Tommy Womack’s spirit soars on new album

Tommy Womack Namaste

In the liner notes for Namaste, singer-songwriter-guitarist Tommy Womack writes that the album’s title translates as, “The spirit in me salutes the spirit in you.” It’s not altogether surprising that spirit was on Womack’s mind when it came to naming this, his sixth studio album as a solo artist. Just a few months prior to making the record, he had survived a near-fatal automobile crash that temporarily put him in a wheelchair. Despite the fact he was still dealing with injuries to his leg, sternum, and pelvis when he went into Alex the Great studio with producer Brad Jones last summer, Womack delivered impassioned performances on the record’s 11 tracks.

Womack’s unplanned meeting with a semi was the second time in eight years he had stared death in the face and lived to sing about it. “I Almost Died” — one of the most powerful songs on the album — deals with that first experience. It is a bone-chilling account of when he overdosed on something and his heart stopped, just before the release of his 2007 masterpiece There I Said It!. “It might have been meth, it might have been blow/These days, baby, you just don’t know,” he sings over the song’s haunting, churning groove anchored by drummer Paul Griffith’s martial beat and saluted by Womack’s acoustic guitar and Will Kimbrough’s banjo part. Kimbrough also contributes the swirling, ringing electric guitars that combine with Jones’ “Helter Skelter” bass line to express the life-and-death urgency of the moment. On the final verse, Womack remains defiant:

Did it scare me to death?
Yes, I believe so
Did it make me stop?
Hell no!

Facing death will alter your perspective, heighten your awareness of how fleeting and fragile life is, sharpen your vision when it comes to seeing what’s important and what’s not, make you laugh at what used to concern you. Womack made Namaste from that point of view, and the result is a mature but unrepentant record on which he waxes nostalgic, pokes fun at aging (“Comb-over Blues,” “Hot Flash Woman”) and country music (“When Country Singers Were Ugly”), wrestles with the devil, and gets right with God.

The record begins with a memory (“Angel”) and ends totally in the moment (“It’s A Beautiful Morning”). In between, Womack reminds everyone why he is one of Nashville’s great songwriters: a brilliant and singular voice; smart-ass punk rocker turned reluctant troubadour, fearless and honest, holding a mirror up to the world — and himself. While this is a true album, a complete song cycle, a few other songs deserve special mention.

Womack offers his opinion on his adopted hometown’s new “It” city status on “Nashville,” the one song not tracked at Alex the Great. It was recorded at a house concert in Zionsville, Ind., at Free Range House, the arrangement improvised on the spot with Womack instructing the band of guitarist Kimbrough, drummer Griffith, backing vocalist Lisa Oliver Gray, and bassist Matt Fell, “Maybe something like jazz on The Steve Allen Show in 1954. You know what I’m saying?” — and the band knew. The song, which he calls “a work in progress” in the live intro, includes some hilarious observations about Music City, such as:

Nashville is boiling over people
Astronauts can see us from space
Spill a glass of expensive wine in the front yard
Watch a condominium sprout up in its place

On “Darling Let Your Freebird Fly,” Womack one-ups The Charlie Daniels Band’s “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” name-checking a who’s who of music icons over a Southern boogie groove: Mick and Keith, Minnie Pearl and Hank Williams, John and Yoko, Dylan, Johnny and June, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and of course, Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd. He also gives a shout out to one of his local heroes: “Put on that David Olney record, and I’ll wait here for the cops.” Musically, the song features inspired solo turns by Ross Rice on piano and Mark Robinson on guitar.

Finally, there is “God Part III,” Womack’s answer to both John Lennon’s “God” and U2’s “God Part II.” Set to a barebones country backbeat, the song’s verses are basically a narrative of the historical Jesus, but on the chorus, he counters Lennon, declaring, “I believe in Beatles.”

Only time will tell where Namaste ranks in his oeuvre, but there can be no denying Womack has made a potent artistic statement on the record, a statement informed in no small part by the insight gained from looking death squarely in the eye.

(Editor’s note: In addition to being a songwriter and recording artist, Tommy Womack is an author and writer whose work appears regularly in The East Nashvillian.)

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