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.
"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 Time features 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."
Not that Womack's life has lacked its own share of stumps. Raised in the bland coal-belt town of Madisonville, Kentucky, the fourth and final child of Lorene and Reverend J.C. Womack ("a real solemn preacher that never got out of the La-Z-Boy"), young Tommy suffered from Tourette's syndrome. "I blinked real bad as a teenager and well into my twenties," he says of the rare neurological disorder. "I think I drank so much liquor and smoked so much pot that I've done something to myself that has shorted it out. I still twitch a bit. And little grunting noises in the back of my throat -- that happens a bunch." Living with the ever-present threat of spasms -- especially when he's gone without sleep -- Womack has grown accustomed to his condition. "When the whole world is looking at you like a freak before you even open your mouth, you learn to relate to the world that way," he says. "It builds a couple of walls. It makes you want to prove something to people from the get-go." Fortunately, any motor or vocal tics that he might experience are not accompanied by involuntary swearing (as happens with coprolalia, a symptom that afflicts one-third of those with Tourette's).
At 6'1" and 130 pounds, Womack has never relied on anti-convulsant medication. He credits his girlish figure with "lots of coffee and cigarettes and scowlin' at the world. It keeps the weight off."
After further lightening his load by storing his college diploma in a sock drawer (he has a bachelor's degree in mass communications from Western Kentucky University), Womack sidestepped the professional life and started a rock-and-roll band called Government Cheese. Taking their name from a surplus dairy food -- "a poverty metaphor slapped on four suburban white college guys who hardly merited such a tag," he says -- Womack and Skot Willis, bassist Billy Mack Hill and drummer Joe King logged over 700 gigs between 1985 and 1990, released three likable EPs and a self-titled CD and, by delivering good bathroom-humor yuks and pummeling rawk, became small hometown heroes in collegiate Bowling Green.
The often miserable details of Womack's Government career are outlined in his first novel, Cheese Chronicles: The True Story of a Rock 'n' Roll Band You've Never Heard Of, issued in 1995 by Eggman Publishing. A brutally funny autobiography and tour diary, Chronicles itemizes everything from the lousy contract the band signed with Reptile Records to the unlikely airing of their video on MTV's 120 Minutes. Recalling long rides in cramped vans, brawling rednecks, broken jaws and loathsome promoters, Womack's tale of arrested adolescence (warts, fish sticks, white crosses, peppermint schnapps and all) is an often wide-eyed and crass confessional.
"In order to let a bunch of profanity and other things slide, at one point [the editors] said, 'You have got to redo that section of helping the paraplegic boy pee,'" Womack says. "It was much more luridly detailed in a previous draft."
Since spilling his guts comes naturally to Womack, it's not surprising that he found himself working as a morning on-air personality for radio station WLBJ in 1985 -- a bleary-eyed wake-up call on the heels of so many late-night gigs with Cheese. When both his radio career and his band dissolved a few years later, Womack started the bis-quits -- which he describes as "NRBQ meets the Replacements" -- with guitarist Will Kimbrough, bassist Mike Grimes and drummer Tommy Meyer. After releasing one self-titled record on John Prine's Oh Boy label, the foursome folded, and Womack, then 33, spent a large portion of his time writing stories as well as songs. Since starting a solo career in 1998, he's penned one epistolary-style novella set in the antebellum South, Lavender Boys and Elsie, and is currently finishing up a high school memoir titled Jesus Has Left the Building.
If Womack's prior work is any indicator, Jesus is likely to be populated with a bullying jock or two. In "Skinny and Tall," an old ditty from the Cheese days, a lanky protagonist finally confronts an old adversary in adulthood, wielding a wrench and singing, "'This is for the way you treated me'/And I struck him on the head repeatedly." Given Womack's newly found sensitivity, however, he shudders to perform such songs live anymore, especially in Colorado, a part of the country that has seen its share of school-related violence.
"I can carry that song around for sixteen years, and then those two bastards go nuts out there," he says. "It didn't surprise me at all when this crap started happening, when nerds finally got ahold of firepower like that. [The song] was funny when it was incongruous that in the last verse people started dying and stuff, because that really doesn't happen. I still get people screaming for it, and I still do it semi-regularly. But if I can get away without doing it, I do."
Now the father of a three-year-old, Womack has reassessed other life matters, too, even the usefulness of organized religion, something that he rebelled against vehemently while growing up among the Bible-thumping Cumberland Presbyterians.
"Your perspective totally changes when you have kids," Womack says. "You finally get a lot of what originally just goes over your head when you're a child, being indoctrinated in the church. You kind of want to know what right and wrong is as much as up and down. I'm a religious man, a fan of God. I still go to church, and I like what it does for my soul and my life. But I say 181 degrees of any religion is one degree too many. You can only move 180 degrees in embrace of anything before you start to reverse your progress and come back to the same imperfect place you were at. And you never lose specter of the ultimate punishment: Fryin' in a lake of fire for all eternity like a slice of country ham."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
So how does Womack justify flounderin' in the bubblin' mire of his own sinnin'?
"I pay for it now 'cause I'm in the music business," he says. "Kinda like being in the Mob past a certain point -- you cain't get out."
There are a few perks to living in Womack's personal hell, however. For one, he gets to take part in the upcoming Kinks tribute album on Praxis Records -- a project that finds him in the company of Matthew Sweet, Lambchop and Jonathan Richman, among others; Womack will cover "Picture Book" with his pal Bill Lloyd. Otherwise, he's a prisoner to the endless grind of singing panoramic songs of good and evil in a phony, bespangled town that doesn't embrace or understand him. That and juggling his own innate smartassedness in a post-9-11 world.
"The first night on the stage after the tragedy, I thought about it," Womack says. "I didn't feel like I was carrying on some kind of punk-ethic tradition of 'fuck the system' in any way at all. I went on that stage, and there wasn't nobody I wanted to make fun of. There wasn't nobody that I wanted to tell 'em go screw 'emselves. There wasn't nobody I felt like throwing my middle finger up to at all. And it's been that way ever since."