It’s true, every picture does tell a story. But the photo gracing the cover of Tommy Womack’s new album, Namaste, releasing June 24, 2016, silently hints at a lifetime of stories. Stories Womack is glad he’s still here to tell.
The black-and-white image, by Anthony Scarlati, depicts Womack in profile, head bowed toward pressed-together palms. He is, unquestionably, giving thanks. Thanks to those who showed up to support him that particular night, a fundraiser to help him through recovery from a devastating 2015 car accident. Thanks to whatever powers kept him alive long enough to get clean in 2012 after years of addiction. And thanks for life itself — which he no longer takes for granted, not even for a minute.
But there’s something else the photo conveys, too, in the suggestion of a smile and the crinkled crows’ feet almost hidden behind the frames of his glasses. As only the best singer-songwriters can, Womack has always managed to navigate us through his world with a deft balance of humor and pathos, snarky cynicism and occasionally, sweet, unabashed optimism. Like John Prine and Womack’s pal Todd Snider, he’s the rare artist who can regale us with songs such as Namaste’s “Comb-over Blues,” “Hot Flash Woman” and “When Country Singers Were Ugly” (not to mention such semi-classics as “Play That Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick Play” and the existential rant “Alpha Male & the Canine Mystery Blood”), then hit us with the anvil of “I Almost Died,” a harrowing recounting of the time in 2007 when he woke up in an ambulance after his meth- and coke-stressed heart apparently stopped.
Womack had just released his fourth solo album, There, I Said It!, which was supposed to be his music-career swan song after years of frustration, but instead elevated his profile higher. Two weeks after his collapse, he recalls, “I was on the cover of the Nashville Scene and I was the toast of the town. And nobody knew.”
It would take another five years before he felt ready to tackle his addictions, through rehab, AA and the higher power he addresses via a “fuzzy Buddhist Methodist” belief system formed from the vestiges of his preacher’s-kid upbringing in Kentucky.
In fact, death and religion would seem to be two of Namaste’s recurring themes — except that Womack, who’s fascinated by the topic of Jesus the historical figure, not the biblical one, doesn’t exactly embrace the Christian notion of worship. In “God Part III,” he sings, “He’s Jesus with a J now, Lord, Christ The King/A best selling author with advice on everything. He never wrote a word, never started no religion/Maybe never dreamed he’d ever be in this position. My Daddy was a preacher and so am I/I believe in God but now and then I wonder why/I choose to picture Jesus in the clouds up above/I believe in Beatles. I believe in love.”
Oh yeah, Womack makes more worshipful references to the members of that band and other musical touchstones than he does traditional saviors — whether in that song’s outright declaration (and its title, which harks back to the original John Lennon tune and infamous lyric, and U2’s one-upped take), or in slyer twists of lyrical phrase such as “Plasticine porters with looking glass bolo ties” (from the Beat-poetry-styled “Nashville,” his love-hate letter to Music City). In “Darling Let Your Free Bird Fly,” he name-checks assorted icons, including Sting, Geraldo and Chevy Chase, who “were all considered cool at one time.”
Womack himself has always been considered cool, from his days in Bowling Green, Ky.’s next-generation punk-rock band Government Cheese to the Bis-Quits, his first Nashville outing with musical brother and Daddy co-founder Will Kimbrough, who plays guitar on Namaste. Womack built further cool cred with his book, The Cheese Chronicles: The True Story of a Rock ’n’ Roll Band You’ve Never Heard Of.
Along the way, he honed his folky twang and Replacements-influenced rock edge into a sound that’s all Americana, filling seven solo albums and writing songs recorded by Jimmy Buffett, Jason Ringenberg and others, including sometime co-writer Snider. He’s also earned two “Best Song” awards in theNashville Scene critics’ poll, and entertained the community with his Clash cover band, Tommy Gun, and an occasional event he and co-conspirator Bill Lloyd called the Alphabetical Kinks.
If the tables were ever turned and Ray Davies did a Womack tribute, he’d likely get a particular kick out of ”End of the Line.” Co-written with Rich McCulley — and technically, by album producer Brad Jones, who didn’t want a credit — Womack says, “That song is about pursuit of your dream, and I’ve been pursuing mine for 31 years. It’s been like Ahab chasin’ the whale ever since — and knowing that the end of the line is comin’; I’m on the back nine, as a golfer would say.”
Yes, he looks at life differently now that he knows how quickly it could end. And that it’s going to someday, even if he manages to continue avoiding a hastened demise. That’s why the album’s benediction, “It’s a Beautiful Morning,” co-written with John Hadley, sounds so much sweeter. In it, he sings, “I once had the devil hold on to me so/I asked him to free me. He wouldn’t let go/But miracles happen, is all I can say/It’s a beautiful morning. It’s a beautiful day.”
“It’s a song of gratitude,” Womack explains. “God likes prayers that are basically like a thank-you note, being grateful for what you’ve got. A lot of prayers I’ve offered in my years were more like obscene phone calls or ransom notes.”
As Allmusic.com’s Mark Deming once noted, “Womack writes rock ’n’ roll songs about everyday stuff — falling in love, trying to stay in love, life’s ups and downs of all shapes and sizes — with good humor, a strong dose of common sense, and the smarts to understand when this stuff is funny and when it isn't.”
That’s why his friends turned out that night at Music City Roots in Franklin, Tenn. That’s why his head is bowed in a prayerful pose of thanks. And that’s why he titled the album — completed in six days, coincidentally — with that spiritual Sanskrit greeting.
As he sings in the closing tune, “I don’t know what’s coming this afternoon/If I think about it, it’ll get here too soon/Why worry what’s coming, it’ll come any way/It’s a beautiful morning. It’s a beautiful day.”