The key lines are right there in the first verse of "A Cockroach after the Bomb" on There, I Said It!, the fifth solo release from Nashville-based, Madisonville, Ky.-based Tommy Womack: "I get real depressed and tell everybody/ That's what makes me unique/ Most folks opt out for dignity/ But me, I get up and speak."
It's a tell-all habit that defines this latest record and, you could certainly argue, Womack's whole career, which also includes playing in the bands Government Cheese, the Bis-Quits, Todd Snider's Nervous Wrecks, and Daddy. Take "Skinny and Small," the signature song from his early solo days and a revenge fantasy rooted in the alienation of Womack's non-jock high school days. Further proof comes in the form of Cheese Chronicles, the Womack-penned memoir that details his preacher's-son-and-KISS-records youth, as well as the follies of a hard-playing regional cult band, all with great humor and enviable insight.
There, I Said It! is Womack's most open-book of a record yet. For starters, Womack lets you know that his favorite Aerosmith album is Rocks. He then swings open the door to his medicine cabinet, and he tells you of a day that's a major triumph for the simple reason that nothing goes wrong. And you also get to savor the most accurate depiction of therapy ever: "We sat in chairs and talked about the stuff we always do/ It's this little game we play, she knew that I knew/ 30 dollar co-pay later, I'd be leaving just as blue."
At the album's ultimately hopeful heart is "Alpha Male & the Canine Mystery Blood." It's part rant, part reflection and all brutal and periodically joyous truth—all, that is, except the band in the title, the outfit that supposedly was opening for Death Cab for Cutie. "There is no such band," Womack confesses. "But I harbor the ambition to be someday regarded as a cult artist of sufficient renown so that some young band might actually really name themselves that. I'd get a kick out of that."
All told, "Alpha Male & the Canine Mystery Blood" and the album it calls home are the sound of—true to the record's title—Womack coming to a kind of terms. And that's not something you'd expect him to keep to himself.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: The lyrics of "Alpha Male & the Canine Mystery Blood" are the very definition of stream of consciousness. I picture the words coming to you in a mad rush, like the exhaling of a particularly big, deep breath. What are the circumstances behind the writing of the song?
Tommy Womack: I was at a party where dogs and mating habits were being talked about. Very often my songs start being written with the first line that I get, and somehow i heard a snippet of conversation about an "alpha male and the canine menstual blood," and I said, "That would be a good band name." An hour later, I went to see a friend's band. I had a lot on my mind, my whole life basically, and my brain wasn't leaving me alone. I don't drink and didn't feel sociable, so I sat at the bar and asked the bartender for two two foot-long strips of blank cash register ribbon. I pulled a pen out of my pocket, and within twenty or thirty minutes I had filled all four sides of the ribbon in tiny script. Like you said, it was all a mad rush. It came like a roaring river to me. I was just taking dictation from somewhere inside myself where I was real scared of everybody and everything.
If the song did indeed come to you in a mad rush, after you got the words down, did you go back and change much? Or did it go down pretty much fully formed?
The lyrics on the record are roughly 95 percent exactly what I scribbled down on the cash register ribbon. Not much was changed at all.
At what point when reading the words did the music start to take shape? Or was this a case of finding a good home for some riffs that had already been in your head for a while?
Listen to Freedy Johnston's "Responsible" and then listen to "Alpha Male." My brilliant melodic contribution to that song is the same fucking four chords over and over and over to the point that it makes Lou Reed sound busy. All the riffs and different soundscapes that come in and out and keep the song interesting come from the amazing production work of John Deaderick. The mix itself was like playing an instrument. I was really into Beck and how he'll do one verse with one set of instruments and the next verse will be a whole different set of instruments. I communicated that to John and he was into the idea and realized it for me. Our mission was to (a) focus on the lyrics obviously and (b) take a chord structure that's the very definition of repetitive and do what all we had to do to make it never sound boring.
