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This White Man's Burden: Tom House at the Blue Plate Special, Oct. 24

Tom House, the 60-ish singer/songwriter and poet who's performing at WDVX's Blue Plate Special tomorrow, is the kind of guy who drops into town every few years almost completely unannounced--no press release, no Bandcamp link, no nonsense. It's easy for him to get lost among bigger name acts, but it's safe to say that his noon set at the Knoxville Visitors Center will be one of the best shows in town this month. House is something of a wonder, a rough-and-tumble folk-country singer of songs with dark undercurrents and a barbed, rustic edge--country before Roy Acuff, with deep mountain echoes.  

Jesse Fox Mayshark wrote about House in 2001, before a show at Tomato Head. His excellent profile explains House's resigned attitude toward promotion, careerism, and the music industry in general:

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.

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