- Tommy Womack: He is Government Cheese.
It's not the least bit surprising that Tommy Womack wrote one of the greatest books on the giddy highs and desultory lows of being in a midlevel rock and roll band in the '80s. Anyone who was ever witness to the sheer rock madness of Government Cheese could tell you that there could be no better biographer for that ill-fated task than Womack, the Cheese's front guy/asylum director. His account of the band's semi-rise and definite fall, The Cheese Chronicles, has become essential training material for anyone even remotely considering a career in regional rock and roll merrymaking.
But even the writing of that brilliant cautionary tale couldn't keep Womack from pursuing another band, the Bis-Quits, after the demise of Government Cheese; nor could it prevent him from regular reunions of GC for the original Cheeseheads or stop him from initiating a less than lucrative solo career (his sophomore album, Stubborn, was just released on Sideburn Records). With all that he learned, not just from being in a band, but from reliving it on paper for four solid years, how could he consciously choose this life? It's a mystery even to Womack.
"I made more money Friday morning for an article than I made all month from music," he says from his Nashville home on the eve of a brief Midwest tour. "I've been at this crossroads, where I have to wonder if I should just sit down at the typewriter and just do that and leave the music to Ron Sexsmith and Will Kimbrough and Brad Jones."
Tommy Womack was born a preacher's son, the year J.F.K. was assassinated, and showed the kind of immediate promise that is the birthright of genius ("I couldn't tie my shoes until the third grade, I got the training wheels off my bike late, I did everything last."). He did show a facility for art, which he abandoned as soon as he began setting word to paper at an early age.
"At 12, I was typing short stories that were making my family chuckle," Womack says. "I was like the family prodigy that started with drawing, and they thought that was where it would lead, to some visual art. As soon as I got into writing, the sketch art thing went to hell. Then I found out about rock and roll about 13 or 14, and I pursued the writing, but I got a guitar."
The teenage rebellion years became the formative launching pad for the seminal version of Government Cheese in 1984, just after Womack's college graduation. The Cheese became an amazing Midwest phenomenon as it toured relentlessly along the East Coast and throughout the nation's breadbasket, earning loyal fans that remain steadfast to this day.
"Government Cheese proper played their first gig in January of 1985," Womack says. "We broke up the first time in April of '92, when we had fulfilled gig requirements and finished a record and got it paid for . . . kind of like staying together for the sake of the children, until they graduate. After a couple of years, we just started playing again. We had our first reunion, and it was huge. We were like "Okay, this one time and no more.' Unlike the Who, we're not going there. And here we are, how many reunions later? Right now, I'm looking at a video that just came in the mail today of the last reunion, which was on Tax Day. It's as much a social thing for people that were fans as it is about us. There's this loose network of at least 1,000 people -- hardcore mofos that went to dozens and dozens of shows, and they know all the people that used to come to the shows."
There is a downside to the amount of time that's passed since the end of the Cheese, as Womack found at the Tax Day reunion. "I did a little opening set, and I've still got bits of heckler in my teeth from that one," he says. "It was this solo set of stuff I've done since the Cheese -- "Betty Was Black" off the Bis-Quits record, "Positively Na Na" off that record, and this white boy attempt at "I Can't Be Satisfied" with the bottleneck slide, and then I did "Okie From Muskogee," for some reason, off the cuff. Then this big tattooed motherfucker with hair down to his ass gets up and grabs my mic and says, "You're done, motherfucker. Bring on Government Cheese!' I said, "Excuse me, I am Government Cheese, you dumb dick.' He had no idea. Beer makes people dumb."
After the Cheese's first crumbling, Womack threw in with a new batch of players, the result of which was the Bis-Quits. Although they lasted only two years and produced only a single album, Womack is lavish in his praise for the combined efforts of the players that made up the Bis-Quits.
"It lasted for two years, and every day that it lasted, I was just grateful it was happening, because every personality in the band was 10 feet tall," says Womack. "Disagreements over the color of the sky? All the time. And you knew at any time it could be over. To come out of Government Cheese and wanting so badly to make it, and come up short, I was suddenly blessed with this second chance. Suddenly John Prine's label is interested in us, we had guys coming to the gigs that we would have killed for. Every day, these guys were on the verge of breaking up, and I'd be like Vince Lombardi, coaching: "Come on, man, make this trip.' I went from a band where I was one of the better musicians to a band where I was one of the worst, and from a band where I was one of the more scatterbrained to being the voice of reason. For two years, this band was just a miracle."
And then came The Cheese Chronicles. Womack had had the experiences related in the book rattling around in his head for more than a couple of years. When he sat down to begin Chronicles, he had no inkling that the process would take him four years and consume nearly all of his waking time.
"I wrote the book so that it wouldn't be spinning around in my head anymore," Womack recalls. "I'd kept a journal off and on, in various forms. I did the newsletter for the band. And the newsletter that was mailed to people -- that was an extremely pared-down version of multiple streams of consciousness, head shit. I had crates of stuff laying around. Equally valuable were bull sessions we had as band members, after we knew I was writing the book."
As Womack approached the end of the book process, his musical side began to re-emerge in the germs for the songs that eventually appeared on his first solo album, 1998's Positively Na Na. Putting together a few stray members of the Bis-Quits and a variety of other friends, Womack recorded his new songs, most of which had the distinct feel of sardonic short stories set to a rootsy rock beat, like Warren Zevon as a Nashville cat. The writer side was invading the musical side.
In the two years since Womack's solo debut, he has seen much upheaval. He did some limited touring to support the album and played a couple of Government Cheese and Bis-Quits reunion gigs, and he and his wife Beth welcomed son Nathan Tucker into the Womack household. (Tommy was actually readying a mix of Positively Na Na when the contractions began.) He's working on his second book, a rumination on his high school experiences, tentatively titled Jesus Has Left the Building. And to make ends meet, he works as a temp in the biochemistry department of Vanderbilt University, which, as it turns out, is a great gig for struggling musicians.
"You could make an album of Vandy temps that would blow your mind," he says with a laugh. "Paul Burch, Amy Rigby, half of fucking Lambchop . . . you could make a CD and just call it Vandy Temps. Peel back the curtain and realize that nobody's making a living at this, and everybody's chewing their fingernails down to the third knuckle."
With so many endeavors being kept in motion simultaneously, Womack comes to a swift conclusion when asked a pointed question about which of his creative natures is the more dominant.
"The way the wind is blowing, I've got to say that I'm probably a writer who sings," he says. "God, I wish I could make up my mind about that one. If only by the grace of this incredibly elongated adolescence that our generation has been afforded, I've been able to pursue a literary and sonic avocation simultaneously. Neither side has fully won out yet. I can tell you, though, I made six records and barely made a dent in society's door, and then I wrote a book about the first band, and suddenly I was the guy in town that wrote that book. I don't know how far I need to go to justify it, except to say that, if you learned about me from the book, welcome to the show, and if you learned about me through the music, check out the book and see how long I can get away with doing both. Not that you asked me for a neurotic exposé of it, but I do constantly wonder whether I should just put all the eggs in one basket, like Captain Beefheart just paints."