When I first met him over drinks at Nashville's Patterson House, Tom House seemed reserved. Maybe even a touch shy. I was drinking bourbon. A good, well-aged whiskey releases its depth and character with a splash of water. House reveals his when you put a guitar in his hands. And maybe a couple of those whiskeys. House's back country warble calls out haunting, sometimes violent tales about killers, mental patients, drunks, hypocrites, addicts, and other troubled souls--all over deceptively soothing strums of that acoustic guitar.
House was a well-published poet years before he started recording music, an influence you'll pick up in his disregard for traditional time and meter, his sometimes surreal imagery, and some fiendish turns of phrase that'll grab you by the mouth.
House doesn't exploit the unsavory characters in his songs. He's provocative, but not for the sake of provocation. There's a gentleness to his edge--a genuine empathy for the characters he writes about. But he isn't overly sentimental, either. He just tries to become these people. So empathy, yes. But not always sympathy. Esquire wrote that House "is a literary man, a Nashville barroom poet who . . . relies on the populist impulse to make the least hint of the literary disappear. He writes primitive songs so thrilling they could have been written a hundred years ago." That's true. There's a timelessness to his music, a sense that he's singing a song passed down for generations, even when he's singing about something he just read in the newspaper.
House is sometimes compared to Tom Waits, pre-Newport Bob Dylan, and the old-timey Appalachian folk singer Doc Boggs. But the first time I heard House I actually thought of Victoria Williams. There's a quirky vulnerability to his vocal that you get from Williams, both use music to paint evocative vignettes, and both play with rhythm and meter in ways that can at first be startling, even off-putting, but ultimately resolve into something satisfying. Both revel (and sometimes wallow) in their southernness, and both trawl it for material.
In his endorsement of The World According to Whiskey, House's published collection of poems, poet and anthology editor David Rigsbee wrote, "Tom House's poems carry the tradition of the Troubador into bars, motels, fundamentalist pulpits, and back yards of the New South. His work heal[s] the divorce that sundered poetry and music at the dawn of modernity."
I chatted with House earlier this month. He was also kind enough to play a few songs from my couch: his own songs "Jaime" and "Nothing at the Core", plus a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne".
Thanks to Mark Crozier for handling the sound editing. (The sometimes spotty camera work is all on me.)
So how did Tom House, the poet, become a singer and songwriter?
I started writing poems around age 17 or 18, I guess. I knew that’s what I wanted to be, what I wanted to do. I had been writing short stories for some time, but around 19, my mind started to splinter a bit. Maybe that’s because that’s about the time I started doing a lot of drugs. But I liked poetry better because it was more image-driven. I've always played guitar, too, but it took a while to figure out I could put the two into a package. So I started writing poetry when I moved to Chapel Hill to attend North Carolina, and kept writing for about 10 years. I did do some folk singing, too, but I was always nervous in front of people, especially when I tried to play my own songs.
Then I moved to Nashville in my mid-20s. And everybody I knew and got to know here was a songwriter. At the time, and this was the mid-70s, the places where you would play would give you free beer, maybe a sandwich to come in and sing. They had writers’ nights at the music clubs where they hadn’t booked anyone, and you could just go in and play your songs. So I think that's how I started finally getting comfortable playing my own songs.
But I still considered myself a poet. I started a magazine called Raw Bone in about ‘82. That went on for eight or nine years. There was a pretty active small press scene at the time that had evolved from the mimeograph movement. The slams then got popular and took poetry off in another direction, and that was a direction I was never really comfortable with. And I think that’s really when I lost interest in it. But I've published hundreds of poems and a number of chap books. In 2003 I had my first collection published by New South Press. But somewhere down the line I just geared more toward the music than the poetry. And I got a recording deal. Some guy just came up and asked if I would mind if he tried to do something with some of my songs. I had never really even considered that. And that was the start of my recording career.
Are there any poets who particularly influenced you?
I’m not sure any really influenced me. I was always impressed by Rimbaud, Baudelaire, guys like that. I hate to say it because it’s a cliche for a whole generation, but when I discovered Bukowski, it really hit me that there was a whole other kind of poetry, a more conversational sort of poetry. It was more storytelling. I think that’s where poetry and songwriting started to convene for me. I have a friend, David Rigsbee, who says poetry is a slice across the throat of time. You walk into a scene and you pick out all the details that are important to the scene, and that’s the poem. Songwriting is kind of like that too.
