In a chocolate fedora, blue pinstriped suit and black spit-shined shoes, Tom Roznowski looks like he just stepped out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. “My dad used to say I was born a half-century early,” the forty-ish Roznowski says, tipping the brim of his hat over his eyes.
His debut, A Well-Traveled Porch, due out early this year on Tennessee independent label Bell Buckle Records, is like a road trip in a time warp, passing through the unpaved byways of country, folk and bluegrass. In his well-worded story-songs, Roznowski honors the ideas of simplicity and durability, like the silver Timex watch he winds every day.
The first-born child of a geographer, Roznowski endows the album with a simultaneous sense of place and restlessness (as the title implies). Like the blue-tick canine Ulysses in “Old Hound Dog”, Roznowski has circled a comfy spot and decided to lie down, but he still enjoys moving from sun to shade.
Be it love songs or tall tales, Roznowski’s work reads like fine fiction, as in the offbeat and humorous “Stewed Cucumbers”, the story of a man who dies at a Labor Day picnic after eating a sun-poisoned dish prepared by a pretty girl. “Not landslide or shipwreck, not dog bite or mule kick, the cause was unexpected, the food at a picnic.”
“I like imagining things,” Roznowski explains. “And I thought, ‘What used to kill people?’”
In “Hot Grease At Midnight” an abusive husband gets a comeuppance from his wife, who, with a twist of her wrist, dowses him with the dregs of a frying pan. Tackling a broader subject, the piano-driven “Under The Gum Tree” examines the ironies of slavery: “My master chained us to his wagon/We walked barefoot for miles/And up in the wagon, my master, his daughter/He gives her some licorice while the horses got water.”
The musical foundation for A Well-Traveled Porch is laid by a renowned cast of pickers that includes John Hartford on banjo, Nell Levin on fiddle, John Hedgecoth on jug, and Robbie Taylor on lap steel and dobro. Producer Brent Truitt allows each instrument plenty of room to dance around Roznowski’s elastic rich tenor, a voice that breathes wide and open.
Though Roznowski claims to have written close to 1,500 songs, A Well-Traveled Porch is his first public outing. “The term ‘singer-songwriter’ is two ends of a hyphen pulling in opposite directions,” he explains. “Singing is a public exercise, but songwriting is a very private process; it’s something you do alone. It took me a long time for me to develop the public part of it.”
Timing was another factor in Roznowski’s decision to keep his music confined to rented cellars and garages. A fan of Randy Newman, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, Roznowski says he decided to become a songwriter because he believed he could find a place in a field so broad it could include both a mountain troubadour and a New York junkie. As he puts it, “I was listening to Hazel Dickens talking about her experiences and realized she has the same job as Lou Reed.”
Yet by the time Roznowski had this creative epiphany in the late ’70s, the music industry was showing singer-songwriters the door, ushering in a new era of band-oriented music. In the late ’80s, the tide started to shift toward solo acts, but by then, Roznowski says, “I was having too much fun by myself. I created a universe, and breaking out was tough.”
In the universe Roznowski has created on A Well-Traveled Porch, he witnesses casual instances of cruelty and kindness, irony and humor, then records them in a musical history book. “I try to reflect on these small moments of great resonance,” he says. “That’s the whole crux of what I do, to get into those moments.”