For the tightly knit Norwalk, Ohio, musicians performing as The Womack Family Band, the pastoral surroundings and small-town idiosyncrasies of Woodstock, New York, cover familiar territory. This summer, the folksy foursome (and sometimes quintet) were invited to play on precocious Americana purveyor and Sandusky boy Chris Castle's latest album. Recording took place in the wooden barn-cum-Grammy Award–winning studio of The Band drummer and vocalist Levon Helm, in the Catskill Mountains. It's a fitting location led by a roots rock impresario for the Hudson County twentysomethings to showcase their nuanced spin on the collective folk oeuvre. Joining them were former Ramones drummer and producer Tommy Ramone (currently playing in bluegrass act Uncle Monk), former Band multi-instrumentalist (and Bob Dylan and Norah Jones collaborator) Garth Hudson and Gabriel Butterfield (son of the late Paul Butterfield, former vocalist and harmonica player of his eponymous Blues Band in the 60s). "It was more surreal," says the Womack Family's Tony Schaffer, 25, who plays guitar, bass, piano, trumpet and saxophone, among other things. "We're not even really quite sure if it happened yet."
The Womack Family Band's 2010 debut self-titled LP is at times ebullient and rollicking, other times subdued and plaintive; the arrangements are dynamic, with instrumentation that invigorates and adds colorful flourish to songs built on a melodious folk foundation; the harmonies swell and captivate, the lyrics as honest as the recording process – 15 songs recorded in the living room studio of the house shared by Schaffer, brother and sister Noah and Haley Heyman, and where Cory Webb was raised. "It's the base of operations: we book everything from here, we rehearse here, we record all our material here," says Schaffer. "Our musical tastes aligned." That melding shines on tracks like the slow-cooking, toe-tapping groove of "Bloodline Blues;" the delicately plucked guitar and tender emoting on "Anything;" a playful 30-second gypsy jazz romp on "Not Know;" the Paul Simon-esque guitar work and stirring atmospherics of "Angelina;" and the Appalachian-styled, banjo-driven lilt and bubbling Beatles-style pop brass of "Desvelo"
"We argued like brothers and sisters, and all that good, fun stuff, so it seemed right."
Four members form the core of the band, Noah Heyman, 23, Haley Heyman, 21, and Cory Webb, 27. "We've always had musical history," says Schaffer of his early days playing thrash metal with Noah. The Womack Family Band started to take shape and find direction in 2009, "…kicking around dive bars, playing Beatles covers. I had to get away from being a rock-metal guitarist for a while, so I started playing with Chris [Castle], singing harmony, playing bass, and it all came full circle when Noah and I started playing together," says Schaffer. Noah and Schaffer unplugged, and dialed in to an acoustic guitar duo that grew to a trio with Haley lending her soulful vocals to the mix. The friends and family became de facto house band at "a little hallway of a bar" called The Office Bar in Norwalk, according to Schaffer, where they met and befriended bartender and drummer Webb. The band name is a nod to eccentric songwriter (most notably of Government Cheese) and author (Cheese Chronicles: The True Story of a Rock and Roll Band You’ve Never Heard Of) Tommy Womack. "We all spent so much time together that we felt like a family anyway," says Schaffer. "We argued like brothers and sisters, and all that good, fun stuff, so it seemed right." Kevin Obermeyer – the "cousin Womack," according to Schaffer – handles low brass work on his euphonium, as well as trumpet.
Listening to The Womack Family Band's folk stylings gives little indication of Schaffer's early musical preferences, having honed his six-string dexterity mimicking the lead and rhythm guitars of Metallica and Slayer. Tuning in to The Beatles and Ben Folds Five turned him on to the piano, and his parents guided much of his other musical exploration. "My Mom and Dad are avid auctioneers, and they started picking up all these vintage instruments – horns, clarinets, saxophones, things like that," says Schaffer, explaining that woodwinds came naturally to him. "Once you get the tone, you just blow, and it's button-pressing; but with trumpet and brass instruments, that's a whole other universe of dedication, it's intense." Noah is a fan of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Wilco, while sister Haley listens to the likes of Joni Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Webb – as any competent drummer should be – is engaged by "anything that has a good groove," according to Schaffer. Obermeyer was a student of marching band compositions, horn-based instrumentals such as Gustav Holst's "The Planets," and has more recently taken to Nick Drake and Elliott Smith. Schaffer cites most anything and everything from Baroque classical to jazz to the British Invasion.