tOM OvaNs


"this year I'm a folksinger"


Well we're not talking Burl Ives here, the folksingers you'd have to look to are Leadbelly, Blind Willie McTell, Jimmie Rogers. dark, underbelly, political truthsaying kinda folksingersand yup Nashville didn't take too much notice of this kind of fly in the ointment. Ovans belonged to the other Nashville of Hoekstra, Earle and Harlan Howard but still relocated to Austin maybe after one Garth Brooks repackaging too many. The above quote was given to a journalist who enquired where to find his 1997 masterpiece 'Dead South' - he replied-

"I think they've got me in the folk section this year - Maybe this year I'm a folksinger".

Needless to say I like this kind of folksinger. Ovans has received a lot of comparisons to Dylan -there's an undeniable influence there -the same gritty determination to mine back into the true folk heritage - but mostly commentators ignore the fact that Ovans belongs to a whole substrata of authentic folk artists who work this particular rich seam of blues/ folk and country ore. Tom Pacheco, Bob Martin, Eric Anderson, Richard Buckner- all come to mind as operating in a similar area.That they all seem to receive as much if not more attention over here in Europe as they do in the states perhaps because of the marketing grip the conglomerates have there? Whatever ,we're fortunate that small artists now self-release and receive distribution support that enables them to make infrequent visits and at least get their discs out there -whatever the section.

If I had to recommend one disc the 1997 'Dead South' would come top, closely followed by the new 'The Beat Trade' and 'Tales from Underground' - all essential. For the beginner 'Nuclear Sky' is a good place to start, if still available through Demon, although all his albums offer some great tracks so if you're a fan of literate folk/blues in the Tom Russell, Butch Hancock mode go track 'em down!


Born in a town near Boston June 8, 1953 he left home at 18 and criss-crossed America -sleeping on the beach at Big Sur, walking to New Orleans, ending up on the streets of Greenwich Village swapping tales with a fading Phil Ochs or watching Tim Hardin amongst the Viet Vets, punks and sixties fall-out. He soaked up the various influences, punk, country, glam that swirled around him whilst doing a series of jobs to survive. He's done everything from house-painting to factory shifts. All to provide the dollars to get his demos recorded and keep his music-making going. As he himself has said " it's easier to make a buck digging a ditch than from the music business".After a stint back in Cambridge he finally struck out for Nashville where he received the warm indifference that prompted the setting up of NSR and the European break-through. The experiences of his wanderlust and working had all fed his particular lyricism that mixes a renegade beat cynicism with moments of imagistic bliss. Some critics have found it bleak, almost nihilistic but to me it's just american realism in the Carver/ Kerouac/Whitman vein. He and Lou Ann Bardash now live in Austin and run NRS Recordings. Tom has been making appearances at the Cactus Cafe and on local radio. Lou Ann has exhibited her paintings which adorn some of the discs as well as conducting her own solo career.

tOM OvaNsdiscography


It is appropriate that in the issue where Flyin Shoes starts talking about 'Do-It-Yourself' attitudes that our Fact-File series commences with Tom Ovans. In 1990 following positive reaction to a demo tape he and Lou Ann Bardash ( a painter and songwriter too) formed their own NSR sound recordings and released Tom's first disc 'Industrial Days'. In doing so he pre-empted the wider self-release trend that the internet has facilitated and also showed that doing-it-yourself when done well enough could bring interest -especially in Tom's case - in Europe. Indeed such was the European response that in 1993 he followed the release of second album 'Unreal City' with a tour of Italy and a spot on Johnny Walker's show here in the U.K. NSR followed up with 'Tales from the Underground' in 1995 and he subsequently built on his European following with gigs in Paris and London.The third disc had been leased to Survival Records in and when this fell through in 1996 he found Demon Records waiting in the wings. There quickly followed a compilation of tracks from his previous discs "Nuclear Sky' and then 'Dead South' in 1997. 'Dead South' received widespread acclaim and everything seemed to be going well when corporate buy-out ensured Tom was back on his own. In 1999 Ovans and Bardash decided to move from Nashville to Austin perhaps in the belief that the spiritual home of Butch Hancock and Joe Ely had more to offer than the home of Garth Brooks and Chris Gaines (sic). This proved correct and immediate media attention and gigs at the Cactus Cafe amongst other venues have led to a new disc (Oct.1999) -"The Beat Trade". It is distributed in Europe by Floating World who Tom had come into contact with through previous touring with Martin Stephenson who is also represented post-Demon by the Floating World label.


What follows is a discography with notes on each of the discs.

