The Return of Tom Pacheco

Home Is the Hellhound...

America lost one of its finest songwriters in January with the sudden passing of Townes Van Zandt but we're regaining another of the best this week as Tom Pacheco (with Annie and two Irish cats) arrives to resettle in Woodstock after living the last decade in Ireland. Tom can recount myriad stories of European tours, riding as a backseat buffer between Townes and Eric Andersen, an American invasion force even with Eric now residing in Norway.

Townes was never quite a household word in the States but he possessed a singular, sometimes almost errant, ability to reach places unsensed by other songwriters which won him a sizable "cult" following among aficionados of the art form, particularly in the musical community. Much the same can be said about Pacheco, whose unique talents in finding the human center of the situational life flashing past us and rendering it with integrity in evocative, poignant and stirring metaphors of contemporary music is something a distinct shade apart from the compositions offered by our most standard models of excellence in songwriting.

With the perspective of his absence from the scene for so long (save a rare U.S. tour here and there like the Fall, 1991 excursion, which took in states from Texas to New Hampshire and included one indelible solo show in Woodstock), it is striking to note one standout fact about his music in that time... There has been no decline in the superiority of his writing or performance; no loss of edge whatsoever. While the output and endowments of those we have held as the very best songwriters of the generation have flagged, stumbled and lapsed in that time, Pacheco has rolled on and even risen as he produced album after album from the 50 or so songs he writes each year without a dud among them.

Since there are so many who have come into the area since he left, a brief review of Tom Pacheco's career illuminates not only his personal path but overall rough terrain facing today's less-than-megabuck musical heroes.

Raised on a small farm in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, where his father (who had played with the incomparable Django Reinhart) held regular jam sessions, Tom studied classical and flamenco guitar, formed a rock group and issued a solo folk album on a small New England label before venturing into Greenwich Village to become part of a historic scene which included Dylan, Ochs, Paxton, Eric Andersen and a host of others. After writing and recording a largely forgettable album with the group Euphoria in the 1960's, Pacheco teamed with singer Sharon Alexander for a 1971 release on Columbia which included numerous Woodstock-familiar musicians.

This folkrock nugget was followed by a pair of RCA Victor albums recorded in Los Angeles in the later seventies by famed producer Shadow Morton. Boldly invading country music turf with a slick and gritty country-rock sound that tended to confound radio programmers, Pacheco challenged not only the prevailing musical trends of the genre but some of its social attitudes, as well, seeking to enlighten and persuade from the inside of Merle Haggard territory.

Retrenching in Woodstock in 1978, Pacheco rapidly built upon his firm reputation as an exceptional songwriter as he developed blistering bands called The Thunderhawks and The Hellhounds. They tore up the nights at regional clubs, gigging more frequently and furiously than any other band in the area, forging a monument to the spirit of rock which lingers large in memory.

A recording date in Austin in 1982 for Pacheco expanded to a stay of almost 2 years as his legend spread through performances across the southwest, even resulting in bootlegs of his shows. Like Texas, L.A., Woodstock and everywhere else he has lived, Pacheco's music has left a lasting legacy behind that spreads outward from the informed appreciation of other talented and savvy performers.

Tom returned to Woodstock in 1983 and recorded a never-released classic rocker with the Hellhounds and stayed until June 1986, when he left for Nashville and from where we can begin to fill in the gaps of "the missing years."

When Pacheco arrived in Tennessee, he found it still stifled by the gloss-pop Nashville veneer at the tail-end of the Kenny Rogers era. The interesting ripples that would be brought by Steve Earle and some others was still in the future and he found the stale baggage of yesterday's formula still piled against the doors he sought to open.

"I was offered a songwriting job on salary by Mel Tillis Music, which I could have used at the time," Tom recalls. "But when I saw the kind of song they wanted me to write, I just couldn't imagine ending up like that."

So, Pacheco stepped out of Nashville, across the ocean, and arrived in Dublin with a blast of unexpected fanfare in September of 1987. Pacheco and a pair of accompanists were seized by an airport official and put into a holding cell for immediate deportation. It seems their very appearance; leather jackets, stetsons, boots and elaborate shirts had so alarmed the gatekeeper that he graded the "undesirables" for departure with a stroke which made newspaper waves all the way to London, embarrassing the Irish Justice Department, which rescinded the order with apologies. The flack generated an interest to see the "outlaws" which resulted in a flock of bookings and primetime appearances on Ireland's favorite shows.

When Pacheco left Ireland in mid-September after a decade of creditable creativity, the head of the Justice Department took Tom aside and told him that if things didn't work out in America, "you always have a home here." A touching sentiment provided he wasn't gesturing to that holding cell.

Pacheco had begun earning that respect with appearances all over the Isles and in every corner of Europe. In 1989, he signed with Ringsend Records (later Roundtower Records) and released Eagle In the Rain, which brought unanimous rave reviews and "Album of the Year" acclaim. Following its British release the following year, Pacheco was invited to play at the prestigious Cambridge Folk Festival, which opened many doors on the continent.

"It went so well that I was scheduled for one performance but they brought me back for 2 more shows," he recalls. "It's an important place because if you get a bad review there they read about it in Austria."

Albums began pouring forth, each studded with jewels; Sunflowers & Scarecrows (1991), Tales From the Red Lake (1992), Luck Of Angels (another subversion of country music recorded in Nashville, 1994) and a true masterpiece, Bluefields, in 1995. A collaboration with Norway's megastar, Steinar Albrigtsen called Big Storm Coming topped the charts in 1993 with a full slate of Pacheco's tunes. Albrigtsen also hit the top spot on Scandinavian charts during the 90's with Bound To Wander, on which he did 4 Pacheco songs, and The Troubadour, which has 8. This silken-voiced artist has also registered number one singles with Tom's songs and continues to do so. But, then, so have many other artists in the Isles and Scandinavia. In fact, European artists of every stripe-blues, folk, pop, rock, country, etc. have found cause to dip into the Pacheco trove; Rene Andersen with several smash hits, Daniel O'Donnell, Rita Erikson, G. Thomas, etc. Unfamiliar over here (although some have recorded with the likes of Delbert McClinton, Bobby Bare and others) perhaps, but well-established European artists who share the special wonder of a Tom Pacheco song. Lyn Page, a popular Irish recording artist, is planning an entire album of his tunes next year.

This year alone, Pacheco has had 5 top ten songs in Norway, including his own single ("The Sacred") from the Polygram-Mercury album Woodstock Winter, recorded here. It's the first Pacheco album to be released in the U.S. in 20 years.

Before leaving Dublin, Pacheco sent a tape of 21 new songs to be whittled to album size for his next Polygram release, seeking advice on which to consider. He sent the same tape to a British music critic with an encyclopedic grasp, John Tobler. But Tobler, who started the popular British music publication ZigZag in the 60's, also happens to have founded a recording company and asked Tom to record some of his Irish-era songs in an acoustic singer-songwriter special project and the result, with dispensation from Polygram, is a 34 song 2-CD review of the material with never-before recorded songs that's scheduled for release in the British Isles on Pacheco's birthday, November 4th.

Barring a promotional tour for that project, perhaps in February, Pacheco has no other plans but to settle in and write some more of those wondrous tales of love and life.

An amusing but earnest footnote to one of Tom's recent letters concerned something surprising he found himself missing- pumpkins.

"I can't wait to see those pumpkins," he reiterated this week. "I'm going to love driving by the fruit stand on Halloween night and seeing all those Jack'o'lanterns lit up."

I know I speak for many of his local friends and admirers when I bid a hearty "Welcome Home!" to what's-his-name.

-Gary Alexander