Tom House is in a motel, of course. You get the feeling he spends a lot of time in such places. Not in fancy ones, either. The automated answering service says, "Suburban Lodge." If he doesn't pick up the phone, it probably means he's online; the front desk'll charge you for every local call, so once he gets dialed into his ISP, he usually just leaves it connected.
He's feeling pretty good, all things considered. There was the unpleasant discovery last year that he has hepatitis C, which he figures dates back to a blood transfusion following a near-fatal car wreck in the 1970s. ("Of course," he says, "there was some recreational needle use when I was young...") His research on hep-C convinced him to quit drinking a few months ago, which hasn't been hard on anything but his social life. He'll be 52 years old soon, and he wants to keep playing music and writing as long as possible, because hell, what else is there to do?
Tom House is kind of a wild guy, nice as they come, smart and talkative and prone to starting anecdotes by saying things like, "I was still partially married at the time..." Maybe sometimes he wonders why more people don't get what he does, but most of the time he's glad for the ones who do. There are a few people (like veteran music critic Greil Marcus) who will tell you he's a genius, and a lot of record label executives who will tell you they can't stand him, can't sell him, or just don't know what the heck to make of him. So he goes along as he can, putting out three albums in the last five years, with another one to come this year if everything works out. He also collaborates with friends like Dave Olney and Tommy Goldsmith on assorted projects, including acclaimed musical adaptations of Faulkner's Light in August and Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies.
"For a while there, I thought I might be on some kind of rise," he says. "But then I had to realize, no, I'm just in the trenches and I'm going to stay there." He doesn't sound too bothered.
House is a folksinger, and if that makes you think acoustic guitar and sensitive lyrics and so forth, you're partly right. But his music (as the folks at Sugar Hill and Rounder and the other major "folk" labels have told him) is on the rough side, tapped more by instinct than design into the vein that produced Dock Boggs and Uncle Dave Macon and their ilk. There's nothing smooth about it—not his voice, which fills his songs with a ragged wordless "ya ya li li de da da" between most of the written lines; not his guitar playing, which charges out ahead and then circles back and often sounds in danger of breaking all the strings at once; and not his writing, which is more Bukowski than Carter Family and full of sharp details and unspoken conclusions.
He discovered Bukowski, by the way, when they both had poems published in the same issue of the literary journal Nausea back in the ’60s. "That kind of opened my eyes, that you could write like that," says House, whose own poem was more of a "Rimbaudish, Dylan" thing, "probably very derivative—I don't read those poems much anymore."
House grew up in Durham, N.C., the son of a floor-tiler. Summer days, his father would take him to a "drive-in" tavern where the men sat around in their cars with the windows down because it was too hot to be indoors, and the boys ran between them playing. From a young age, House wanted to write, and his father encouraged him, although he didn't always like the results. (Their relationship is gently limned in "Letter From My Father," off House's 1999 album ’Til You've Seen Mine: "Dear tom, he wrote, not that much to say/But it just felt like something was slipping away/And i wanted to write to you and talk about it." Shortly after House wrote the song, his father killed himself.)
He went to college at Chapel Hill in the fall of 1967 but had trouble staying there. "I just got caught up in everything that was going on," he says. "So the first thing I did of course was get busted for drugs and kicked out of school.... The judge didn't have a sense of humor at all. He put me in a hospital for observation and stuff. And there was a guy in there with a guitar who wrote his own songs. And that was the first time it was like, 'Duh, I could do that.'"
And he did, for years. He moved to Nashville in the ’70s to live with his cousin Don Schlitz, who was at the start of a successful songwriting career (his credits include "The Gambler" and "When You Say Nothing at All"). House didn't have much interest in Music Row and sensed that the feeling would be mutual. So he gravitated to the city's underground scene, the alternative Nashville that plays in clubs the A&R guys don't go to and records on labels (like Catamount, House's current home) that Tim McGraw's never heard of.
House didn't even get that ambitious for a good while. During the 1970s and ’80s, he had a decent job at an independent bookstore (the kind of place where you had to provide a recent reading list at the job interview), which paid him enough to spend his evenings hanging out, writing poems and singing songs. It was only after the store closed in 1990 that he really started thinking about recording.
Since then, he's put out a self-produced cassette and a trio of CDs, the most striking of which is 1998's This White Man's Burden. He writes about the normal song things—love and loss and finding reasons to go on and reasons to quit—with a depth and artfulness that makes his commercial marginalization regrettable but hardly surprising. The best of the songs feel timeless, like the jubilant "I Only Know" or the aching "Down in the Hole" ("the unresolved and coming unraveled/ dark and dirty and the failure of will")—and for that reason may seem archaic. But as House will tell you, he's no traditionalist.
"I don't think I'm trying to preserve anything," he says. "Except the mythos that goes on in my head."