Tom House – Welcome to the occupation
The irregular application of red dye has done little to subdue Tom House’s half-long hair, nor to mute the gray at his temples. The rushing years have only served to speed his work, anyway. Four albums in five years have hardly made a career of his songs, though they have ensured that his music will not easily be forgotten.
But, then, nothing about Tom House is easy. Not the high, rushed quaver with which he sings, not the words he writes and the life from which his stories emerge. The recently released Jesus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a hard and loving record, thoroughly out of fashion, and brilliant. As were its predecessors.
Tom House drives a modest late-model sedan into which everything he owns carefully fits, save for a few boxes of old papers and unmarked cassettes stored at his second ex-wife’s house. For last four years he’s made his home in hotel rooms across the South, frequenting weekly suites built for business travelers and less savory addresses. He drinks some and writes a lot, still preferring his electric typewriter to the laptop that stays plugged in when he’s home. Wherever home is.
This is not a sad story.
We like our poets broken and odd (or swaddled in tweed), but Tom House is only slightly bent. True enough, his voice is broken and odd, as are many of the characters who so vividly inhabit his songs. The cult of celebrity argues that House should have paid some terrible, preferably exotic price for having made their acquaintance; if so, he has borne the cost with remarkable equanimity and grace.
House first announced himself to the edges of a national audience with “The Hank Williams Memorial Myth”, a blunt, 60-second spoken word intro to Bloodshot’s 1996 compilation Nashville: The Other Side Of The Alley. He followed it ten tracks later with the spare “Cole Durhew”, plucked from his self-released tape Inside These Walls.
Even amid that collection of rebels, House seemed an outsider. He was already 47, no post-punk picker, and by no dream middle class in style or aspiration.
Successive albums only confirmed that suspicion. He followed Bloodshot co-founder Eric Babcock to Checkered Past Records for his 1997 debut disc The Neighborhood Is Changing (featuring the multidimensional “I’m In Love With Susan Smith”), and for 1998’s This White Man’s Burden (which received a Greil Marcus rave in Esquire).
When Babcock left Checkered Past to launch Catamount, House’s 1999 album ‘Til You’ve Seen Mine became one of his first releases. It is an extraordinary work, filled with powerful, vivid portraits of hard love such as “Sister’s Song” (she sees her junkie brother on the street, and turns away) and “The Cold Hard Curve Of A Question Mark” (the comfort of a stranger in a darkened hotel room), augmented by the rousing testimonial of “Long Hard Drinking”. It was also House’s most musically ambitious outing, with guests including Sam Bush, David Olney and Tracy Nelson.
Jesus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore sets a simpler musical table, and more traps. Takes more risks, but that’s what he does with such deceptive simplicity. And, anyway, what’s to lose?
“The first time we played SXSW I closed the set with ‘Susan Smith’, and got to the line, ‘Kill the bitch, ain’t no mitigating factors,'” House remembers, words tumbling along with a twinkle as he sips Sunday afternoon coffee. “These two yahoo cowboys got up and started cheering. The very next line is, ‘I’m in love with Susan Smith because I hate all of you.’ And they got really embarrassed and scuffled off, raising hell and cussing. [Tommy] Goldsmith leans over and says, ‘You’ll get us killed one of these days.’ But I get a kick out of that.” He laughs deeply, a tin rainstorm of he-he-he-he.
For better than a decade, House was Nashville’s resident confrontational poet, challenging audiences with the content and presentation of his words.
“I had incredible stage fright when I first started,” he explains. “Well, drinking made it a lot easier. And it just became a habit that I fell into. I had become a wild persona that everyone would egg on. I think sometimes it pisses [Lambchop leader] Kurt Wagner off: ‘You used to be a lot more surly in front of the audience.’ And I did, because I was pissed off all the time, and I’m just not so much. I’ve gotten over it.
“That was just part of my stage schtick for a while, to insult the crowd. And I was playing the Springwater a lot, too, so…it was not the most well-behaved crowd. But I remember a woman came up to me after one show when I was starting to play sober, and she was like, ‘I’ve liked your music for a long time, but I never knew what you were saying.'”
He laughs. “That kind of made a big impression on me. And things did exponentially start taking off as people realized that’s what it was. It ain’t like I’m a band or anything; you don’t hear the words, you’re missing 95 percent of what I’m doing.”