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Tommy Womack is feelin’ good on Now What!

Tommy Womack - Now What!

The title of Tommy Womack’s latest CD – Now What! – may describe what went through his mind after the unexpected success of his 2007 release There, I Said It! (an album that almost never found its way to the record rack). As Tommy told me, “I thought I was done, and I almost pulled that record. I almost pulled the plug on it because I thought, No one wants to hear me confessing all this stuff. Thankfully I found out that by voicing my fears, I echoed the fears of a whole lot of people of my generation… It was far and away the most successful record I’ve ever had… It totally turned my career around.” The title of that album came from words that Tommy had written years earlier, and later took shape as a track on There, I Said It! called “I’m Never Gonna Be a Rock Star” that tells the tale of Tommy’s realization and reluctant acceptance that his rock star days were over. From 1985 to 1992 Womack had played lead guitar and sang lead vocals for the post-punk band Government Cheese. He may not be the rock star of yesterday, but Womack’s career as a must-be-heard singer/songwriter of today is thanks to that nearly shelved self-therapy project.

Now What! is an all-embracing collection of songs pulling influences from musical styles diverse as blues, Dixieland jazz, and classic rock, with just a pinch of rap. Womack lyrically sheds his skin with an equally assorted batch of subject matters. Tommy defends his diverse topics and says, “It’s really not a skitzo record at all!” There’s no need to defend his choices that, once again, a lot of people will relate to:  dealing with life on the road (or the road of life) and some of its pitfalls; the warmth of home and family; the past and how it can show up unannounced and bite you in the ass; the mortality we reluctantly realize as we grow older; and finally – love, simple and real.

The upbeat opener “Play That Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick Play” sets the optimistic tone – cheerfully declaring  “Another dollar, another day / I shouldn’t look back but I do anyway / Dad’s in the ground, Mom’s on the way / Play that Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick play” – while also giving us glimpses of Tommy’s undying love of his family, and his ever-haunting self-doubt. It’s all good in the end though as he borrows some favorite lines from Cheap Trick’s Surrender to sum it all up – “Momma’s alright, Daddy’s alright, the boy’s alright, we’re all alright.”

Listen to “Play That Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick Play”

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Continuing with the “we’re all alright” good vibe, comes “It Doesn’t Have To Be That Good” carrying the message that life needn’t be filled with gloriously rewarding moments. Sometimes it is what it is – ups, downs, paying bills, and mowing the lawn (and all that can happen in one day). The tune also reminds us “No matter what your life is like – it beats the pants off death.”

Have you ever run into an old flame and wish you hadn’t because all those old memories – good and bad – came flooding forward from their long-time hiding place way back in your mind? In the gentle ballad “Bye & Bye” (one of my favorite songs from Now What!) Tommy shares a story of when he bumped into, as he put it, “A real girl that I had a fling with back in the 80s.” As he explained further, “She was a real girl… well, she still is a real girl. We’d bumped into each other in the grocery store one day. It happened pretty much as it’s described in the song, except we didn’t end up at the checkout line at the same time”. Lyrics of remembrance came out of that encounter – “Your body still makes me a young man / Your brain’s still a bomb you can throw / I had me a nice hard decision to make / All those years ago.”  But in the end, the admission is made, possibly justifying that hard decision made so many years earlier – “I’d have made you a miserable husband / You’d have been a high maintenance wife.” But ardor seems to still linger in the air at that Harris Teeter. (Being from the west coast, I had to Google “Harris Teeter.”)

Listen to “Bye & Bye”

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The flip-side to “Bye & Bye” – “I’m Too Old to Feel That Way Right Now” – has Womack briefly trying to fan the old flame but realizing he isn’t quite up to it as “The touch of your hand leaves me inspired / But I’m set in my ways and kinda tired.” Getting old sure is a bitch.

In the slow-paced shuffle “On And Off the Wagon”, with a comical arrangement that cleverly pairs pedal steel guitar with a tuba,  Tommy confesses “I’ve learned to know my limits / I’ve learned to pass them by.” The lesson here – Maybe it’s best to say you’ve paused instead of quit.

In the few of the tunes on Now What! you might get the sensation that you’re on the road with Womack as he shares his witty tales. But in the hard-driving Rap-esque “90 Miles an Hour Down a Dead-End Street” you feel like there’s a pissed-off drunken maniac behind the wheel, and you’re trapped in the passenger seat clutching a bottle of Chianti for dear life as the driver – looking a lot like a creation of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth – barks at you, “Don’t spill any of that shit!” At this point, you may wonder if jumping from this crazy ride would be better than the possible ending – but you choose to stay because it’s so damn fun!

