Friday, January 12, 2024

The View On Pop Culture: Tommy Womack, Todd Snider, Will Hoge (2003)

Todd Snider's Live


Tommy Womack could easily be the poster child for Nashville’s non-country music scene. There’s enough Rolling Stones vibe coursing through his veins to make him persona non gratis among Music Row’s country label elite, and just enough twang in his voice to scare off all but the gutsiest rock radio programmers and label A&R people. As a result, this talented cult artist is slipping through the cracks and is in danger of becoming a footnote in the city’s musical history.

‘Tis a shame, too, ‘cause Womack is one of the brightest talents that the “Third Coast” has to offer. His self-released Washington D.C. was recorded last year in the nation’s capital, a live XM satellite radio broadcast beamed out into the universe with no second takes and no overdubs, just 54 minutes or straight-forward rock ‘n’ roll. A collection of songs culled from Womack’s three studio albums, along with the odd tune from previous bands (the bis-quits, Government Cheese); Washington D.C. is a perfect showcase for Womack’s songwriting skills and performance acumen.

The band that Womack assembled for the gig is a tight as a drum, with old friend Kenny McMahan providing a six-string counterpart to Womack’s imaginative fretwork. Womack’s music mixes roots rock and punkish intensity with Southern flavor, distilling it all into his unique trademark sound. It’s the lyrics that stand out, tho’, Womack’s world filled with saints and sinners, whores and virgins, his words drenched with passion, rage, insight, and humor. Tunes like “Betty Was Black (& Willie Was White)” and “I Don’t Have A Gun” tackle racism and hypocrisy while “Fake It ‘Til You Make It” offers a helpful philosophy for life and “Up Memphis Blues” pays homage to the King. If you prefer your music to have an edgy intelligence and wit instead of mindless trendiness, you should grab a copy of Womack’s Washington D.C.

Tunesmith Todd Snider’s career resembles Womack’s in more ways than one. Snider is also an enormously gifted songwriter, adding brains and laughter to his material, and the two have shared the stage together, written songs together and both have struggled against a star-making machinery that has found them too honest, too unpredictable, and too unmarketable for prime time. Thankfully, John Prine’s Oh Boy Records continues to support Snider’s work, his latest – Near Truths and Hotel Rooms – a collection of live performances from the last year.

Much like Washington D.C. showcases Womack’s underrated abilities, so too does Near Truths and Hotel Rooms serve as a wonderful introduction to Snider’s folkish material. Whereas lighthearted, comedic tunes like the raucous “Beer Run” or the satirical “Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” have earned Snider a reputation as alternative music’s court jester; his heavier fare reveals a darker, more serious side. Bittersweet tales like “Lonely Girl” or “I Spoke As A Child” illustrate a poet’s grasp of human complexity while story-songs like “Easy Money” or “D.B. Cooper” are realistic and insightful portrayals of the absurdity of life. Snider’s between-song stories and comments define his personality and are almost as interesting as his songs. With an acoustic guitar and a song, Snider has traveled the highways and back roads of America for over a decade. He has a lot of tales to tell, and Near Truths and Hotel Rooms will whet the appetite of any interested listener.

Will Hoge's Blackbird On A Lonely Wire
Will Hoge
doesn’t bring the same pedigree or experience to his music as Womack or Snider, but he’s a young talent on the rise. Hoge’s major label affiliation hasn’t seemed to have watered down his music to any degree, Blackbird On A Lonely Wire (Atlantic Records) an exciting work by a rapidly maturing songwriter and performer. Hoge’s obvious musical heroes are giants like Springsteen, Dylan, John Fogerty, and John Lennon. Rather than wearing his influences on his sleeve, Hoge brings a fresh perspective to the table, combining super-charged rock with pop melodies and some of the finest romantic songwriting you’ve heard since the Magic Rat drove his sleek machine over the Jersey state line.

Romance is Hoge’s muse, whether it’s the flame of the moment that burns a little too hot, the bittersweet love that got away or the unrequited dream that never was. With the backing of a damn fine band that snaps and pops like a string of firecrackers, Hoge’s lovelorn lyrics and mournful vocals betray a weary heart. “Hey Tonight” will reduce all but the most jaded listener to tears while you can literally feel the heartache in “Secondhand Heart.” The thinly veiled jealousy and self-loathing that fills “Someone Else’s Baby” is painted with the skill of a Picasso. The album closes with the beautiful “Baby Girl,” a ballad with weeping pedal-steel guitar that has more in common with Roger McGuinn than Garth Brooks. There are half a dozen songs on Blackbird On A Lonely Wire that would sound great on the radio, preferably sandwiched between songs by Tommy Womack and Todd Snider.    

Chances are that you won’t hear Nashville’s best music on the radio, though. While the city’s “Music Row” continues to crank out country-fried pop divas and Stetson-topped, bluejean-clad male pseudo-traditionalists, the real talents are making records for obscure little indie labels and playing night after night to audiences that you can count on the fingers of your two hands. While artists like Womack, Snider, and Hoge follow their rock ‘n’ roll dreams, they toil alongside kindred spirits like Jason Ringenberg, Bill Lloyd, Threk Michaels, Donna Frost, Mark Aaron James and many more who have never found the acceptance and success that they so richly deserve. (View From The Hill, 2003)

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