Back in the Saddle
It's hard not to fall in love with Lil' Miss Tammy Smith.
She struts into Lynagh's, a cigarette glued to her hand; her face is heavily made-up, she's wearing a glittery leopard print headband and kerchief, three gargantuan rings, a low-cut black vinyl dress and shoes made for kicking the ass of every man at the bar.
I introduce myself and lead her to the booth in the back. I want to buy her a drink but I have no cash, and tell her so, apologizing profusely.
She immediately ashes and says, "That's all right. I got five dollars," handing me four. "You want to go get it for me honey? A Jim Beam and Mountain Dew?"
I can only obey. The bartender, when I order it, looks at me with a scornful disbelief; I contemplate hitting him to impress Tammy Smith. But I might spill her drink. I decide to preserve her honor by not tipping him.
Tammy Smith lights up - figuratively and literally - when she gets her drink. "Would you believe this?" she exclaims, playing with an item she brought in with her. "They put an FM radio with my lighter. Don't that beat all? It looks like a durned alien head! Lookit that!"
She toys with it a minute, one hand on the extraterrestrial radio, another always on her drink or her cigarette. She sets it, blows a ring of smoke at it, looks me in the eye. Her long eyelashes barely support the cake of blue eyeshadow on her lids.
So what's on Tammy Smith's mind right now?
She takes a long drag off her cig.
"Mmm..." she murmurs. "I was wondering 'bout how old you are?"
"Um," I say. I may be blushing. I wonder if I can play it coy. "Uhh. Care to guess?"
She makes the simultaneous action of smirking and smoking look easy. "Old enough to know a thing or two, I reckon."
Of course, Tammy Smith knows a thing or two herself, more than the average honky tonk diva. Lil' Miss Tammy Smith has been all about the singing and drinking Beam and loving, then getting her heart broke and turning it into gut-wrenchin' country.
Born in Glasgow, Kentucky in some year undivulged, Tammy Smith was the first-born in a family raised by her bank teller mom after her daddy went to Splitsville. She never had a bed to sleep on, so the story goes which is why her family thinks she keeps looking for a bed now. But her love of the real real country music, along with her incredible talent has kept her going.
Tammy Smith has played all across this nation, with such virtuosos as Dale Watson. She's played in the House of Blues in Hollywood and had more than one show at the Wrocklage. She even co-starred in the Kentucky Headhunters' video "Too Much to Lose."
But for all her success, it's still a hard-life she's led. As she herself puts it, she's been kicked, tricked and licked, and lived to tell the tale,
"But it's better to be licked, honey!!" she exclaims, slapping the table, cigarette jostling in her mouth. "Good lord! But there's two kinds of lickin', and I done had 'em both." Her heavily shadowed eyes get kind of faraway look, reminiscing.
"I been married several times, and I've had a lotta children... they're all grown now, the ones I went through with having," she mutters with a smoke ring. "I like to smoke a good Kool cigarette, and I love to drink my hillbilly highballs. Beam and Dew!" She slams her hand on the table again in emphasis; her face lights up again, like a child thinking of Christmas morning.
Miss Tammy Smith has recently come back to Kentucky from the west, where she was spreading the message of country, grits, and hillbilly highballs out to the coast. "There's a lot of freaks and a lot of good clothes out there. But I like the hometown boys a little bit more."
That and family obligations brought Miss Tammy back from sunny L.A. " [My] family is the best and worst thing about returnin' home," she admits, sounding a little pained. But then she immediately perks up again. "But this is gonna be my first show in Kentucky in a long time, so I'm really lookin forward to it." She'll be playing High on Rose, with musical accompaniment by her all good-lookin male band, the Inbreds.
"I got me a good set of Inbreds this time around. It's a fresh batch, from right here in Lexington," she grins with a another swig of Dew. "Lessee... there's Inbred Fred, and Georgie, and John O. and the Frankster." The Inbred selection process is rigorous, befitting Tammy Smith's love of the genre.
"Well, they gotta be good lookin', that's first. And they gotta be able to pick and strum, and just keep a good, simple country beat, none of that fluff." She shakes her head and blows out an angry cloud of smoke.
Suddenly, Tammy gets all sly. "You seen that new Kentucky Headhunters video?!" she asks. She looks ready to show off a little.
Told no, she pouts, "Oh," a little crestfallen. "It was number one most requested on that CMT." A mean look flashes in her eye. "Ya know, I can't say as I blame you. I don't know who could sit through all the crap on that channel to watch the damn thing.
