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Nashville Scene Southern Discomfort

The underrated Tom Ovans

By Jim Ridley

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  The last time Tom Ovans sought career advice, he asked a Music Row veteran how to get ahead. The response: "Dress up every time you go out, even when you go to the Mapco." The cover of Ovans' new album, Dead South, shows how well he listened. His blue-jean jacket is beat to hell, his jeans look like Jackson Pollack's drop cloth. His face is barely visible under a stocking cap.

The Music Row vet probably wouldn't approve of much else about the record, or about Ovans' career path in general. Ovans has lived here for about 17 years, but he hasn't bothered to play local clubs since 1993. He released three albums on his own before signing to a British label, Demon, known here for releasing records by such rockers as Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. While his name recognition in his hometown has dwindled, he draws crowds elsewhere around the country and especially in Europe. "I'm considered country over there," Ovans says in a wry, scratchy murmur. "Here, I'm not even considered."

He should be. Dead South, Ovans' fifth and finest record, has a stark, skeletal sound not unlike Bob Dylan's late-'60s masterpiece John Wesley Harding. But where Dylan traffics in personal mythology and gnomic mysticism, Ovans paints urban desolation with lines as spare and insinuating as century-old blues couplets. "Clock strikes five, the watch says 10/Phone is ringing but there's nobody in," sings Ovans in "Better Off Alone," perfectly evoking a loner's jittery sense of dislocation.

The songs, as sung by Ovans in a hot dry wind of a whisper, are so intimate and bare that it's tempting to read them as autobiography--especially when he boasts, "All over this town doors slam in my face/Cause I don't play the game, don't worship their race." In conversation, however, Ovans is careful to draw a line between himself and his characters, who often blot out their despair with motion and miles, if not booze, drugs, or blood. The inspiration for "The Folksinger," a hard-headed folkie's anthem, came as much from a chance encounter with famed troubadour Eric Anderson as it did from his own years of touring.

"I was doing a radio show in Austin, and I ran into [Anderson]," Ovans recalls. "I was stunned to see him--after all this time I thought he might be kinda burned out. But when he played his eyes were on fire, and he was still fighting the good fight. Just to see him still cooking was incredible." The song grew to include "a lot of us who started out hitting the road and couldn't stop."

Another of the new record's stunners is "1945," an old soldier's bittersweet memory of the night he lost his virginity during wartime. The song was inspired by the old men Ovans encountered when he was sleeping in flophouses early in his career. "I used to look at these old guys looking out the window, thinking back to a special moment in their lives," he explains. In performance, the song exemplifies Ovans' combination of close observation, pitiless compassion, and empathy for all the people who peer from behind tenement windows and darkened corners.

Definition of success
Tom Ovans, a stranger in his own hometown.
Photo by Lou Ann Bardash.

On the album Ovans accompanies himself throughout on guitar, harmonica, and percussion, with occasional embellishments from Lambchop's Allen Lowrey on drums and bongos, Bob Kommersmith and engineer Robb Earls on bass, and Ovans' partner Lou Ann Bardash on backing vocals. No matter who's playing, though, the record has an urgent, compelling one-man-band sound--particularly on "Rita, Memphis & the Blues," which sets off Ovans' harp with a confrontational tom-tom tattoo and jagged electric guitar.

"I knew I couldn't take songs that needed a whole lot of production," Ovans says of the selection process. As a writer, he says, the main concern was to be true to what the songs were telling him. "The biggest crime in songwriting is selling out the song--tacking on some kind of clever ending or cute play on words," he observes. It happens all the time in Nashville, but back in the tough clubs Ovans frequented in Greenwich Village and Cambridge in the 1970s, "if you did that to a song, somebody'd throw a beer mug at you."

Dead South is available only as an import from Demon, but Ovans says Tower Records now has the CD in stock. However, you might have to search for the hard-to-classify singer-songwriter. "I think they've got me in the folk section this year," Ovans says. "Maybe this year I'm a folksinger."

Nashville's Spider Virus, which just released its first album on New York-based Ng Records, returns to stomp its hometown with Godzilla feet Saturday at the new 1st Avenue club Tommy Guns. The slamboyant quartet spent the summer on the Warped Tour in support of its new self-titled CD, which was recorded with indie-rock curmudgeon Steve Albini (Nirvana, Big Black, PJ Harvey). With its deliberately stoopid lyrics, stop-start riffage, and faux-jazz interludes, the record should be lame as hell, but it's actually kind of a guilty pleasure--thanks largely to a goofy sense of humor, drummer Tracy Coss' unexpected fills, and a steroidal guitar sound. Live, they oughta be a gas. The group performs at 11 p.m.

Elliptical dispatches: Head down to the Exit/In Tuesday night for a double bill of Fluid Oz. and Count Bass D, two of the liveliest exports from Murfreesboro, that new music mecca discovered by Billboard three weeks ago. The Count unveiled some killer new material at The Spot last month, and Fl. Oz.'s Big Songbook for Easy Piano remains one of the year's brightest pop releases. Nice to know somebody was able to find Seth Timbs a mobile piano....

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