Buckin' Tradition

Tommy Womack is still rattling Nashville's cage, but in a kinder, gentler way.

Tan, rested and cocky, Tommy Womack returned to Nashville from a Carnival cruise late last summer with a bounce in his step.

"The world was wonderful," he says. "I got a copy of the new Dylan album in advance that nobody else had. I just met Bill Wyman at a book signing. I just had the new album done -- it was a seventy-minute epic with a whole bunch of smartass tunes and dialogue bits. Then September 11 happened, and it became a whole different record overnight."

Sensing that the tone of Circus Town, his third alt-country solo effort, would have seemed flippant following the events of that disastrous day, Womack hacked the album nearly in half.

God's li'l wiseacre: Tommy Womack writes songs about fallen people, with a heaping dose of hard-luck humor.
God's li'l wiseacre: Tommy Womack writes songs about fallen people, with a heaping dose of hard-luck humor.

Details

With Tommy Womack, the Honkytonk Hangovers, Marty Jones & the Pork Boilin' Poor Boys and DJ Doc Martin
8 p.m. Saturday, February 2, $6, 303-294-9281
Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street

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"I didn't write a single new thing," he says. "But the smartass stuff went out the window, and it became a 45-minute rock record instead."

When Circus Town (originally titled Destiny Mullet) sees release in mid-March on Sideburn Records, it will arrive as a slightly more tenderhearted offering from the famously irreverent Southern troubadour. Gone, for example, is "When Disney Takes Jerusalem," a tune that Womack considered a mite touchy in the world's current climate. (The song is available through Womack's Web site, tommywomack.com.) And though Circus Timefeatures plenty of songs that won't grace the Opry anytime soon ("Selling Mom's Urine on E-Bay," for example), it finds Womack running through the majority of his gut-driven songs with noticeably less vitriol than he's known for.

By overseeing the album's production with the help of David Henry (Cowboy Junkies, Josh Rouse), Womack also enjoyed the creative freedom to be introspective, raucous or ornery as he saw fit.

"This is a way more personally done record than any others," Womack admits. "I made all the final decisions, so if it sucks -- or if it's great -- it's all my fault. I made a record to please myself, and I'll play it in my truck until I'm old."

Womack does explore his love for electrified six-string racket on scorchers such as "Tough," "My Name Is Mud" and "You Can't Get There From Here," an ode to D-Day ("one of those nightmarish fixations that I have," he notes). But it's the quieter moments on Circus Town that sparkle: "You Could Be at the Beach Right Now, Little Girl" features beautiful harmonies with backup singer Lisa Oliver Gray, while the bittersweet "Nancy Dunn" is a boozy tug on a former flame. And though the gorgeous, swirling title cut is a standout, the album's pièce de résistance is a hilarious, cockeyed love letter with strings and harmonica called "The Replacements" -- eight minutes worth of slow-cooked reminiscing over the Twin Cities' most unreliable quartet in all their puke-stained glory. In the song, Womack debunks the hype surrounding Paul Westerberg, Slim Dunlap and the boys as they lope their collective way "from pupa to butterfly" before, in a booming voice, anointing the band the greatest he's ever seen: "When they were good/God got up to dance."

Like Positively Na Na, Womack's 1998 debut on Checkered Past Records, and Stubborn, his 2000 release on Sideburn, Circus Time falls well outside of the pseudo-earnest and mainstream tastes of Rhinestone City, the songwriter's adopted home since 1992.

"This town is an irony-free zone," Womack says. "It'll make you crazy after a while. I'm of the opinion that big money has ruined this town and its music. And it's ruined sports and going to the movies. Big money got shot in their balls on September 11. The Nashville I know is underneath all the image that the rest of the world knows. There's some buildings down on Music Row where these mega-million-dollar records get made, and mega-stars go down the road, and a few of 'em end up in CBS movies of the week. It's this whole separate world that's got a bunch a money in it, and all that happens behind the windows is that if you go into any of the clubs that I play in, none of those people are there, and I'm never in the offices where they are."

And while there's not a chance in hell that Womack would croon the merits of Dr Pepper alongside Garth anyway (Rubbermaid products are more to his liking), he looks for nightmarish sustenance in the darker outskirts of the imagination. In Womack's twisted comedy of errors, you're as likely to hear a lullaby for one of Stiv Bator's surviving Dead Boys bandmates ("Whatever Happened to Cheetah Chrome?") as you are to find tributes to junkies, misfits, battered women and unwed mothers.

"There's a whole bunch of fallen people and hard cases in my tunes," he says. "They're all little versions of me. They might be made-up fantastical little tales, but they all express a fear that I've carried around at some point. The Mob, D-Day, the Civil War, the notion of 200 English kids packing themselves into a basement and knocking themselves senseless and spitting all over each other -- the weird, the macabre, I'll admit that. I don't want to do that. I want to write touching little things about real people having real heart-to-heart episodes and be sensitive and intuitive and caring and everything Bono is. But I keep coming up with these other type songs."

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