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.

While writing so prolifically, he was also pursuing a separate calling in Nashville--what he terms a "barroom musician." The early '70s found him participating in that town's street scene, rubbing elbows with now-essential names like Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt, "guys who were really pushing the limits back then, and for the most part still are." (Van Zandt has since died.)

It was an intense time. "I played around town pretty solid for about 15 years, and I made a name for myself as a loose cannon," House explains. "I was a lot madder then, when I was young. I stayed drunk all the time and said what was on my mind. Alcohol was like a fuel for me. I played drunk a lot too, and I used to sing stuff that I didn't recall. My wife would tell me about it later. Finally I decided to record my stuff."

He first put out inside these walls, a self-released cassette that is a rougher, simpler version of the music that appears on neighborhood; most notable is the song "karen gracen," a harrowing tale of an institutionalized woman who is raped daily by her caretaker.

"I never really thought about it one way or the other," he says, "but I guess that I do write mostly pessimistic songs. I seem to obsess over that kind of thing." He adds--casually but not with indifference--that his father shot himself last year and that House's own marriage of 15 years has recently dissolved. "We drifted apart," he says.

His self-evaluation is matter-of-fact and seems without pity. He is quick to mention though, that he can write upbeat songs, naming as examples "c'mon through carolina" and "this light little ditty that I wrote about driving around Houston." He pauses. "Sometimes I wonder about the validity of it."

But one song does not a reversal of style make. In the next breath, House talks about one of his pending efforts, a song "about six or seven minutes long, about a guy who touches a corpse and, without even knowing it, brings scarlet fever to his whole family. It's sort of my Job song." Indeed, it seems that the further into despair or abuse or angry gulps of whiskey or hypocrisy that House delves, the sharper his lyrics cut. One of the best cuts on the neighborhood is changing is "nuclear winter"--the title coming from a House poem that appears on the CD itself. A song about life after a nuclear exchange, his bleak portrait of an eternal, ash-laden night is accompanied by his rough, chunky acoustic strumming and a mournful fiddle. Its doomed, sing-song style then breaks into off-kilter rhythms that sound like a distressed children's song:

and you talk about your good german
talk about your kamikaze talk about the alamo
the spartans at thermopylae

House sums up in one pissed-off, keening wail the gamut of what people become through war--resolute, insanely determined, brave--and how the ultimate becoming is still dead amid blackened ruin. At another point in the chorus he asks, "religions of the world are they the danger?"

In fact, House--who calls the apocalyptic tune his "little experiment in science fiction," says the song is primarily a question about the role of religion. "When I write, I don't really plan that much," he explains. "My writing is more a jumble of images, and even I don't always know how they fit, so I don't know if I'm making that link [human nature and war] so much as I'm just wondering about the overall stupidity of war. I was raised a Free Will Baptist, and they believe that in the Bible, the world will end as a result of a conflict in the Middle East. And if you look in the Bible, you see that there's been fightin' there for thousands of years, and it just struck me, how religion fosters a good deal of the misery on this earth."

Inside these walls features only House accompanying himself on his guitar; neighborhood subtly adds jew's harp, banjo, mandolin, trombone, percussion, and other instruments, but the effect is just as stark--if not even more so. House's voice quavers, rawly implying trauma and instability, and he often lapses into uttering syllables and sounds in the place of words--very similar to speaking in tongues, or the back-country equivalent of scat singing. His basic, almost primeval style is not an affectation. "I consciously stay in those old--y'might say Appalachian--sounds," he says. "My guitar style, that's how I play, very rhythmic. Imbedded in the way I play is that I never played, like, in a rock band; I always played by myself. And for a long time, it didn't click: the thing I hear the most is people saying something like 'It took me forever to get used to that voice.'"

The most striking cut on neighborhood, however, is "i'm in love with susan smith," an examination of hypocrisy that centers on a declaration of love for the woman who murdered her two children by pushing her car into a lake, then made up a story about anonymous black kidnappers to explain away her crime. In "susan smith," the narrator seems both compassionately aware of the pressures Smith--a single mother--was under and disgusted by her falsehoods, but he's enraged by those who leap to judge the woman.

"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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