Government Cheese – Government Cheese 1985-1995

January 01, 1970

Creek Music)  


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.        


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


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.


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.


plenty more to like on Government Cheese
, 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. 


DOWNLOAD: Everything here rocks, so just pony up for the
CD will ya?!! And while you’re at it, pick up a copy of Womack’s chronicle of
the band, The Cheese Chronicles, the best
book about life on the road ever written. – REV. KEITH A. GORDON

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