — and the gay Civil War novel Lavender Boys and Elsie. Daddy. Songs cut by Jimmy Buffett, Todd Snider, Jason Ringenberg, Dan Baird, Dave Olney, Scott Kempner, Hard Working Americans. Especially the string of solo albums, straddling genres, notions, and various life moments: Positively Na Na, Stubborn, Circus Town, Washington D.C., There I Said It!, and Now What!.
The file cards of a life lived on the margins of the indie rock scene. Classic. Basic. Until … the late night four-way stop in Sonora, Ky., in June last year that wasn’t a four-way stop. Womack got T-boned by a semi in his Nissan Sentra after a gig. Suddenly, the miles, the music, the misadventures, and stories were almost done.
“As bad as that wreck was, it could’ve been worse,” the songwriter-guitarist marvels. “Nobody was in the passenger seat. They would’ve been crushed. I think about that — I’ve driven thousands of miles in so many states of mind, and was always safe.
Then this. …
“At the ER, they did a draw, and that was a relief,” he continues, with a nod to his now four-year stretch of sobriety. “To know that was going to come up clean.”
If this seems like the George Bailey moment in the ever cynical Womack’s life, it isn’t. Traumatic, yes. Epiphany, no. A GoFundMe helped defray all the costs and expenses one never considers. And there was the matter of “the benefit.”
Music City Roots, the local-driven public broadcasting Americana/roots music variety show, gave its Sept. 30, 2015, night to serve as a benefit for Womack. On the bill were a quartet of ’80s indie roots rock stalwarts: Webb Wilder & the Beatnecks, Jason & the Scorchers, Will Kimbrough (of Will & the Bushmen), and Dan Baird (leader of the Georgia Satellites).
As Womack says of the lineup, “I owned ALL of their records in 1986! I’d stand in front of the stereo because the headphone chord wasn’t long enough to reach the couch and just listen to all those albums at full blast over and over. Those bands were everything I was listening to up in Kentucky, and, you know, at that age, music is everything to you.”
He pauses, making sure his adoration is understood. Over the years, crisscrossing America’s crummy indie rock bars with Government Cheese, he would come in contact with various members of those acts. They’d have a few words sharing a bill, or passing a night off when one was playing. It is the comrade commerce of existing below the major touring acts — and it is both intimate and, ultimately, not something you count on beyond the collective reality of people with common work.
Womack, with the stringy blond hair and the geeky eyeglasses, looks like that kid who never quite fit. Knowing his place in the herd, he made people laugh — and he kept to himself. Suddenly, with this show being played for him by so many acts he’d loved, he had to reckon with the fact that maybe they cared about him.
“It hit me that night,” he admits, still a bit awestruck. “I started out as a fan, and I never ceased being one. But here are idols of mine — playing for me, saying such nice things about me. It was like I got to go to my own funeral.” His voice drifts off for a moment, still back in that moment. “I was still on crutches. I could stand, but (it had only been a few months) they brought me out onstage. It was just moments after, I was aware what was going on — but it didn’t seem quite real. Except it was. If I’d sold 20,000 records last time out, or I was getting $2,500, $3,000 a gig, if I’d had all that success, it’d be exactly the same thing.
“The idea they did that for me?”
Suddenly it hit the former kid who’d been funny to make inroads with his peers that, like Sally Field, “they really like me.” Beyond sobering, it offered up a buoyancy he maybe didn’t even know was possible.
From that, Namaste emerged. Not the obvious “I got sober, I got saved” song cycle one might expect from these sorts of moments — the fatal purview of romance “It’s All Been Over Before,” the churning lurch of “I Almost Died,” the dead rock star homage “Darling Let Your Freak Flag Fly” — it’s grown up ’80s college radio fare with a twinkle in its eye. Well, except for the sardonic “Steve Allen” cocktail jazz under the spoken word, big boom skewering rearview looker “Nashville.”
“No matter how much you appreciate things, what’s more boring than another musician in recovery?” Womack offers with a laugh. “I’m not that great at this stuff. I’ve not called my sponsor in three weeks. I’ve not been to a meeting in a while, but I’m doing the big thing: don’t drink! And I’m doing that really well.”
“He’s one of Nashville’s oracles,” says producer Brad Jones, who’s also helmed acclaimed albums for Hayes Carll, Chuck Prophet, and Matthew Sweet. “He’s got his radio show (on WXNA), his column (in The East Nashvillian), and his songs. He’s the right kind of social critic: no one’s gonna follow the one who’s always negative, but he finds the ones with the most urgency. He’s wise and true and elemental — and he’s not saying one thing he
That includes the inevitable realities folded into “Comb-Over Blues,” the witchy Santana-esque “Hot Flash Woman,” the bucolic Tom Petty quitters’ reality shrug “End of the Line,” and the slow ramble “When Country Singers Were Ugly.” Weighing the realm of the just past prime, he twists the tourniquet with a wink and a nudge.
