There's a concept in robotics called the “Uncanny Valley.” It describes the point where a robot created to look human crosses a mental boundary and begins to make people feel uncomfortable. There is no such similar term in music, but the concept is the same. We crave songwriters who pour their emotions onto the page and share the innermost workings of the human psyche, to a point. Beyond that point, when metaphor and melody turn into stark truth, is a place where many listeners don't want to go. This musical version of the uncanny valley may explain why songwriter Tommy Womack, who has been heralded multiple times since the '80s as the next big “breakout “artist, never realized that goal. On his new album Namaste, which released June 24, Womack smooths those rough edges a bit but still maintains that “warts and all” songwriting style that has made him a Nashville favorite for three decades.
As the name would suggest, Namaste finds Womack in a better place than in 2007's music industry bridge burner There, I Said It! But it took some serious trauma to get to that good place. In 2007, Womack's heart stopped from an overdose of methamphetamines and cocaine. After getting clean in 2012, Womack faced death again in 2015 when a devastating car accident nearly took his life again. The 2007 overdose gives rise to the most frank emotional gut-punch on Namaste, “I Almost Died.” Never one for subtleties, the song starts “I almost died, the Lord or the Devil nearly had my hide. Everything ground to a halt inside. God in Heaven, I almost died.” It's the kind of song that, in the hands of other writers, might have neatly wrapped up three and a half minutes later with recovery and acceptance. Not Womack. He doesn't flinch from the fact that it took him another five years to get clean, snarling “did it scare me to death? I believe so. Did it make me stop? Hell no.”
But not everything is bleak in Tommy Womack's musical world. He's always been a gifted storyteller and one of music's driest comic wits and he puts that talent for a sardonic turn of a phrase to good use when tackling the concept of aging on two of the album's standout tracks, “Comb-Over Blues” and “Hot Flash Woman.” Set to a train-drive blues melody, “Comb-Over Blues” contains gems like “got every last follicle doing the work of five” because he “can't afford the Rogaine, can't afford the plugs. Don't want everybody laughing at my rug.” The ladies get their turn on “Hot Flash Woman”, which not many male singers could pull off but Womack nails by the sheer goofball humor of lines like “my baby's losing what she can't keep, 'cause she's a hot flash woman”.
Not surprisingly considering the two near death experiences and Womack's history as a preacher's son, religion gets its turn on Namaste as well. Womack describes his own religious beliefs as “fuzzy Buddhist Methodist.” It's a concept that Womack has explored before, finding ample material in the dueling concepts of Jesus as the peacenik preacher of the Bible and Jesus as the head of a worldwide religious movement that doesn't always jibe with his “Prince of Peace” moniker. On “God, Part III”, Womack tackles his reconciliation of religious belief out of the gate, mixing and matching systems with “I try to be a Christian, 'cause that's how I was raised. 'Work within your faith' is what the Dalai Lama says. I choose to picture Jesus in the clouds up above. I believe in Beatles, I believe in love.” It's a song that is both topical and timeless and it's one of the high points on Namaste.
Womack's best material is saved for the music business and his hometown of Nashville. On “When Country Singers Were Ugly”, a straight out of Music City steel guitar riff anchors both an indictment of the “beautiful people” in current pop country and also an ode to the genre's unattractive founders, singing “Willie was nothing to look at. All Waylon inspired was fear. Country singers were tough on the eyes, but not so often the ears.”
But the satirical star of Namaste is the live beat poetry style song “Nashville.” It's obvious that Womack loves his home town but, like many long time residents, also sees the downside of becoming an “it” city. Womack delivers lines like “spill a glass of expensive wine out in the front yard and watch a condominium sprout up in its place” with more loving lines like “From Tootsie's to the Ryman Auditorium, good Lord that skyline is a beautiful sight.”
Tommy Womack isn't for everyone. He's never going to be the kind of singer that gives a couple “our song” or writes the kind of subtle rhyming wisdom that makes its way into court opinions like Springsteen or Dylan. But for those who are willing to peek behind the curtain, to walk that uncanny valley alongside Womack, Namaste is another brilliant, often hilarious, and always on point entry from Nashville's best kept secret.