Government Cheese Lives Again! (almost…)

 

Tommy Womack’s early band was pure
southern punk/garage rawk brilliance – now collected on the 2CD
Government
Cheese 1985-1995 (Cedar Creek Music).

 

By
Rev. Keith A. Gordon

Chances
are, unless you happened to be attending college in the Southeast U.S. or lived
in the region during the late 1980s, you’ve never heard of Government Cheese.
Inspired by influences like the Replacements, Husker Du, R.E.M. and especially
Nashville’s Jason & the Scorchers, Government Cheese was formed in Bowling
Green, Kentucky by WKU students Tommy Womack and Skot Willis (guitars and
vocals). The two added a strong, stealthy rhythm section in bassist Billy Mack
Hill and drummer Joe King, and promptly set out to conquer the world with their
own unique brand of rock ‘n roll, a curious mix of 1960s-era garage, vintage
1970s classic rock, and contemporary ’80s college rock delivered without guile
and with a fair amount of tongue-in-cheek humor.

 

The
band spent the better part of a decade banging the gong, playing every smoky
dive and college frat house that called on them, earning a reputation across
Dixie as a rowdy and entertaining live band. While the Government Cheese story
has been accounted at length in Womack’s wonderful book The Cheese Chronicles, to date the band’s musical history is
largely unknown. During their day, Government Cheese released a handful of
vinyl EPs and albums for Nashville-based indie label Reptile Records, while a
long out-of-print CD that included much of their best material has become a
sought-after collectors’ item. Supported by a handful of true believers, Womack
managed to raise the cash to put together the comprehensive anthology Government Cheese 1985-1995, a two-disc
compilation that chisels into concrete the band’s underrated and overlooked
musical legacy.        

 

Government
Cheese were college radio staples throughout much of the Southeast during the
late-’80s, and a video for the delightful power-pop ballad “Face To
Face” earned frequent MTV airplay at the time. While Womack was the band’s
primary wordsmith, Willis and Hill contributed significantly to the band’s repertoire,
and the songs seemingly just poured out…for instance, longtime audience fave
“Camping On Acid” sounds like Camper Van Beethoven on speed and
steroids, Womack’s surrealistic lyrics matched by a jumble of jangling guitars,
explosive rhythms, and overall musical chaos. The hard-rocking “Fish Stick
Day” was another crowd-pleaser, this live version offering up a chanted
absurdist chorus, droning guitar-feedback, and King’s powerful, tribal
drumbeats.

 

Another
Cheese fan favorite was “C’mon Back to Bowling Green,” a rollicking slice
of lovesick blue collar blues with a honky-tonk heart and electrified twang,
sort of Duane Eddy meets Jerry Lee Lewis in a back-alley dive. “Single”
just flat-out rocks, with plenty of ringing guitar tone, clashing instruments,
lofty power-pop styled vocals, and a driving rhythm. The syncopated rhythms and
folkish guitar strum behind the vocals on “No Sleeping In Penn
Station” are a fine accompaniment to the song’s real-life lyrical inspiration
while the metallic “Jailbait” proves that the Cheese could knock heads
with any of the decade’s nerf-metal cretins, raging guitars and a blistering
wall-of-sound barely concealing the song’s whip-smart pop-rock lyrics and
gorgeous underlying melody.        

 

The
band was never afraid to take a stand on issues, either, which sometimes
resulted in an unexpected response. The emotionally-powerful “For The
Battered,” and its dark-hued instrumental intro “Before The
Battered,” tackled the then hush-hush subject of domestic abuse with
brutal simplicity and a menacing soundtrack of crashing instruments and noisy Sturm
und Drang. Surprisingly, the disturbing revenge fantasy connected with the
listeners of Nashville radio station WKDF’s local music show, becoming its
most-requested song. “The Shrubbery’s Dead (Where Danny Used To Fall)”
is a brilliant story of the toll of alcoholism on an individual and family,
Hill’s lyrics bolstered by a roughneck instrumental background. The class
warfare of the spoken-word ode “The Yuppie Is Dead” leads into the
deeply introspective “Nothing Feels Good,” a hard rock 1970s
throwback (I’m thinking Starz) that speaks of the dissatisfaction of too many years
on the road.     

 

 

For
us original “cheeseheads,” the album includes a wealth of
previously-unreleased material, starting with the band’s raucous, off-tilt
cover of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died.” Delivered with punkish
intensity and chaotic energy, Government Cheese manages to capture the spirit
of the original while adding a menacing edge…or, as Womack says in the liner
notes, “we took Jim Carroll’s song and did it like the Scorchers.”
The band’s semi-biographical “Kentucky Home” has never made it onto
disc until now, a Replacements-styled triumph that speaks of growing up with
rock ‘n’ roll dreams in Podunk, U.S.A. “I Can Make You Love Me” lopes
into your consciousness with a hearty bassline and wiry guitar leading into a
sort of alt-rock dirge with sparse harmony vocals and an undeniable rhythm.

 

Government
Cheese was always known for its spirited covers, which ranged from classic rock
(an unreleased and raucous take of Grand Funk’s “We’re An American
Band” is cranked out at twice the speed of the original in a white light
haze) to critical faves (the Stooges’ “Search & Destroy” totally
demolishes the thousand and one versions done by mundane punkers, the band’s
reckless, ramshackle performance capturing the white heat fervor of Iggy’s
worst nightmares). A live cover of the Dictators’ “Stay With Me”
retains the heartfelt innocence intended by writer Andy Shernoff while adding
the Cheese’s own bit of emotional longing to the mix, and a live romp through
the Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Alive” keeps about 90% of the
original’s breakneck pace and energy while retaining Joey’s sweetness and light.

 

There’s
plenty more to like on Government Cheese 1985-1995,
forty-three songs altogether from the best band that you never heard. If
Government Cheese had hailed from Athens, Georgia like their friends R.E.M. or
maybe even from Austin, Texas they might today be a household name. Instead,
they remain a fond memory for a few thousand loyal fans scattered across the
Southeast. The very definition of “cult band” and D.I.Y. poster
children for the indie-rock aesthetic, Government Cheese flirted with the big
time but never got the break they deserved…none of which makes this music any
less entertaining, the songs any less brilliant, or the performances any less
rocking. Although Tommy Womack has since forged an acclaimed, if modest career
as an indie-rock troubadour, the music he made with Government Cheese has
withstood the test of time and is ready to receive the long overdue respect it
demands. 

 

 

 

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