Friday, November 26, 2010

Tommy Womack at Family Wash

In the late 1980s, amidst my post-college, early professional years, I was introduced by a friend to the band Government Cheese. As I recall, I don't remember his having any recordings by the band. He had just heard them on local rock radio while on a visit back to Nashville. (We shared an apartment in Chattanooga back then.) So during one of my own family-visit trips back to Nashville, I picked up a cassette of the Cheese's four-song EP C'mon Back to Bowling Green...and Marry Me.

Shortly thereafter, I bought their Three Chords, No Waiting "live" cassette. (I learned much later the producer piped in live audience part of the release during the mix.) I was fortunate to see the band live three times - twice as headliner in Chattanooga and once in Nashville as the opener for Guadalcanal Diary.

Over time, I didn't hear much more about the band. I relocated back to Nashville in the mid 90s and simply continued listening to new and established artists and bands. However, I remained curious what happened to the Cheese but didn't have much way to dig into it.

Then a wonderful thing happened - [sarcasm] Al Gore invented the internet! [/sarcasm]

A night of Google searches landed me on where I learned the band's guitarist was alive and well, had released a couple of solo CDs, and had written a book about his time in Government Cheese. An e-mail sent. An e-mail received. Ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing, a correspondence dialog began, and I was back to listening to my old cassettes and learning about the days of the Cheese.

I've had the good fortune to see Tommy perform many times in different venues around Nashville: The Basement, Exit-In, Grimey's New and Pre-Loved Music, The Melrose (now closed), the Belcourt Theatre, and even the parking lot of Sam's Sports Bar in Hillsboro Village. My favorite spot to hear him perform, however, is the Family Wash. Its a pretty small club seating about 100 people in East Nashville - home of Tommy as well as Todd Snider. Its the part of town where the motto is East Nashville: We'll Steal Your Heart...and Your Lawnmower.

Its not the Bluebird Cafe. Its not Tootsie's on lower Broadway. Its East By Cracky Nashville.

Last Saturday was my first opportunity to visit the Wash in a couple of years. Tommy's set was part of the Wash's concluding night of "10 Years of Short Sets" where several local artists get to perform a handful of cuts. While likely tough for the artists/bands to set-up for only a half-dozen songs or so, its neat for the audience to hear a diverse range of talented Nashville musicians and songwriters.

Before Tommy began his set, he was preceded by Tom Mason - a long-time talented performer around Nashville. As he got ready to perform, it dawned on me I'd met him about three years ago at the Wash when he was in a band called The Big Happy with his wife and Nashville performing and producing couple, Billy and Jill Block. I reminded him of that show, and he remembered it. Mason is quite the showman with no two songs sounding quite the same and his hamming it up during the brief set list. Three songs stood out to me from his set:
  • Chano Pozo's Shoes - An exceptional song based loosely on the true story of a conga player who introduced jazz great Dizzy Gillespie to Afro-Cuban rhythms.
  • The World is Drunk - Mason said the basis for the song is his opinion about the world's appetite for oil. Politics aside, it really is a neat song. During the song, he set down his electric guitar and picked up ... a trombone. He then roamed around the room playing it and playfully bounced the slide against ornamental balloons hanging from the ceiling.
  • The Pirate Song - A completely unexpected closer for me titled simply enough, The Pirate Song. All of us were encouraged to yell "We'll all go down / we'll all go down / we'll all go down...with the ship. Argh!" at the appropriate time.
You can listen to all three of these songs - and several others - on the music page of Tom's website.

Over the last several years, I've seen a number of talented musicians back Tommy. Yet, he's always been billed simply as "Tommy Womack". Saturday, however, he introduced himself and the band as Tommy Womack and The Rush To Judgment. The ensemble featured Paul Griffith on drums, Dan Seaborn on bass, Mark Robinson on guitar, and Lisa Oliver-Gray on backing vocals. An accordionist from Tom Mason's band, Michael Webb, also sat in on a few cuts.

