Greetings from Pitea, Sweden, an hour south of the Arctic Circle. It’s not warm. But it could be worse. Being near the sea makes it warmer than it could be, so thank God for small favors. For the record I’m dispensing with all umlauts and such when spelling Scandinavian words, because I’m on deadline and finding those letters on an American Mac is an ordeal. I doubt it’ll make much difference to my East Nashville readership.
I’ve been in Sweden or Norway for three weeks as of today, and I have five days to go. This is probably the best tour I’ve ever been on. On one hand, we only make merch money, but on the plus side, everything is paid for: my flight, the hotels, rental car, gas, and most of the meals, so it balances out. I’m over here with two fine upstanding artists: Sofia “Slow Fox” Henricsson (a native) and Peter Bruntnell from England. We’re billed as the Triple Troubadours, and we trade songs back and forth Nashville style. As will happen, we learn each other’s songs over time and get bolder and bolder in backing each other up. It gets a little smoother every gig. By the last gig this coming Saturday, we’ll be poopy hot, and then it will end. Such is life.
Sweden is a very together country. Very civilized. Most of it is farmland, and it looks more like America than any European country I’ve ever been to. You could be in Wisconsin. Everything is very clean and well maintained. Solid wooden two-story farmhouses dot the landscape. Giant bales of hay sit sealed up in giant white bags. Horses wear coats. Nothing is in disrepair. In America, I’m used to driving by the occasional disused barn that is rotted gray and leaning in on itself; there is none of that in Sweden. Everything is properly kept up and freshly painted, usually brick red. In the southern part of the country, all the trees are exploding in fall colors. Up here in the north, they’re all evergreen trees; branches groaning with snow in some spots. Reindeer sightings have been three so far, with two of them placidly munching by the side of the road. One of them bought a CD.
Aside from liver paste, caviar that comes in squeeze-tubes and some brown cheese we came across in Norway, the Scandinavian gastronomy seems well suited to my stubborn American tastes. In other words, I haven’t been served a cold plate of jellied herring or anything like that. We’ve had burgers, pizza, tacos and a running streak of great Thai food. (People from Thailand seem to have gravitated to this part of the world, which I find curious. I suppose there are Thai people who just get fed up with heat and humidity and want a change.)
The average hotel television in Sweden has six to nine channels, of which two or three will feature English language programming. That programming has a 90-percent chance of being “Scrubs,” “The Big Bang Theory” or “How I Met Your Mother.” The rest of the television I’ve been able to understand has either been the BBC news channel, or American movies with Swedish subtitles and Swedish commercials interspersed. For the first week I buried myself in “Breaking Bad” on laptop Netflix, which was fun and all, but the website stops at Season Three and it’s just as well, as it was getting depressing. If I want to witness the utter moral breakdown of a human being, I have lots of memories from my 20s I can draw on.
The gigs overall have been great. There hasn’t been a night when I wasn’t in the mood to play, and when you have to only play a third of the songs, and you’re sitting down as well, it’s not too taxing. Most of the venues are small, but the audiences are very generous. I’m very lyrics-heavy, and even though almost everyone here speaks English, there are limits to what I can expect them to grasp. I sing about Mapco and Harris-Teeter and other stuff that’s esoteric to them, but the audiences have all seemed to get the basic gist of what I’m going on about, at least most of the time. I have seen eyes glazing over on some songs though. There are lines that get big laughs at home that sail right past them here, but that also frees me to play the songs that don’t go for the funny bone so much, and that has been fun to do.
Two factors have afforded me an independence I’ve never before enjoyed in Europe: my iPhone, and the fact that they drive on the right side of the road over here. In Falkenberg, the power cable to my laptop broke. An online sortie to a camera store afforded me the information that there was an Apple store in Varberg 40 kilometers away. Using our rental car, and Siri’s peerless driving directions on the iPhone, I managed to find my way there and back, which is the only reason I’m able to type this right now. That may seem like a little thing, but when you’re used to being semi-cut off from the world over here with limited mobility, it’s huge.
Without trying to start an argument, let me say that they seem to be doing something right here. The Social Democrats have been top party in Sweden’s parliamentary democracy for 60 years. There is a wide social safety net. Everyone pays 33 percent income tax across the board. College is free. Health care is free. It’s not a welfare state; you have to have a job. Some people are well off; some are less so. Some people have big houses, some people live in small apartments, some people drive sharp Volvos, and some people take the bus. People own things. It’s not much different from home.
Much as I like it here, and much as I think they have something to teach us, I’m looking forward to getting home. Not just because it’s my home and I miss my wife and son, but because I’m an American. I want streetlights hanging above the cars, not set on poles on the sidewalks. I want my 70 television channels, even if I only watch three. I want my Mapco and my Doritos. I want my NPR, Krispy Kremes and Family Wash. And even though I don’t listen much anymore to classic rock radio, it’s nice to know it’s there.
— Tommy Womack is a singer-songwriter and author, and a former member of Government Cheese and the bis-quits. His memoir “Cheese Chronicles” has just been released as an e-book by Amber House Books.
Visit his website at tommywomack.com