In the song, you go from "We get to be the folks who greet the dawn of an age of mistrust, surveillance and sleaze, bombs in shoes and way too many enemies" to a great punch line about the goth dog-loving market. Is our best defense to keep a good sense of humor?
Humor and a faith in some higher power is all we have now. The world is so messed up. The United States is in such bad shape. The White House is infected with pure evil. All we have are humor, prayer and faith that God does have a sense of humor, which I believe She does.
The line that gets me every time, gives me genuine goose bumps, is "Can't be a has-been when you never was." But the "never was" part isn't accurate in your case. You've played in front of many, many people, and I'd contend that you've gotten to be a rock star at some level, just not the level you hoped for. So here's the philosophical question: Is it better to have played and not reached true rock star status than never to have played at all? I think you answer the question in "A Cockroach after the Bomb," but I wanted to ask it anyway.
Anything's better than wondering what might have been! I can see myself at 44, the age I am now, having never been ballsy enough to go for what I want in life, sitting in my recliner after a day at work, watching the news with a can of beer in my hand and wondering what might have been. That would be sadder and more difficult to live with than the hardships associated with being a traveling performing artist of my modest stature. It's been a hard 20-plus years I've been doing this, and you bet your sweet ass it has been totally worth it. And it keeps getting more worth it.
One true thing about my career is that I have, however glacial the pace, all these years continuously risen in the public eye. I'm the slowest rising act in the world, but it's always been RISING, never getting less known. Now this new record is having a success like I've never gotten near ever before, Cheese Chronicles is gaining legend status, I have management, I'm playing gigs, people are showing up (most of the time), and I just have the feeling that someday, somehow, something's going to break open for me. I don't know when that's going to be and, frankly, I don't care too much. It's about the journey and the craft and enjoying today for today's sake. I've done this long enough that I'm pretty damn good at it, and it's a privilege just to get to do it and have people pay you for it. I get to play gigs this weekend. That's how I make money! Beats the shit out of washing cars, and believe me I know. I get to play gigs!
Ninety-nine percent of this town of people with incomes that dwarf mine would give their right arm to do what I get to do. Grass is always greener, life is what you make it, and no matter where you go, there you are.
How's your son's drumming coming along?
He's a video game zombie and I'm worried about it. And I can't clean up and use my music room for recording because there's a goddam full Ludwig drum kit sitting in the middle of the room.
"Alpha Male & the Canine Mystery Blood" is seven minutes long, as is your earlier "The Replacements." What gives you the faith to write long songs in a time when attention spans are considered to be at an all-time low?
Faith has nothing to do with it. I don't know when to shut up is basically what it is. Ask anybody. It's both my calling card and the bane of my existence. I'm loquacious. I go on at length if I feel the topic merits it; my passion and hackles will rise. I make myself a pariah at cocktail parties because I'm one of the few minor celebrities in Nashville where people have to blow me off. Otherwise, I'll keep talking to them about the Historical Jesus or Led Zeppelin or whatever's on my mind. That's when I'm talkative, though, mind you. I'm a person of extremes: When I have something to say, I can say it at length; when I have nothing to say, you won't know I'm even in the room.
As a fellow 40-something family guy with a restless mind, distant summers of love and a desire to go out and hear music on weeknights that goes mostly unfulfilled, I want to thank you for writing our song. Any final thoughts you want to share about the song?
The song's hitting home. "Nice Day" and "Cockroach" are, too. I've managed to tap into the angst of people my age. There isn't a whole lot of record sales in it, but I am feeling a bit like the voice of my generation, finally. Even if my generation is no longer young entertainment market targets, it's still my generation, and I seem to be giving a lot of people their voice. It's been the most rewarding time of my whole musical career. I want to keep speaking for those people and basically I guess how I'll do that is keep digging deep into my own self for subject matter, shoot for John Lennon/Bill Hicks honesty. Touch people, let them know they're not the only ones scared of dying poor, or scared for the world. You're not alone. So long as Tommy Womack is ranting at a microphone, you're not alone.
Tommy Womack plays Hideaway BBQ Tuesday, Sept. 11, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $10.