I've started writing poems again, and I think the music has had an impact. After the songwriting, I find I’m writing with more internal rhyme, more of a rhthym.
Many of your songs defy traditional time and meter. I read a review in the Nashville Scene with a quip that you must be a nightmare for session musicians.
I probably am. I think the standard formula is that you write words to fit the form of the song. Maybe it's because I started in words, but for me the words have always come first, and I bend the song around them. For me the drama is in the words. That’s what I’m most interested in emphasizing. I wrote some theatrical music for a while, and there you’re dealing with ensembles, so you have to play more by the rules, and I think that made me pay at least a little more attention to time and meter. But even there I had some songs that didn’t bend at all, and I guess it drove some people crazy.
You helped write an opera based on the work of Faulkner. Tell me about that.
Several years ago David Olney approached me about writing music for an adaptation of As I Lay Dying, along with Tommy Goldsmith and Karen Pell, who was writing for Reba McIntire at the time. We got about 10 or 11 songs into it, then discovered that someone else had already bought the grand performance rights to the book. So we switched over and wrote an opera from the first chapter of Light in August. We were then commissioned by Opera Memphis to sing the songs to open for the opera there, and we kind of blew the opera off the stage. We ended up performing them a couple times a year for about 15 years, including at the Faulkner Festival in Oxford, Mississippi. It went really well. But I think we just eventually kind of outgrew it. And of course Dave ended up having a bigger career than the rest of us, so it just started to fall apart over time. But it was a lot of fun while we did it.
What was Nashville like when you first arrived?
Well I came here with about $50 in my pocket. I was part of what you might call the second generation, after Kristofferson and all of them. I started working at a bookstore in Hillsboro Village, which was great, because I’d get off at 5:30, right at happy hour. So I could walk down the street and hear Steve Earle, or Dave Olney, or Richard Dobson, or Walter Hyatt. There was just all kinds of great music here. I came from Durham, North Carolina, and there was no music there at all. Any time you got more than ten teenagers together, the cops would come and arrest everybody. I remember my first week I heard some guy in a kilt playing bagpipes. I thought, “Man, this is one cool town. I gotta’ stay here.”
How did you hook up with Octus Orbus publishing?
Between the mid-80s and about the mid-90s, there used to be an open mic poetry night downtown, at the old Windows on the Cumberland. It was a cool thing. It was the first Thursday of every month, and anyone who wanted could sign up to read. The whole town came together for those readings. You’d have artists types along with professors from Vanderbilt and Fisk, cab drivers, songwriters. You might have a five-year-old girl read, and then I’d follow up with my scatological stuff, and then you’d have an old black woman who was a Sunday School teacher. Just all kinds of people. That was a big deal for about 10 years, until it ran its course.
Andy Valentine started Octus Orbus, and one of the things he did was publish a book of poetry from those readings over the years. So I knew Andy had this little publishing company. I then went on the road, and we didn’t stay in touch much. Andy’s actually a very good poet, though that’s not his primary interest in life. But I knew he had this company, and we met up again a few years ago and he said he wanted to get Octus Orbus up and running again. So we worked out a deal for him to buy songs and poems.
Andy’s putting some business savvy behind the nonsense I’ve been doing all these years. You know I remember going to college in Carolina and thinking all the business majors were dorks and idiots. But of course business majors run the world, now. I’ve seen some great people come through Nashville who never made any headway at all. The ones who did knew how to deal with the business side of things. They might not be as good onstage as the more artistic or genius oriented types, but they’re the ones who made it. Some managed to navigate both sides really well. Steve Earle is a good example of that.
But Andy’s been trying to get me some exposure, and he’s been taking care of the business ends that I’ve left dangling all these years.
Do you think the music and song publishing industries here are moving more toward smaller outfits like Octus Orbus?
I think that’s the direction the world is moving, not just Nashville. Nashville used to be like a church. There was only one way here, the Nashville way. I knew people who would drive themselves insane trying to get a song cut. If you didn’t fit into one of the labels’ little slots, you were just down the tubes. It’s why I never really got involved in the music scene for such a long time. I had people tell me, “Well, you can think you’re the resident genius all you want, be an ‘artist’ if you want to, but you’re not going to get anywhere in this town with that.” And I guess they were right.
