Tommy Womack’s New Lease on Life
The photo of singer-songwriter Tommy Womack that appears on his new album, Namaste, suggests the trouble he’s seen. Taken by photographer Anthony Scarlati, it depicts Womack in profile, head bowed toward pressed-together palms. Taken at a benefit concert to help raise funds for the medical expenses he incurred after a terrible 2015 car accident, it suggests the degree to which Womack feels he’s got a new lease on life. In 2012, he also overcame years of addiction. The album’s eclectic collection of songs range from “Comb-over Blues” to quirky tunes such as “Hot Flash Woman” and “When Country Singers Were Ugly.” We called Womack at his Nashville home to talk about the album.
Can you talk about the car crash and how it affected your perspective on life?
It changed everything, my friend. I am very lucky. I was on the way to Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is where I’m going on this swing. I was going to play a house concert. The interstate was stopped. We were rounded off the interstate because of a wreck or something like that. I was going through the Boondocks of Kentucky. I came to a crossroad and I thought it was a four-way stop but it wasn’t. A semi-track T-boned me on the passenger side of my car and spun me around. There was shattered glass and the whole nine yards. My pelvis was broken in four places. I was lucky. The truck hit the passenger side and there was nobody in the passenger seat. If something like this had to happen, thank God it happened now when there wasn’t a joint in the ashtray or a half empty bottle of Wild Turkey rolling around on the floor. There was a point in my life when those would have been the reality. None of that was a factor this time. I got brought to an emergency room and put in a wheelchair and they sent me home. A friend had built a wheelchair ramp at the back of [my home] before we even made it there. One friend after another started bringing food and visiting. A couple of friends put up a GoFundMe page. I didn’t know how long it would before I could work.
What about the fundraiser show that Music City Roots put on in Franklin, Tennessee?
My heroes played that. Dan Baird and the Georgia Satellites played and Jason and the Scorchers, Webb Wilder and The Beatnecks and Will Kimbrough, who I play with a lot. I sat in with him. I was on crutches but I was able to get up and sit in on a couple of songs. I got this standing ovation when Will introduced me. The front cover of my album with me holding my hands up like I’m Gandhi or something? That was that moment. It suggested the album title. The whole spirit of the album suggested the title of the album but when I saw that picture, I thought, “”Namaste.” It tied everything together for me.
Are you into yoga?
I’m not a yoga person. I’m a funky Buddhist Methodist. My dad was a preacher and I was brought up in the church. I have found great comfort in Zen Buddhism. I wouldn’t call myself a practicing Buddhist. I do stretches at home. I do put my hand on the bureau and stretch my knees out. I do go that far.
The concert sounds like it was really special.
If I had sold 40,000 copies of my last record and was getting 3,500 a night playing anywhere, this moment would still be the same. I don’t have those sales figures or those kinds of guarantees but I had this moment which was the same as it would have been if I was more “successful.” It made me feel like my life was worth something. It informed everything since then. One thing that informed the record was that I didn’t waste any time. I made every moment count when I was in the studio. There was no fretting or ruminating over what to do. It was like, “This overdub sounds the best. Let’s go with that one.” We recorded that record in six days.
How soon after the crash did you start writing the songs for Namaste?
Most of the songs come from before the crash. I wrote “Angel” and “End of the Line” after the wreck and finished “It’s a Beautiful Morning” after the wreck. I finished “When Country Singers Were Ugly” after the wreck. They didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the wreck but they’re built with the wreck in consideration. There was this desire to not have a single weak verse. It was if it were my last will and testament. We wanted to have every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed. Lyrically, the songs don’t concern the wreck at all or the aftermath, but the spirit was definitely influenced by the wreck.
The music runs a wide gamut. Talk about that.
To me, they all sound of the same piece. When I’m doing it I don’t think about needing a blues song or a country song. Most of them start with lyrics. I go toward what kind of music the lyrics seem to be asking for. I can write Beatles-esque stuff and the occasional power pop number with more florid chord changes and stuff, but I don’t necessarily sing like those kinds of songs. To me, they don’t sound all that different. People tell me the records are eclectic. My record collection is eclectic. My shower time listening is eclectic–one day might be Miles or Robyn Hitchcock or the Stooges. I like almost all music. I still can’t get behind Wu-Tang and modern country music turns my stomach but other than that I like most of what I hear.
What’s the story behind “Darling, Let Your Freebird Fly”?
I started that song at Norm’s River Road House as much as ten years ago. I was having some barbeque before I went downstairs to play my set. That’s a song where the verse that started everything didn’t survive the final edit. “Used to be an alter boy but never did raped/done some nasty things but none of it has ever been videotaped/I believe when I lay someday I’m gonna die.” I wrote it down on a napkin and fleshed it out over time. Those lines went through endless revision. That first verse about being an alter boy didn’t survive for obvious reasons. The song became about musical figures in not just in my life but over all of time. Hank and Minnie Pearl and Johnny and June and Dylan and Hank. Everybody had some kind of brush with mortality. If you want to look for some car crash analogies, that might be the song that has the most on it. Dylan spun out on a country road on his motorcycle and Hank Jr. sitting in his car in “I Saw the Light.”
What’s the set list be like?
It’s a mix of stuff. There’s stuff I play every night — “Nice Day,” “Alpha Male and the Canine Mystery Blood,” “90 Miles an Hour Down a Deadend Street,” “On and Off the Wagon” and “Play that Cheap Trick Cheap Trick Play.” I also do a generous helping of the new record.