[ singer-songwriter ]
"We call him the late Jack McTamney," quips his sister Mary Ellen Costa. When the family got together at her place on Christmas, the doors opened at 2 p.m. "We had a pool. Everybody threw in a buck, betting what time he'd show up. If your time passed, you could toss in another buck and pick another time. We were up to $22 when he finally showed up."
Jack sniffs. "I don't know why everybody is so worried about what time I'm arriving." They should know by now he'll get there eventually.
That attitude might explain how Jack McTamney has been an active singer-songwriter in the region since the '80s, and even has a CD of originals, Halfway to NowHere, that's been out for more than a decade, yet somehow still buzzes just below the radar.
He's a man of many voices, but there's always a tinge of high, sweet sadness, even in the finely controlled shrieks. As a kid he was fascinated by the blues and the Who; you'll hear them in his work. He loves Johnny Cash and Phil Ochs, and you'll pick up touches of them as well. "Streets of Gold," a compact rendering of the immigrant experience, is a hopeful heartbreaker. "Mr. Ford" is a story-song about a worker throwing himself at a four-dollar-a-day factory job, and it's catchy as hell.
Scan the crowd at a live performance, even when it's just him and his guitar doing covers in a neighborhood bar like the Shamrock and the people are transfixed.
Port Richmond is the kind of neighborhood where grade school friends still get together three decades after graduation. Jack, a St. Anne's alum, still lives there, but misses the days before air conditioning, when people hung out on the stoop, building community in preference to roasting indoors; when not everybody had a car, so you met at the bus stop. "We played on the railroad. There was a lot of land around, with weeds and trees. I felt like Opie," he recalls. "I can still hear the trains coupling. It was like nuclear war every night. The only thing louder was my mother screaming."
The kids would listen before going into the kitchen. "You knew everything was A-OK if she was singing. If she wasn't, maybe not so good." As Jack grew up, he and his mom became great pals. He recalls her being a gifted poet and painter, a soprano who loved to sing all the time. Big sis Mary Ellen — who chipped in with brother Jerry to buy Jack a real guitar for his 16th birthday — says that Jack got all his talents directly from their mother.
Proximity bred fondness in the McTamney household, which held at its maximum eight people plus a dog, so multiple bunk beds were a must. "We didn't have much, but we had fun," says brother Joe, who picked up the record-collecting bug from their dad. The boys would spin The Beatles, The Band and The Lovin' Spoonful till the LPs looked like cooked bacon.
"Jack was 10 years younger than me. I was maybe [19 or 20], showing off, teaching him his first chords. Little did I know he'd soon race past me," says yet another brother, Fran. "I was the closet Gene Shay listener in the neighborhood. I gave Jack his first Phil Ochs record."
Jack started writing songs in his teens. "I had fantasies of becoming a star, coming back and showing my teachers." But when he married and the kids came, it became tougher to find time for music while working a day job. "If I stayed in music, kept writing and getting my stuff around as best I could, I'd be OK," he figured. "I was raising two autistic kids. Nothing happens before its time and nothing happens that shouldn't." Perhaps the time is now, as Jack has started putting new song demos on YouTube and getting active on Facebook.
During a break at a recent Twisted Tail gig, guitarist extraordinaire Jim Fogarty, Jack's longest, steadiest musical partner and bandmate in the ToneBenders, describes his friend's writing gift this way: "You could say, 'Jack, I need a theme song for Twisted Tail: polka in E flat.' He'd be back with it in 30 minutes. And it would be good."
Fogarty continued the thought in a text message a bit later: "Since I met and started working with McTamney in 1984, he's always been kind of a disorganized, frustrating but inspired songwriting savant. He opens up his guitar case, and 50 sets of lyrics spill out. If you ask him to write a song on demand for a project, the next day he sends you three, all excellent. I'm surprised no one has really discovered and taken advantage of this resource yet. He'd make someone rich."
Jack McTamney plays Fri., Feb. 3, 10 p.m., $5, Dawson Street Pub, 100 Dawson St., 215-482-5677, dawsonstreetpub.com.