“When people laugh at Tommy’s songs, it’s almost always uneasy laughter,” says Will Kimbrough, Daddy partner and fellow solo artist. “Even sophisticated music fans laugh because they’re uneasy, because he sings about real things in a way everybody can relate to. It’s still different, kind of Randy Newman — and that’s what makes it so hard to dodge.”
In some ways, Kimbrough and Womack are the Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe of Nashville’s turn of the century alt music scene: accomplished players, sardonic writers, soldiers of the forms. Not quite purists, yet absolutely maintaining a standard of execution that suggests mastery of craft.
“I’ve been a songwriter for 30 years, played (guitar) for 40 years — and if you do something long enough, you get pretty good at it,” Womack says, trying to shudder off the praise. “Technically, I told Brad, ‘I want everything to be fully great: no throw away lines, let’s make everything sound polished — and I want my vocals to be appealing.’
“To comedians, laughter means love,” Womack continues, addressing the comedic thread that runs through his ruminations. “I know enough to know it’s bullshit to seek love that way; but you know, the first time you get a laugh, you’re hooked. It’s primal now. It’s who I am.”
“Tommy’d had that accident, and he sat around all summer with his leg up in a cast, thinking about the songs and what they wanted,” Jones says of the process. “He was so nimble (in the studio) none of these vocals are overdubbed vocals. It all happened instantly.”
The producer likens Namaste to mid-period Dylan (“when he got straight, there was this rebirth”), noting the impact of a sobriety that seems more solid than ever. Jones says, “This is like the original Tommy before the overlay of all the drugs, the rock & roll got him. He’s so crystalline and clear — and he knows he’s wiser than he’s ever been. He recognizes the power of wisdom and appreciates it.”
There’s also the notion of appreciating a reality you’d eschewed or failed to recognize. For Kimbrough, who’s known him three decades, it’s basic human truth. “Tommy recognized with the car wreck and the response of people around him, how people really loved him. But more importantly, he let himself be loved.”
Suddenly even the mundane or cliché warms to Womack’s gifts. But somehow, the guy with the slight tick who talks about going “to football games, and walking around alone,” manages to deliver those things without being cloying.
Jones recognizes Womack’s ability to walk that line. “Rock & roll people, if they’re gonna say a sappy sentiment, they’re gonna find a cool way to do it. Like ‘Beautiful Morning,’ it’s one of the most heartfelt songs. I love the way he says, ‘The sky’s like a faucet/ Turned on all the way.’ He’s finding a hard plumbing way to do it.”
With collaborations with Kimbrough and Lisa Oliver-Gray currently being recorded, another book in the works, and enough dreams to fuel a few more records, Womack may — as Jones suggested — be on the verge of transcending. Not that anything needs to change, so much as his appreciation of life has shifted into a new gear — and that allows Womack to embrace where he is, from appreciating his talents for what they’re worth to enjoying making music with myriad different friends/people/cohorts.
“I’ve flamed out several times,” Womack concedes. “But I always reignited. I don’t know that I grew up, as I’m still 25. When I’m looking in the mirror, I can tell I’m a grownup — but I think all the years I spent (drinking and getting high) helps with writing songs about being 50 years old: I still have a perspective of a 20-year-old, because that’s where my mind was when I started.”
He smiles. It’s an honest look, one that says, “I can’t write it off, and I won’t write it down.” For someone who’s battled depression, become his parents’ caretaker while having his infant son on his hip, lived inside his record collection, and managed to somehow make music work without becoming a star, he’s not bitter about any of it.
“I’ve never been screwed over in the music business,” he says flatly. “No one made me get drunk and get up onstage; nobody ever made me get high onstage or make the decisions I did. That was all me. But it muted the voices in my head that told me I was unworthy; those voices are terrible and put barriers in front of you.
“But,” he says, pivoting back to the Music City Roots benefit last September, “you go back (to The Factory in Franklin), and there were idols of mine, playing for me, saying nice things — and it’s the greatest thing, the greatest feeling.
“Every so often, I go out on the town and I’m reminded of that, reminded I know a lot of people. Seeing them, and feeling the community — and sensing I have something to offer, that keeps me in it, because, just being in Nashville is the big-time. This is the big league; it’s not Bowling Green or Chattanooga. Being here, making music, having friends — to me, that’s what all of this is about.”