Nashville’s Working Stiff Jamboree has been attracting poets, songwriters and disaffiliated left-wingers to Springwater, a local bar, for over a decade now. It’s a resolutely democratic affair; the microphone in the back room of the bar is open to anyone with nerve enough to take it. No one screens anybody’s material. What matters inside these walls is conviction. And it always has, ever since this fertile Saturday-night happening became a regular forum for unsung local artists such as Rob Stanley, John Allingham, Ann Tiley, Cadillac Bob Holmes, Steve Balaskey, Tom House and a host of others.
Co-founder House, a poet and self-described barroom singer, is the most singularly gifted of the working stiffs. He’s also the most prolific. More than 600 of his poems have appeared in print; from 1982 to 1988, he edited and put out raw bone, a journal of scatological leanings known for writing as spare as it was brutal. In 1992, House was commissioned, along with Tommy Goldsmith, David Olney and Karen Pell, to write a song cycle based on Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, as well as an opera drawn from the opening chapter of Light In August.
Though House, now 47, has been a published poet since his late teens, it never dawned on him to try his hand at songwriting until he was well into his 20s. “I got my first guitar when I was 15,” recalls House, a native of Durham, N.C. “I played some folk songs on it, but it just never entered my mind to write my own songs. I wrote on a typewriter, not a guitar, so I sold it to [then unknown songwriter] Don Schlitz for $50 to go to Woodstock. I was 27 before I ever performed onstage.”
Another 20 years passed before House recorded Inside These Walls, his self-released debut. Not surprisingly, House’s lyrics reveal an unerring eye for detail and an ear for the colloquialisms of everyday speech; his narratives, at times reminiscent of the stories of Tillie Olsen and the late Breece D’J Pancake, offer mordant commentary on the resiliency of working men and women.
Yet House never gets preachy or moralistic, despite the weightiness of his material. True to the maxim that it’s best to show rather than tell your audience something, he lets his images and characters speak for themselves. “Cole Durhew”, for example, presents a God-fearing laborer and family man accused of committing a series of bloody crimes, while “Karen Gracen”, a song as harrowing as it is explicit, descends into the private hell of a mental patient whose caretaker rapes her each day.
House populates many of his songs with marginalized, forgotten characters, people with whom he identifies far more than those he calls “the cheery, rubbery-faced, family-values people.” House certainly comes by this affinity honestly: As someone who has labored much of his adult life to make ends meet, his writing reveals a working-class alienation that’s taken its toll on his dreams, personal life and mental health. The walls mentioned in the record’s title allude to anything — distance, drink, years of not communicating — that separates House from the people he loves.
Indeed, “Circe” finds him sitting up all night counting the cost of loving. On “Something to Say”, House hopes his lover will talk him out of leaving, but when she barely acknowledges his presence, he’s left with little more than the ghosts of past mistakes. “Received a Letter” is equally wrenching: House gets a letter from his aging father who, feeling his world slipping away, tries to connect with his son before it’s too late.
The album’s lilting, acoustic guitar-based melodies — a cross between the old-timey music of Charlie Poole and that of latter-day inheritors Hazel Dickens and Si Kahn — often belie the deep melancholy that clouds House’s lyrics. His delivery can nonetheless be exhilarating, especially when, as on “Catatonic Song” and “Albatross”, he strings pregnant images together in rapid succession. It’s a heady combination of the sprung rhythms of 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and the head-arranged monologues of the young Bob Dylan. Even after a cursory listen, it’s no wonder House never writes with a band in mind: Like the music of blues legends Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, his cadences are too idiosyncratic to be fettered to a rhythm section.
All of which points to the singularity of House’s vision and talent, something not even people on the fringes of the music industry appreciate. “Across the board, I get, ‘folk poetry/no commercial value/can’t see anyone but the artist doing it’,” House says of his infrequent encounters with music publishers.
At this point, though, he probably doesn’t care much what other people think of his music. “You’re not writing for someone else,” he says. “You write because you write.”