The lyrics in the jazzy bop number “Guilty Snake Blues” shuffles near-carelessly over a wide topical stretch of lustful land, but somehow it all ties together like a cool ribbon of random thoughts punctuated by Jim Hoke’s smokey soulful sax.

Tommy Womack & Sheba the Wonder Dog (Photo by Gregg Roth)

One of Tommy’s personal favorites on the record is “Pot Head Blues.” It’s a quiet heartfelt acoustic tune that has him recollecting and somewhat regretting  time lost while stoned. But he doesn’t let it hold him back, stating “Nobody ever made me do it / No time to turn around, you blew it, get to it / Lay it down, you got nothing to lose.”

“I Love You to Pieces” is Tommy’s playful, flirtatious love letter to his wife, Beth. But feel free to use it on someone of your choice. It’s got plenty of Stones-like jamming filling it up with nothing but fun.

“Over the Hill” had been bouncing around in Tommy’s head for years, and he’s finally let it out. It’s a blend of feeling your age and spreading your love in the spirit of Donavan – complete with sublime horns.

The peacefully haunting “Wishes Do Come True” (sweetened by Lisa Oliver-Gray’s vocal talents) intrigued me as I tried to get the underlying meaning of it. To me the lines – “All through the day you used to want me / You used to need me now you just haunt me / I sold my soul for one night of your touch / How could I know when too much was too much” – spoke of Womack’s up and down relationship with the music industry. When I told Tommy my thoughts on this he laughed and said, “You know, I’m not sure what all “Wishes Do Come True” is about. That one has ambiguities in it that escape me. I wrote that with Irene Kelley. There are lines in there that we really liked, but there are lines in there that I’m not sure what they mean to this day. It could be about the music business. If it works that way in your interpretation, then I’m not going to say that it’s not about that. Who knows, maybe subconsciously it is about that. Like I said, I’m not sure what it’s about. You could take it as meaning infidelity.”

Listen to “Wishes Do Come True”

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The album wraps up with “Let’s Have Another Cigarette” which made me ask Tommy if he still smoked (even though it wasn’t any of my business). “No, no,” he said, “I haven’t smoked in about two and a half years. I’ve got a snuff pouch in my mouth right now. I still do those.” Getting back on the subject at hand, I then asked him how “Let’s Have Another Cigarette” came about. “I don’t remember writing it,” he said. “One day – I had it, the day before – I didn’t. It’s based in fact to a degree. I got a speeding ticket in Ohio one day where they were convinced that I was transporting drugs. So they took everything in the car apart, and I didn’t have anything in there… thank goodness. So I always see that as being a song about being in Ohio going from one gig to another, and it just seemed to call out to be the album closer. You know, because I’m leaving somewhere and going somewhere else. Also, in that song – I’m sober. There are other songs on that record where the character of me is not sober, but in this one I make it to the end of the record, and I’ve sobered up, I’m going on to the next gig, and life continues on. A nice way to close out the record – on an optimistic note.” Now What! comes full circle, ending as it began, cruising along in Tommy’s car, taillights fading into the night, he’s fully aware of where he’s at – “I got about a half a tank of gas / I’m a pimple on Dylan’s ass” – and he couldn’t be happier. Hopefully, we haven’t seen the last of Tommy Womack.

There, I Said It! was a tough act to follow, but Tommy Womack took himself to the next level and did not disappoint with Now What!.

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Kimbrough soars high with Wings

Will Kimbrough’s Wings – an OKOM review

On first listen of Will Kimbrough’s album Wings, (due to be released February 23rd) it felt like a pleasant trip that started with being invited into his home, given a comfortable chair in a sunroom, and a hot cup of coffee. As the morning light streaked in, and the children played, I kicked back, relaxed, and absorbed this enjoyable, stimulating soundtrack of his thoughts; a world filled with hope, optimism, questions, miracles, and love. If this album represents Will’s life, and his sense of wide-eyed wonderment and appreciation of what fills his life; then he is truly a blessed man.

Wings starts with Will roused into the dawn of a new day by his wife and two daughters, whom he warmly refers to as his “Three Angels.” Julie Lee lends her pure backing vocal talents to the heartening opening track “Three Angels,” in which Will counts his blessings – all three of them – and is grateful for all his angels do to make his life complete, and for watching over him wherever he goes. Now, a lesser man might consider being the lone man in a houseful of females more of a curse. Will knows they’re only human – “sometimes in the morning they’re a moody band of angels” – but they’ll always be real angels in his eyes.