"We all know that CMT stuff isn't country music!" she shouts. "I don't know who came up with that name for it. They can sing pretty, and look pretty, but it sounds like that Whitney Houston! It ain't country! You know Merle Haggard? That's what I'm talkin' about."
Just like Beam and Dew, country is a passion for Miss Tammy. "You hearda that 'alt' county? A-L-T? Alternative. Now don't you think it's funny that the real country music is called 'alt,' It's still alive, by god, we're not gonna let it die!"
Her righteous tirade disappears with another long sip of the highball, and she's back to her huge smile. She says that with her homecoming, she's also looking forward to her mother's home-cookin', the plenitude of bourbon about these parts, Link's catfish buffet, and finding a man.
"Hey!" she exclaims, already smiling again. "You know out there in California is a bourbon called Key of Kentucky? You ever heard of that?!"
"Me neither!" And she laughs, like it's the third best joke she's ever heard. "I bet it wasn't even made in Kentucky, either!"
But Miss Tammy isn't going to rest on her laurels. "I been wanting to do the Lil' Miss Tammy Smith rooftop liquor store tour," she says thoughtfully. "I think that'd be grand. It'd have to be in the summertime, of course. I tell you, I'm not takin' to kindly to this cold weather. You have to wear so many damn clothes! I like freedom of movement."
She has been working on a CD.
"My financial backer backed out," she states plumly. "The masters are still in California by god, I need to go and get 'em."
But she's not glum, just determined.
This is what characterizes Lil' Miss Tammy Smith. She is resilient.
"Me an' Loretta Lynn have a lot in common... when she pulled her man outta the back seat of that car, that's the kinda shit that makes you write songs. A lotta mine are from heart-ache, being licked and tricked, an' all. Like my song 'Daddy.' My daddy used to drive drunk. He had the bench seat, and he put his stolen beer right there on the seat and it would stay there, it never would fall. But there was many times that I was just scared to death. Everything in it is true. It's not about heartache, but I've seen grown men cry at that song. Really." Smoke. Drink.
"Hey. You want me to sing you a song?"
After an enthusiastic assent, she sings a song on the spot; it's catchy, purty, all about how she's don't need nobody right now. It's happy and sad all at once. She wrote that after some typical man trouble.
"You put all your eggs in one basket, and you get egg on your face," she smiles wistfully, downing another huge gulp of booze. "I love men. But I hate 'em too. It's a love-hate relationship. They'll lie cheat, cheat, hit - I been hit before, honey!"
Arrgh! It seems inconceivable that anyone could be dastardly enough to actually hit Tammy Smith.
But looking at her, it's just so obvious that Tammy Smith is okay. She's been through the bad times and is looking forward to the good. She's ready to get to the next gig, cocktail, and man as soon as possible. And that's the way she wants it.
Leaving the bar, the temptation is to tell her that maybe she just needs to find the right man, to do right by her. But she exclaims, "Oh yeah! Do you know, there's been times in my life when I was as happy as can be, and I wanted to write about it, and you know what? I couldn't. Isn't that terrible?" She laughs, a tinkly, throaty laugh of Beam and cigarettes, and sits down to finish her drink, and play with her alien-head radio.
It's a sad state of affairs, but if Lil' Miss Tammy Smith's heart needs to hurt to keep writin' and singin', then maybe it's all for the best.
"Bye, darlin'," she calls, into the cold December air.
Lil' Miss Tammy Smith and her all good-lookin' male band the Inbreds play Dec 16 at High on Rose, 10pm, $3.
Look for www.littlemisstammysmith.com for the further adventures of Miss Tammy.
Many fans of Lil' Miss Tammy Smith have asserted that she bears a STRIKING resemblance to rock drummer Sherri McGee (formerly and most famously of Velvet Elvis). All the duo will acknowledge is that Sherri McGee is Tammy Smith's manager, although some have whispered that their relationship is far closer; in fact, some have said, almost identical...
So is this high-concept performance art? Or just a strange coincidence? Both women speak highly of each other, although McGee is not above poking a little fun at Tammy's wild adventures and late nights out. But Tammy Smith is very grateful to McGee and all the work she's done, promoting her tours and booze jags throughout the nation's smokiest bars.
In favor, both women are the same height, build, and general resmbelance; but against, the two couldn't differ more in dress, voice and personality... When last seen, McGee was sporting bright pink hair, and a nose ring, speaking in a low, punk grunt. Tammy would never dream of such accoutrements; instead sporting several pounds of make-up, the gaudiest jewelry, and speaking like a nightingale that's smoked an entire pack of Kool cigarettes.
Still, no one's ever admitted to seeing them in the same room.
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