But the Internet is changing all of that. I have pockets of fans now in the oddest places. I’m big in Winnipeg, Canada. I go up there once a year, and I play two nights to totally packed houses. It’s nutty. Or I’ll get an email out of the blue asking me to play in Charlottesville, Virginia. I have a pack of devoted fans in Seattle, Washington. For some reason, they love me in Sweden.
This is all the kind of stuff that never would have been possible before. Before, there were a few guys in offices who would determine whether or not you could write songs. That was it. If they didn't like you, you had no other options. Now I sell all my CDs through the Internet on CD Baby. For whatever reason, I sell most of them to people in Scandinavian countries. I don't really sell many in the U.S.
So do you have any good "only in Nashville" stories for me?
Let me see. Well about 25 years ago at Springwater we started something called the “Working Stiff Jamboree”. The only stipulation to play at the jamboree was that you couldn’t have a job in the music industry. You had to have a regular job. Terry Cantrell let us put them on long as we didn’t advertise. So that went on for a long time and got pretty big, just by word of mouth. It wasn't glamorous. There used to be holes in the roof, so when it would rain, the show could sometimes get rained out. The water in the room would be an inch or two thick. But it was a very democratic thing. A lot of the songwriter nights can get pretty political about who gets on stage. But for this, anyone could come up. You could be some left-wing Irish political band, a jazz band, German polka, whatever. We had them all.
You’d get some crazy people in the audience at those shows. Sometimes you’d find yourself having a dialogue with someone in the audience in the middle of the song. People would just start talking to you. I remember one guy, this character David Wall, he used to line up beer bottles on a table in the front row, and he’d blow across the tops of the bottles along with whatever song they were playing on stage.
Yeah. In tune and everything. He was a weird and talented guy. Looked like Tom Waits. He moved to Nashville after he got out of prison. He had this homemade three-string guitar, and he actually wrote a few good songs for it. He’d just slide his finger up and down that one string. Really one of Nashville’s true characters. He lived here about 10 years. I think he's in California now.
But the best story from those shows I can remember, there was a couple on stage singing this really stilted, operatic version of “God Bless the Child”. The woman, I think she worked in public radio, she was a very nice lady, but I think she thought of herself as some sort of classical singer, which didn’t go over well. There was a guy in the audience--and he’s still around so I won’t mention his name--he got fed up. He was a hard-core music fan, used a lot of drugs, he's pretty well-known around town. Anyway, he gets fed up, so he walks up to the stage and he actually sets the sheet music on fire while they’re playing. The poor woman didn't know what to do. Her music was on fire. Of course, the place just went nuts.
That's a magnificent story. What’s the best show you’ve seen in Nashville?
Hmm. That's a tough question. Dave Olney and the X-Rays were the hottest thing around in the late 70s. They’d close Springwater at 3 am every other weekend. The combination of him and Pat McLaughlin was just so dynamic and amazing to watch.
But I'd have to say the best single show I’ve seen in Nashville was Marshall Chapman in 1976. She’d just come out with Somewhere South of Macon, and was backed by this slinky, country swamp rock band. She went a little more rock ‘n’ roll after that, but that show, she was just so sultry and sexy. I got so damn drunk back then I didn’t know where I was, but I definitely still remember that show. Still one of the hottest shows I’ve ever seen.
You write about some unsavory characters. Drunks, addicts, mental patients, murderers, scoundrels. How do you get into the heads of the people you write about?
I think it varies from song to song. Sometimes I know exactly what I want to write. But sometimes I just start drinking, and then I start writing, and then I wake up in the morning I get to see what the whiskey fairy left me. There are times when I'll wonder the next day what I was thinking, but then I get out the guitar and start beating the lyrics into shape, and that’s when I realize my subconscious was trying to take me somewhere I needed to go. I just didn’t know quite how to get there.
But I think on those first-person songs, it's about getting locked into the head of the character, and then to not feel any embarrassment about being there. It’s a lot like method acting, I think. You try to become the person you’re writing about, to speak like they do, and think like they do. I love Tom Waits and Richard Thompson, who are both so good at that. But I like the old time stuff, too. There's some unabashed darkness in those old songs. You know Doc Boggs would write about just taking someone and slicing their throat. Some of that sentiment and some of that imagery can make people uncomfortable. I’ve got some songs I don’t do anymore because of that. I've got one, "Karen Gracen," about a mental patient who "bites her lip bloody then she disappears" as one of the orderlies at the hospital rapes her each night.
