For someone who has both said and sung that he’s “never gonna be a rock star,” Tommy Womack has had a ubiquitous influence over the music scene in Nashville and surrounding locales for decades. With a songwriting and narrative style along the lines of Frank Zappa by way of Jerry Clower, Womack — who also happens to be a columnist for The East Nashvillian — has returned to the book biz with dust bunnies: a memoir. One could say it’s a spiritual sequel to his first published memoir/confessional/history of local music, 1995’s Cheese Chronicles: The True Story of a Rock n Roll Band You’ve Never Heard Of. With his new tome, Womack charts his path to personal redemption and, in doing so, offers inspiration for countless others.
Starting in the back of a police car after his bourbon-and-Xanax-fueled arrest in early 2012, dust bunnies traces Womack’s path to musicianship though a dizzying combination of missteps, misfortune, and redemption. What started as journaling prior to the arrest turned into full-blown memoir.
“I think there was a therapeutic aspect to it,” relates Womack. “I don’t even know that was the primary objective. I was seeking to purge. There was some stuff that had to come out, and there was some stuff I had to rationalize and reason out in my own hand — and writing is one of the most powerfully effective tools there is to organize your thoughts. You just write the first sentence down, and that sentence is a little length of train cars. And you’ll come up with the next sentence that logistically and verbally fits onto the last train car and suddenly you have a train — this and the next thought that carries the two thoughts you’ve already written carries it further; then the train gets longer.”
This particular train provides quite a ride, with the expository switches between tracks shifting the narrative by decades. dust bunnies is part diary, part pure autobiography, and a heaping helping of whimsical self-observation via hilariously constructed narrative devices. One such episode is featured in the chapter “The Rolling Stoned Interview” about a Womack-created “Bucky Goldstein” (derived from a Steven Wright joke — look it up) conducting an interview with an absurdly out-of-control Womack in full nihilist mode.
“This is the written version of someone looking in the mirror saying, ‘You’re fucking up, you know?’” says Womack. “And there’s denial in there. There’s shame. It isn’t an elaborate way of just doing journaling. It was a way of illustrating how far gone I was at the time. And some of my answers to “Bucky” were things that were going on in my head that had to come out — the interview motif just seeming the best and the least boring way to do it. And I could also hide behind a character, for a chapter, that was me.”
Running parallel to Womack’s trajectory through substance abuse are his experiences, or lack thereof, with his parents. Although we learn what shaped his mother’s quiet passivity, the reader, like Womack, never knows why his father, a beloved but poverty-stricken preacher living in a coal community, has become inaccessible to his family:
Church folks always thought Brother Womack was the funniest, knee-slappingest preacher you ever could meet. They never saw him sitting in that recliner with his glasses reflecting ice-blue television flickers night after night. He was a preacher moonlighting as a potted plant and nobody knew it but Mom and us three kids.
As the elder Womack watches his youngest son’s descent into anxiety and self-doubt, he undergoes a shift himself, led by love and packing an exquisite punch in the memoir better left to the reader to discover.
After his arrest and subsequent stint in rehab in 2012, Tommy Womack played his first fully sober gig at that year’s Tomato Art Fest. dust bunnies concludes with Womack’s celebration of his 50th birthday that same year, grateful and alive. Tried by illness and injury, he remains resolute in living his life and in his reasons for sharing his story.
“A lot of people [find emotional release in writing] letters to people that they never send, or they write journals that they never let anybody see,” says Womack. “Writing something doesn’t count for me — and I don’t get any catharsis — until somebody else reads it.”