Industrial Days - 1991 NSR Recordings

(track listing not available but some tracks reappear on the Nuclear Sky compilation)


Unreal City - 1993 NSR Recordings

whatcha doing
high stake gambling town
concrete love
need i say more
ballad of the rockabilly trash
never fell from love the easy way
when things get tough
back road blues
tallahassee baby
don't quit
say a prayer
gone to mexico
honey honey honey
(how we need some money)
just have to go
river girl

Second release from NSR and a full but mixed bag. Some of the more uptempo numbers 'rock-out' in a not entirely convincing way - guitar a little too straight-ahead for my tastes - but more than made up for by the strength of the writing and some absolute gems. 'Whatcha doing' treads the right side of rock excess and sounds like Dylan fronting The Hawks in place of Ronnie Hawkins. 'Ballad of the Rockabilly Trash' ( great title!) gets the tone just right - with its Chicago Blues band sound. 'Back Road Blues' is the standout track. Chris Whitley, Youngblood Heart and others have since brought an updated acoustic blues to the fore but way back in 1990 Mr.Ovans delivers an intense, spine-shivering update of the trad. lyrics..."gonna go o the world and deliver my song...", it also refers to the Greenwich Village days with Ochs.Well he does more than just deliver the song- highly recommended. Finally there are the wonderful 'Say a Prayer' and 'Gone to Mexico' which has Dylan written through it like a stick of rock but stands on its own two feet handsomely...'boys on the corner sippin' their thunderbird wine...if you ain't rich kid you're better off free...". Last track ' River Girl' is another acoustic blues cracker. A hit-and-miss record that could have perhaps been trimmed and stronger for it.

Tales From The Underground -1995 NSR

let it rain
uncle joe
dance with me girl
the sailor
echoes of the fall
lucky to be alive
brakeman's blues
the real bono
nine below zero
waiting on you

Mr.Ovans shifts a gear and what was blurry on previous outings comes into sharper focus. The ghosts of Muddy Waters and Jimmie Rogers (who is named on Uncle Joe) float through the album. First track 'Let it Rain' establishes the mood of sun-rockabilly meets acoustic blues groove. 'Uncle Joe' brings to mid Memphis denizen of the rock and roll cellar Tav Falco. 'Dance with me Girl' is macabre, morbid and seesaws along on a great guitar figure as Tom's voice seeps into gravel stained with diesel territority.'The Sailor' is harmonica/acoustic picking that floats beautifully on Doug Lancio's accordion. Reminiscent of Peter Case at his acoustic best. 'Angelou' is 'border' music like Tom Russell/Dave Alvin and pre-empts the border balladry of Springsteen's Joad. It's closest of all in feel to the criminally under-rated James Talley's masterpiece 'Road to Torreon'. The Greenwich Village days revisited? thread of 'Lucky to be Alive' is followed by the Junior Parker- Mystery Train /Johnny Cash rhythm of 'Brakeman's Blues' "...if you think I'm guilty you can shoot me in the morning sun". The drumming is fantastic and powers the 'Downbound Train' to its destination.The standard set he then starts the weird spoken blues intro to 'The Real Bono'. It goes on to paint a portrait of the U.S.A that Disney/CNN ignore - "the naked truth being spread across this mighty deranged land" - Senator Sonny (the real) Bono said it all 'The Beat Goes On'. The cold coffee dregs of Kerouac and Ginsberg spat out over the bones of the '90's. A political track as in a-political andd with no contemporary equivalent save Iris Dement's equally tough 'Wasteland of the Free' -now there's a duet I'd like to hear! He may look like the ghost of Mid-80's Dylan on the cover but as he wraps up with the melodic 'Waiting on You' dare I say it he makes the kind of disc Dylan would take until 'Time Out of Mind' to get back to.


Nuclear Sky - 1996 Demon Records

high stake gambling town
concrete love
never fell from love the easy way

hallelujah child
sad streets
early one morning
those days have passed us by
watcha doing
need I say more
i'm going down
dance with me girl
the sailor

Early tracks from the first recording 'Industrial Days' mixed with second 'Unreal City' and last five are out-takes of 'Underground' sessions. A gentler feel to the early tracks -autobigraphical with more Forbert than Dylan in the mix. The out-takes are kicked off with the previously unreleased 'I'm going down' which is maybe too 'Broocie' with its stomp along chorus. The remaining cuts includes a gentle acoustic band workout of 'Angelou', a mesmerizing take of the already sinister 'Dance with me girl' which is positively spooky, an interesting percussion and solo guitar/harmonica take of 'the sailor' and a straight solo acoustic/harmonica reading of Mr.Blue. These are raw takes from an already raw record -smashing stuff and revealing of the intense power of Mr. Ovans. Perhaps my four favourite tracks of all his work and a great place to start.