You want to challenge people, but you don’t want to make them uncomfortable, or make their night out a bad experience. That’s no fun. So there are some songs I just don’t do much anymore.
At the same time, everyone loves the old folk murder ballads. And there are plenty of popular blues songs about beatings, death, murder. Hell, that is the blues.
Yeah, people in the audience ask pretty often if I'll play some murder ballads. And I say, “Yes! I have lots of them!” But they’re of course wanting the old time stuff. Maybe it’s about time. The closer the what you’re singing about is to the present, the more uncomfortable people get. There aren't many songs today that have that kind of dramatic movement. I guess “Independence Day” does.
Which, strangely, conservative pundit Sean Hannity uses as the theme for his radio show . . .
. . . I also love “Whiskey Lullabye”, which a lot of people couldn’t take. But to me that line, “He put that bottle to his head and pulled the trigger,” I mean, wow, what an image.
Seems like a good time to talk about one of your more controversial songs, “I’m in Love With Susan Smith”, about the notorious South Carolina woman who murdered her two young sons. How did you come to write that one?
It just kind of happened. I remember watching that story as it was unfolding on TV. I remember seeing her on TV, and thinking her story--that a black guy had stolen her car and kidnapped her sons--I remember thinking she sounded so phony as she was telling it. I was working at a Dillards department store at the time, and we’d watch the story there. I was working with these mostly upper middle class, more upscale women. I remember then after it came out what she had done, they were all so arrogant and judgmental about the whole thing.
So I started reading about her. You know, her father was the head of the Republican Party there in Columbia, South Carolina, and he’d been raping her since she was a kid. Her mother knew about it. But it was that southern thing, you know? You keep your problems private. The more terrible the problems, the more private you keep them. It's this mentality that this is just the lot women have to deal with. You put up with it so you can keep your nice house and your place in society.
So then Smith’s husband left her, and she started seeing another man. The new man wanted her, but not the kids. So she killed the kids. It struck me that there’s so much more to the story than just this evil woman who killed her kids. It isn't a defense of Susan Smith at all. It's more looking at what else was hidden in that story. It was so convoluted, there was so much else going on there.
I had no idea what kind of effect that song was going to have. To me it was just, “Here’s a new song I wrote.” But the first time I played it, I mean jaws just dropped. I played that song at South By Southwest a few years back, and when I got to the line “Kill the bitch, there ain’t no mitigating factors”, these two cowboys in the audience stood up and cheered. And of course the next line is, “I’m in love with Susan Smith.” And so in one line, they went from cheering to flipping me the bird and walking out. My guitarist leaned over and said to me, “One of these nights, you’re going to get us killed.”
I don’t play that one very much any more, either. Except, oddly enough, in South Carolina. I always, always get requests for that song when I play in South Carolina. I’m actually playing in Columbia next week, and I’m sure I’ll be asked to play it.
Talk about one of the songs you played for us, “Nothing at the Core”.
That song was inspired by the book Things Fall Apart, by the South African author, what’s his name . . .
Achebe, I think.
Yes, Achebe. That’s one of the lines in the song, "things fall apart". The song is a somewhat pessimistic view of the United States in the 21st century. I’m not anti-American. I’m very pro-America when it comes to the things America is supposed to stand for. I just don’t think we stand for those things anymore. We've lost our core.
Well since you brought it up . . . how would you describe your politics?
I can’t call myself a liberal anymore. I just can't. And I’m damned sure not a conservative. I think the more I hear about it, the more I like the libertarian idea--the whole idea of being socially leftist and fiscally conservative, you know, rightist on the economic issues. That makes a lot of sense to me. I like the idea of a social network for people down on their luck, but you know I remember in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan, he was getting a pension for being governor of California, a pension for being president of the actors’ union, he was getting his presidential salary, and he was getting Social Security. The guy was making millions from a life of supposed public service. And then he was getting Social Security on top of that. Seems like no matter how-well intentioned government programs are, all the benefits go to the wrong people. And then the politicians tell us that the government is trillions in debt, but we have to keep fighting these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that no one can really justify. They can't say why we're there, what we're supposed to achieve, what or when we'll have won.
I just feel like little of what we’re doing right now is working.