In “You Can’t Go Home,” co-written with Jeff Finlin, Will tells a mystifying old world type tale –wrapped in the musical textures of a steady pulsing Celtic beat, the lingering tone of Sarah Siskind’s accompaniment, and punctuated by a haunting guitar – of characters with a raw unresolved past. The line – “She cannot hear or say goodbye, or hear your heart break right in two, she cannot waive the angry years, what you said, forgive you too” – stabs into a wandering lost soul, left broken-hearted and alone. The mystery is – what tragedy brought him to this pain and guilt shrouded world?

You’d be hard pressed to find a more optimistic song than the title track “Wings.” This is the original version, lyrically different from the one co-written with Jimmy Buffett that appears on his latest album Buffet Hotel. The airy effortless instrumentation of this lifting version perfectly fit what this song is all about – unbridled buoyancy and self-faith. Personally, I like Will’s version much better, and this comes from a long time Parrot Head.

Will Kimbrough is a master of baring his heart and soul in a love song. “Love to Spare” is no exception. He’s always there with words of comfort – even through the rough times – for the one he loves… “Take me in when storms are raging; I’ll calm you when you’re feeling crazy.” Guys, if you ever need to put consoling words in a card to your love, pull them from this song. You won’t be sorry.

In addition to “You Can’t Go Home,” there are two other songs on Wings that Kimbrough co-wrote with Jeff Finlin, “The Day of the Troubadour” and “Big Big Love.” Will and Jeff color these songs with complex, absorbing, thought provoking lyrics; coming together like fine glasses of wine. Not everyone will get the same message; see the same picture; or taste the same flavors. You’ll want to listen to them again and again, possibly finding something new or different each time.

Have you ever thought of what it could have been like if Jesus had lived in the modern world? Hey, for all we know, he may have; this is a subject that “The Day of the Troubadour” explores. Jesus traveling for years, riding the bus from town to town, performs little miracles along the way, until the interest in him begins to fade. He dreams – from the bed of a cheap motel – of his followers still wanting more. The same story could also apply to any number of extremely talented performers that spend the majority of their life on the road sharing their own form of miracles, and baring their souls.

Miracles happen around us all the time, most of the time they slip by unnoticed, but they’re there nonetheless. “Big Big Love” is a skillfully crafted song that takes us on a walk through an old growth forest of life’s little miracles; lost time; quests for love; and unfulfilled dreams – “I tried to be the big man with a knuckle and a tin can, with the knowledge and a big plan, holding onto Wonderland. I held so tight, I lost you there; I looked so hard, I couldn’t see; I let it go and fell alone, and it was there in front of me.” – discovering aspects of life that were there all the time.

Will has co-written quite a few songs with Todd Snider. He’s pulled one out of an old box in the attic to share with us. “It Ain’t Cool” has never been recorded by Todd or Will until now. Contrary to its title, it’s a very cool J.J. Cale style tune, simple in structure, with an even simpler message – don’t bad-mouth people when they’re not there to defend themselves, it ain’t cool!

Will’s appreciation of old school R&B is evident in the arrangement of “Open to Love” co-written with Dave Zobel. Building on a slow solid backbeat, it’s full of big horns, great big backing vocals by Jonell Mosser and Lisa Oliver Gray, and wailing guitar work by Kimbrough. It’s an expressive, driving “hard times” love song – that Will does so well – preaching of hanging on to love, letting it carry you through obstacles life can throw your way. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear this performed someday by a soulful Southern Baptist choir with hands held high towards the heavens.

Slowing down to a gentle walk down a tree-lined street, Wings takes us back to being with loved ones. Relationships have taken on many analogies through songs. “Let Me Be Your Frame,” co-written with Sarah Kelly, sung in beautiful tandem with Dawn Kinnard, portrays a relationship as a canvas – a work in progress maybe – and the frame that surrounds, and at the same time, compliments it. If you think about it, in a give-and-take relationship, you can’t help but splash each other with a bit of color or lend a simple stroke of a brush, adding texture and beauty to each other without taking anything away.

The final track on Wings, “A Couple Hundred Miracles,” brings us full-circle. We’re back in the quiet, comfortable safe haven of home. In the calm morning, warming your hands around a cup of coffee, it’s a time to reflect on the journey. “A Couple Hundred Miracles” – inspired by the book The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, and co-written with Irene Kelly (Sarah’s mom) – tells of taking what life gives you – with appreciation and amazement – making the most out of it, with a smile on your face, and no regrets. Beautifully simple in its arrangement of Will on vocals and guitar, and David Henry on a warm, soothing cello. Personally, this wonderfully stirring song is my absolute favorite track on this release.

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