It was during a John Lennon tribute gig at the Ace of Clubs that I heard Tommy Womack throw down with an utterly committed version of “Well Well Well,” from the
Plastic Ono Band
album. It didn't feel like a “tribute” at all: It felt like Womack was doing his own primal therapy in front of the whole crowd. I was completely mesmerized.
Originally from Kentucky, Womack was drawn to Nashville during the '80s rock scene that produced bands such as Walk the West and Jason & The Scorchers. He and his wife moved here in 1992, and for a time he played in regional bands The Bis-Quits and Government Cheese.
Singer/songwriter Tommy Womack (left) and engineer John Deadrick recorded in Deadrick’s home studio.
Photo: Rick Clark
During the years, Womack has put out a handful of uniformly strong albums. I've always loved his shambling, reckless, talk-sung observations. But somehow his work never seemed to get into the hands of more than just a small local cult following. To me, it was one of those “life's not fair” situations, when a guy as smart and lyrically insightful and funny as Womack kept falling through the cracks. When we spoke, Womack was just wrapping up a new album — this time cutting a little deeper to the bone with the realization that a young man's rock dreams were going to be nothing more than that.
I caught up with Womack at a John Dee Graham/Peter Case gig. It only took a couple of minutes before he launched into a harrowing, pull-no-punches account of his past few years: “I had a nervous breakdown in March of '03 where everything fell apart. I had to bag a lot of gigs, lost my booking agent, lost my career. I was 40 years old and toast; rode hard and put away wet. I knew — knew — I'd never make another record again.”
However, Womack found that “the songs kept coming to me — only this time they weren't my usual stock-in-trade, Ray Davies-type observer songs about fictitious characters in amusing situations. These new songs were from a personal, confessional place I'd never visited before. I was a mess — a pothead alcoholic with no future — so that's what all the songs were about. I'd never written about myself before. Ever. Didn't think anybody'd be interested. But here I was writing them, and since I figured nobody would ever hear them, I might as well be totally honest. I wrote the lines ‘I'm never gonna be a rock star/There, I said it!’ which was a real cathartic thing to admit. In track 9, ‘Alpha Male & The Canine Mystery Blood,’ I question the Resurrection and whether it really happened, which is a very risky thing when you're a preacher's son like I am. In ‘Nice Day,’ I wrote about how I was scared I'd be working in a convenience store when I was 64. The whole record is full of lyrics that people don't ordinarily confess. But I did, and I wasn't going to take any of it back.”
Among the other highlights on the album are the crash-and-burn saga “Too Much Month at the End of the Xanax” and “A Cockroach After the Bomb.”
When Womack finally decided to record this creative outburst, he headed over to multi-instrumentalist/producer/engineer John Deadrick's home studio and began impulsively throwing down tracks.
“We recorded every song to a click track/drum loop with Tommy putting down live vocal and guitar, sometimes acoustic and sometimes electric,” says Deadrick. “I used a Shure SM57 Beta exclusively for Tommy's vocal, through a Universal Audio 6176. When he played electric guitar, his Blues Junior was miked with a 57 through another 6176. When he played acoustic guitar, I used AKG 451s, which were put through FMR Audio RNP and RNC with slight compression and vocals through the 6176 with zero compression. I recorded to MOTU's Digital Performer through their HD192. MOTU stuff is really easy to use and really reliable.
“I mixed in the box and relied pretty heavily on a couple of UAD-1 cards for plugs, although I love MOTU's plate reverb and I used it a ton on guitars and vocals,” Deadrick continues. “The drums were done with 57s on top and bottom snare and Sennheiser stuff on kick drum and toms. The overheads were MXL 2001s and the hi-hat with a 451. I used two different types of room mics only because that is all I had: an ADK Vienna and the 4060. For kick and snare, I used a Hamptone HJFP2. And the hi-hat went through an ART Tube Pac; I love that thing. I also used the Focusrite Octopre for toms and room mics. The overheads went through a pair of 6176s.”
To flesh out the tracks, Womack brought in Fenner Caster on drums, Paul Slivka on bass and Lisa Gray on harmony vocals for the bulk of the work. Will Kimbrough and Audley Freed provided some of the lead guitar work, and John Gardner drummed on a couple of tracks. Smith Curry laid down some great pedal steel and dobro and Tom Littlefield added harmony vocals. Deadrick provided keyboards.
At the end of “Too Much Month at the End of the Xanax,” Womack wanted “three quick bursts from three screaming guitars doing an aural version of a panic attack,” which featured a trade-off between Kimbrough, Womack and Womack's 8-year-old boy, Nathan, in his commercial debut.
“I tuned a guitar in open C7, gave it to him and told him to bash the heck out of it and hit some high frets, too,” says Womack. “He was a one-take master, made some noise that would make Captain Beefheart proud.”
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