Dead South - 1997 Demon Records

killing me
james dean coming over the hill
here she comes
the folksinger
rita, memphis & the blues
better off alone
real television
pray for me
in the rain
drowning man

'Gabriel, Gabriel blow your horn'!!! This is where it started for me. 'Killing me' appeared on a Demon sampler given away with Uncut magazine in 1998. This track knocked me out. Sounds like a manic Slim Harpo out-take if Slim had been fuelled on Jack Daniels and Beat Poetry. Everything down to the shambolic ending is perfect. Then it gets better. Now I'm very partial to Johnny Dowd's exploration of real folk blues on his 'Wrong side of Memphis' and this disc is equally good but takes more of the blues tangent. 'James Dean...' ..'Papa was a rolling stone..now he ain't nothing but a coughing bag of bones' ..yessiree! The sound throughout is jagged as hell. Hollow like a horse's skull hit with a stick. Tom was working in a wood shop and thought that he'd reached the end of the road -"This was the end of the line..the last record". He slunk off to the back room of his apartment with J.D. and six-packs to put together his career epitaph. Like Dowd the desperation instigated some kind of masterpiece. 'Here she comes' is Lou Reed filtered through a whisky glass in a honky tonk. Ovans confesses to being partial to Tom Waits's Bone Machine. Without imitating there is a similar edge to this recording. 'The Folksinger' is based on a meeting with Eric Anderson who he was amazed to see still burning out the songs rather than burnt-out- (it could be his autobiography). Throughout the backing of partner Lou Ann Bardash, Lambchop's Allen Lowrey and engineer' bassist Robb Earls is understated and exact. A shaker/tom-tom beat introduces 'rita, memphis & the blues' and the ghosts of Robert Johnson and Hank Williams dance on the ceiling. 'Exile' - walking blues -eerie harmonica- nail in the coffin drums-need I say more?'Better off alone' -rhythm and blues-simple and neat. 'Real Television' -bitter and truthful -best minds of my generation destroyed by 'real television'. After the bleakness endemic through the disc 'Pray for me' comes over as a jaunty folk song until you listen to the words- "Well if you call that murder then I guess I'm guilty". A death-row blues. This is followed by 'Another teardrop in the rain' which is the only time the Dylan comparison can be usefully made on this disc. It's as good as anything on Blood on the Tracks -a lovers song - but maybe not as good as the Blood.'s out-takes but there again what is? what is? I can't think of a week link so far through the disc and if anything last track 'Drowning Man' is the best of all - real folk country blues! Waving not drowning that's for sure.....


The Beat Trade - 1999 Floating World

the monkeys have landed
what about you
going some place
hey woody guthrie
tell me babe
rebel roadside
just to be with you
can't blame her none
bozo world
there are times
where the moon shines bright

Hot off the presses! The Beat Trade is released by U.K. label Floating World -November 1999.

It starts with pure Ovans -'The monkey's have landed' - the Beat Poet strikes again -has Ovans mellowed -not at all -here he's aiming his satirical guitar at government/ lawyers/tv -the whole caboodle -" build themselves a shopping mall and bring back 'ole Hank" -we're all implicated. Another of those Excello like riffs won't let go of the spoken blues. New musicians -recorded in Austin- add fizz to the brew. 'Going some place' is insistent too -a nagging riff hooks you- extra instrumentation adds to the recipe- by fourth track 'Hey woody guthrie' I realise this disc is up there alongside 'Underground' but perhaps not as 'out there' as 'Dead South'. 'Woody's' song though is marvellous - an overview of the state of 'Anywhere USA'. The production is crystal clear and Tom's voice ain't never sounded this good. If a record is gonna lift him into the status he clearly deserves it is this one. Hey 'Everywhere USA' welcome your prodigal son into the fold .Ovans is the heir of those grainy dustbowl ballads, the victims of the un-american activities committee, the heir of Leadbelly and a thousand unsung union activists and preachers. 'Salvation' offers little comfort - Robert Johnson waiting for that 'lonesome rider' sounded this bleak. Ovans is the working-class voice of protest that can't afford the luxury of 'protest-singing' that only the middle-class children of the sixties who never had to work could. The accusatory tone informs 'Rebel Roadside' as Preacher Ovans catalogues sin. The mood softens with 'Just to be with you' an end of the day on the road ballad -lullaby like -haunted by mandolin- Austin in mood. 'Can't blame her none' -slide blues -abandoned lover. 'Bozo world' is an ethereal elegy and 'There are Times' a dobro and mandolin led dance tune! Again some of Austin's country vintage being absorbed? Excellent too! Maybe Tom's lightening up? Maybe he could soon find himself in Austin's songwriting A-team -who knows? Last track 'Where the moon shines bright ' starts on slide guitar echoes and harmonica. A beautiful song to end a fine album..."Hey I'm alright ...I'll make it alright....".Yes indeed he has.

COMPILATIONS - Demon Doing it Right - 1996 Demon
Unknown Pleasures ( Killing me) - 1998 Demon /Uncut
Luxury Liner 3 ( 1 track) - 1998 Glitterhouse

APPEARS ON - Lou Ann Bardash -At the Vortex NSR 1997



Tom Ovans will be appearing in the U.K. again in Autumn 2000 -see gig guide page for details.