Having memorized the lyrics from most of his songs, I can generally mumble along to them as he sings them. Saturday night, however, he introduced several new tracks, and I wasn't familiar with any of them. That was fine though as I just kicked back, enjoyed my Brooklyn Brown Ale, and tried to absorb the new cuts he offered.

With the number of years Tommy has under his belt - from Cheese days, as a solo performer, as co-writer with Jason and The Scorchers, playing with Will Kimbrough as Daddy-The Band, and/or as a sometimes member of Todd Snider's band - he's developed a loyal core of fans who attend his shows. However, the age demo of the audience continues to climb with each gig! Lots of gray hair, bi-focals, and paunches were in attendance. The days of moshing in the front of his stage... well, I think that ship has sailed. But the huge upside though is the folks largely listen to his performance vs. talking all the way through it as is too often the case in a lot of clubs.

Because he was the final act of the Short Sets evening, Tommy didn't play as long as I would have liked. Yet the songs he did perform in his allotted time were great - especially the new ones.

Set list:
  • If That's All There is to See
  • Play That Cheap Trick (new)
  • A Nice Day
  • Indy - A new, a cappella, spoken-word 'rap' with only Griffith laying down a drum riff. The lyrics are so new Tommy had to read them from a sheet. He told me afterwords the song is based on a true story - though its not one of which he's proud.
  • It Doesn't Have to be That Good (new)
  • On and Off the Wagon (new)

  • Guilty Snake Blues (new) - The song includes the line "I've met my share of reptiles..." I found the lyric interesting for two reasons. One, its not often the word reptiles is worked into a rock-and-roll song. Two, the record label's name for Government Cheese back in the day? Yep, Reptile Records. A connection? I don't know, but I'm just wonderin...
  • Honest I Do - featuring Lisa on vocals. I've heard Lisa many times on backing vocals. She's got such a great voice, and I was glad she got the stage to sing lead vocals.
  • Alpha Male and the Canine Mystery Blood
With that, the show was over. I'd just ordered my next Brooklyn thinking Tommy had another few songs to go. But in keeping with the short sets theme of the evening, the show was done. Dan and Mark packed their guitars, and Paul started his drum kit tear-down. I took my freshly poured beer and went to Tommy to talk a bit before I headed out. I patiently waited as a couple of other folks talked to him. Patiently. Hit the bathroom. Returned. Waited some more. Patiently.

About the time I was going to talk to him, a woman slid in front of me and said "We drove from Columbia, South Carolina to see you. We'd love to hear more." So Tommy being one to accommodate his audience said "Uh, OK. Lisa you ready?" So with many having already left, Paul disassembling his drum gear, and the Wash's staff bussing tables to shut down for the night, Tommy and Lisa returned to the stage.

He encored with:
  • I Need a Cigarette
  • I'm a Coackroach After the Bomb
  • Wishes Do Come True (new)
  • I'm Too Old To Feel That Way Right Now (new)
  • There's No Sex Addicts Anonymous (new)
After those 3 song fragments, he quipped "Pardon me, I'm having kind of a Ryan Adams moment here." I thought the line was hilarious. However, some woman off to the side clearly didn't get it and bleated "CUTS LIKE A KNIFE!" He directly but with good humor responded "Get out! Get out you!"

He closed with two final ones:
  • Pot Head Blues (new)
  • Bye & Bye
About two years ago, Tommy purchased the masters of Government Cheese's recordings. After a large investment of time, effort, and money, he recently released the 2-CD anthology Government Cheese: 1985-1995. If you haven't experienced the Cheese, I highly encourage you to add this one to your Christmas wish list. Also, be sure to watch the Behind The Cheese videos on his YouTube channel. Some very funny anecdotes about the days in the band, inspiration for songs, etc.

Also, as we now enter this season of Thanksgiving and Christmas where we give thanks for our blessings and go above and beyond to help others, I'd like to do some of that myself. I've got a handful of bootlegs of Tommy's shows from over the last few years I could provide for the low, low price of FREE. Please contact me if you'd like to know more. You're a smart reader - you know how to contact me.

The set list from the stage - though clearly many modifications were made on the fly based on the time he was allotted to perform.


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