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The Real Deal

Mike Ireland and Tommy Womack share stages, compliments and musical visions

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Tommy Womack has opinions, and you don't have to dare him to use them. Five years ago, in perhaps only a semi-hyperbolic moment, the Nashville-based Womack shared the thought that he'd rather give kids crack than let them listen to commercial country music. He still holds to that: "I'd rather give them more crack, up the dose, than let them listen to country radio," he says.

Just that quickly, Womack's on a roll. "I can't believe country radio is still around. It's like the Soviet system. You keep waiting for the wall to fall down, and it never falls down. It's gotten so bad, they're bitchin' about it inside the castle walls now." (Keep it going, Tommy, you think to yourself.) "A quote from Tony Brown, MCA Records. Front page, big, bold-lettered quote. 'A lot of music in this town is subpar, and I'm partially responsible.' He actually said that. That's like Leonid Brezhnev standing up and admitting, OK, it's fucked. Open elections, whatever. That was a year ago, and nothing's changed."

Yeah, Tommy Womack has a way with words. He's my favorite kind of singer/songwriter--rocked-up with both a literary and wiseass streak. Both streaks were on display in his mid-'90s book Cheese Chronicles: The True Story of a Rock 'n' Roll Band You've Never Heard Of, which details the life and death of Womack's Bowling Green, Ky., outfit, Government Cheese, with welcome humor and from a well-earned skewed perspective.

Womack's been working on a follow-up since, a high school memoir. He's been juggling its creation with the creation of three solo albums and a child. "It's tougher to write than Cheese Chronicles was 'cause it's tougher to find that same wistfully funny tone about stuff that was just a lot more painful," he says. "Don't want it to be just a whiny piece of crap, 'Prozac Nation for Boys,' or something." In the meantime, aficionados of the written word can busy themselves with an epistolary novella titled "The Lavender Boys and Elsie," which can be found at tommywomack.com.

Music-leaning Womack fans have a little more to keep them going, courtesy of those three solo records. (Note for completists: Womack's post-Government Cheese band, an NRBQ/Replacements hybrid named the Bis-quits, released one album for John Prine's Oh Boy label). His debut, Positively Na Na, balanced songs like the murderously rocking "Skinny and Small," an over-the-top flashback from Womack's formative years, with 30-something scenes such as the title track's "Leafin' through Rolling Stone/In a waiting room all alone/And you never felt so old/Readin' the reader's poll." Stubborn, Womack's sophomore effort, came from the same mold, tossing in a Kinks cover for good measure.

On his recent Circus Town, Womack auditions for the role of the new millennium's Roger Miller on "The Highway's Coming," comes up with the best song title of the year so far in "You Could Be at the Beach Right Now, Little Girl," and shares another painful high school memory with the near-power-popping "Sleeping with Cecilia." It "goes hand in hand with 'Skinny and Small' and some of the other songs," explains Womack. "That's another high school nerd song." But honors for song of the album, if not the year, go to "The Replacements," Womack's 8-and-a-half-minute talking-blues-style meditation on what made the titular outfit simultaneously the most exasperating and most exhilarating band on the planet.

As the phone conversation winds down, we start trading names of all the unsung heroes in Nashville, folks that you won't hear on country radio but that you might very well find on one of Womack's albums (or Womack on theirs): Bill Lloyd, Will Rigby, Lonesome Bob, Duane Jarvis, Tim Carroll, Kristi Rose, Fats Kaplan, Jason Ringenberger. Then we come to one powerhouse who doesn't reside in Nashville, Mike Ireland, a guy for whom Womack will be opening on a short tour (with a stop at The Basement in Durham on Aug. 2) and a performer that he calls "one of the best country singers alive."

Nope, Mike Ireland doesn't live in Nashville, and everybody is always asking him why he doesn't move there. "Third most commonly asked question. Not only just by interviewers, pretty much by anybody," chuckles the affable Ireland. "I just can't see doing it. It seems like that's the last thing they need in Nashville--one more guy who thinks he's gonna sing and write songs." Ireland is quite content in Kansas City. He has a way of operating that, if the two gorgeous albums that he's made with his band Holler are any indication, is working just fine. "I really trust the idea of sort of being outside the machinery in a way, or outside the business. I trust the idea that good music is idiosyncratic. People make the stuff up because in their own little ways, they're weird. They have little quirks. They're not aware of what everybody else is doing."

In 1998, after the break-up of his marriage and of the band he co-led, the Starkweathers--both victims of the same romantic betrayal--Ireland and Holler released Learning How to Live. It was the sound of a man being thrown from a horse, metaphorically speaking, and then wondering why. The fact that this contemplation was backlit by lush, Billy Sherrill-styled country music, what a friend dubbed "alt-countrypolitan," only added to its power and poignancy.

Some four years down the road, the aptly titled follow-up Try Again offers the sound of that same man climbing back on the horse, albeit with the occasional slip and some justifiable caution. There's a palatable sense of the tide turning as the title track, positioned uncharacteristically late on the record, closes "All right, I'll make the long haul/She might let me down after all/But a life without faith ain't life at all/So I'll try again."

Ireland once again captures the mood of '60s country pop, embodied by the natural twang and unforced catch in his voice by Buddy Cage's steel guitar, and by the tumbling piano of co-producer Michael Deming. A cover of Charlie Rich's "Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs" fits in perfectly, both musically and thematically. "It reflects where I am in my life," says Ireland about Try Again. "I am involved with somebody. And a lot of what's going on on the record is kind of what I'm dealing with. It may not be the facts of my life, but it's certainly a lot of the issues of my life." Ultimately, Try Again paints Ireland as a true believer--a believer in both country music and the mysterious workings of the human heart.

"The real deal" is a description that gets a lot of air time in Ireland write-ups, and the people at the Grand Old Opry are among the many who recognize Ireland's talent and sincerity; so much so that after several successful appearances, he now has what amounts to an open invitation. "If what they mean by 'the real deal' is that there's some sense of soul, which I think in the end is what people respond to, then maybe I am. I don't know," responds Ireland when presented with those words.

And when informed of Womack's comment about him, Ireland requests equal time. "Tommy Womack is the only person in the country who's not a rock 'n' roll star who actually ought to be playing giant arenas. I swear to God." EndBlock

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