Close to the bone

Tom House's backwoods sound carries essential sparks

"I was watching her on TV, and I knew she did it," House recalls. "I felt it looking at her. I was working in this Dillard's, and after they discovered what really happened, there were so many people in the lunchroom, these sanctimonious old ladies, and they were saying that she should be killed and 'I don't know how she could have done it,' as if it wasn't something that every person is capable of, if you pushed them far enough."

The song has proven to be neighborhood's big attention-getter, much to House's surprise. "At no time when I was writing it--or after I wrote it--did I think that it would get this much attention," he says, noting that every one of the "six or seven" interviews he's done since neighborhood's release has focused on the startling song.

"I have no idea how a song's going to go over," House admits. "I can't quite get the hang of that concept; I don't know till I do 'em. I get a lot of songs that I do once and that's it, but with "susan smith," when I was done, there was just stone silence, then the place erupted." Based on the odd cachet and frankness of "susan smith," House may be about to cause another, more noticeable eruption--this one in his popularity. God knows there's been enough stone silence there for the last two decades.

House plays every six weeks at the Working Stiff Jamboree, a collection of Nashville's outlaws and square pegs that make the Springwater, a local tavern, their headquarters. He plays other venues with Tommy Goldsmith, with whom he worked on the As I Lay Dying song cycle, and has recently hit the North by Northwest music seminar. "Playing with other people is a new thing," he admits. He was recently nominated again for a NAMMY--Nashville's local music awards, patterned after San Francisco's BAMMYs--although one committee member, put off by House's idiosyncratic voice and resolutely rural sound, was reported to have complained, "This isn't even music."

He's at work on a new album that will hopefully be out at the beginning of the year. Although it may shock and even frighten some, House looks for this effort to be "even more stripped down, without the odd instrumentation [jew's harp, trombone] of neighborhood. We really like that straight, stark, hillbilly sound," he explains, although he mentions that he's been fooling around with a bunch of buddies in a loosely defined full band: "Oh, we got drummers, percussionists, guitar players, the whole deal, and we just got drunk and went nuts, right over the edge. We got a couple of songs out of it that we're thinking about putting on the next album."

Regrettably, you shouldn't look for House to play around here any time soon. While Babcock and Checkered Past would love to get him on the road, House's day gig--relamping Dillard's department stores across the country--keeps him moving (the three times he was interviewed, he called from hotel rooms in Houston and Birmingham, Alabama, and a friend's house in Nashville). This pretty much complicates all aspects of promoting him and his music. "The trouble is, I don't really live anywhere right now," he says. "I just got a divorce and pretty much threw everything out," he adds with a chuckle that sounds more rueful than amused. "I'm trying to get airplay by going from station to station, but it's hard when you move around like I do."

House isn't inclined to coast too much on the current popularity of the alt-country movement. "I think a lot of alt-country glorifies the South as a big white-trash trailer park, some redneck theme park, where you can't be intelligent or have art, and that's wrong," he says. Still, the feeling persists that House accepts all these setbacks and obstacles, allowing them to harden his resolve and hone his determination. Perhaps he even welcomes the notion that he put at the end of "i got neighbors," the idea that

a man with nothing
left in sight
can keep folks watching
most a night.

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