Close to the bone

Tom House's backwoods sound carries essential sparks

The chorus is delivered with a sing-songy cadence that sounds almost like a nursery rhyme; the voice, accompanied by mandolin and acoustic guitar, is so utterly country in its inflections, it could pass for backwoods--sharp and nasal:

alleluia curse the wind
i don't break and i don't bend
and i got neighbors i got friends
and i'll love jesus to the end.

Although the rural, almost primitive sound of the song--combined with what at first seems to be the rugged individualism of the lyrics--might lead the listener to think of Tom House's "i got neighbors" as simply a more authentic extension of a flourishing Americana/alt-country scene, such is not the case. The song's verses tell a story of violence that stand in stark contrast to the chorus:

her husband ranted
railed and cursed
slapped her once
again but first
he swallowed his guts
and they went down hard
and he threw the bottle
across the yard.

House sets up a tension that mirrors what any cop will tell you is the paradox that drives many cases of domestic abuse--internal faith in the face of external suffering. It's this tension that reveals House to be more than a purveyor of popular flavor or feeling, and instead an actual by-God poet, a transmitter through his art of what it means to be alive in our time. It's a function that stands outside of trends, and in fact the album that showcases "i got neighbors"--this year's brilliant the neighborhood is changing--caused a rift within alt-country flagship label Bloodshot Records that ended up in Bloodshot exec (and cofounder) Eric Babcock breaking away and starting his own enterprise, Checkered Past Records, after Bloodshot balked at releasing neighborhood.

That's surprising, because neighborhood's mix of rural sound and sensibility coupled with its urban actuality is so perfect a summation of the reality--if not the hopes and dreams--of so much of America's population, it becomes practically the definition of what Americana aspires (or pretends) to be. British transplants who came to country music through punk--like Bloodshot stars Jon Langford and Rico Bell--have a valid vision, to be sure. But if you go to the bars that line the yards along Cincinnati's Ohio River and check out the coal dust-grimy West Virginians trying to make a life in the big city, you'll soon realize that the mixture of hope, despair, violence, and nostalgia that House transmits is the soundtrack to the lives of a significant portion of this country's population.

Yet House--a round-faced man of 48 whose glasses accentuate his owlish appearance--is by no means all bleak despair and nihilism. neighborhood's opening song, "c'mon through carolina" is a propulsive, upbeat tale of heading toward home where even the narrator's surrender--"ain't a damn thing on my mind that i can't leave behind"--comes off as liberation, making the song a celebration. Likewise the song "soil of the earth" is a tale of a life spent working the land delivered with a biblical sense of poetry, accompanied by trombone, harmonica, and what sounds like someone slapping out its beat on his legs--

now isak worked til his back was bent
and his hair was gray and his life was spent
and he viewed it all as testament
a living song a living song.

In fact, for all his gritty, workingman realism, the label of poet is one that House welcomes and has spent a good part of his life courting. "I always wanted to be a writer or a poet," he says, recalling days spent in the late '60s at the University of North Carolina, a time he remembers as "incredibly stimulating. It was enough just to walk the streets, to be around that atmosphere."

House never really got around to finishing--or even declaring--a major course of study, but he was still stimulated intellectually. "Most of the poetic ideals they were teaching at that time were based on metaphor and image--Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Blake," he explains, "but the Beat poets, and guys like Bukowski in particular, really turned my head around--the fact that you could say so much with so few words...

"I wrote more intricately then," House admits. His discovery of the Beats began to toughen his approach. His process was furthered when he sent several of his poems to the Southeastern poet Merritt Clifton. "He sent me this letter back," recalls House, "that said, 'Get rid of those truth-dodgin', eyeball-shiftin' images and get down to the guts of what you have to say.' It pissed me off at the time, but I realized that he was right, that you had to tell as much of a story as you can with as few words as possible. Most poetry takes too long to say nothin'."

After that, House's efforts focused on trimming the fat from his art. He gave public readings of his work, producing something very close to performance art, but as that medium grew and more people attempted it, he began to find in the form "too much theatrics" and abandoned it. He estimates that he has had 500-600 poems published, three in The Bicentennial Edition of the Tennessee Anthology of Poetry, and from 1982 through 1988, he published an independent journal with the altogether appropriate title of raw bone. In 1992 he worked with folk singer David Olney, Nashville musician and newspaperman Tommy Goldsmith, and veteran Nashville songwriter Karen Pell on a song cycle based on William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying that has become a Holy Grail for Faulkner freaks. House has also written an opera commissioned by the city of Memphis based on the first chapter of Light in August. He has worked for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, writing 25 songs for the music to an experimental play based on novelist Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies, in which a hillbilly band functions as a Greek chorus.

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