Tom Armstrong – He found his heart
Twelve years ago, long-haired Tom Armstrong was banging a guitar for the Iowa-based Hollowmen, opening gigs for bands such as Big Black and Sonic Youth. Although he’s come a long way from those angst-filled years, his DIY attitude is still firmly intact. Last year, Armstrong (now based in San Francisco) hired a band, went into the studio and recorded his debut solo album, Tom Armstrong Sings Heart Songs. He released it on his own label, Carswell Records, and convinced Hepcat to distribute it.
On Heart Songs, Armstrong offers twelve original tunes that could easily serve as a soundtrack for a lonely, heartbroken night at the local tavern. Whether it’s the dark introspective ballad “I’m Damned” or the gentle waltz “See The Sun Again”, his crooning, honest vocals and well-crafted songwriting hail back to the days when jukeboxes were filled with singles by the likes of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell.
Armstrong’s insatiable appetite for early country music was spawned in 1992 when he and a friend brought home Roger Miller’s Wild Child LP. “We took it home and listened to it, and it was like a switch was flicked on in the back of my brain,” he says. Armstrong started picking up country records in thrift stores, along the way discovering early greats such as Marvin Rainwater and Wynn Stewart as well as lesser-known artists from Tibby Edwards to Skeets McDonald to James O’Gwynn.
Inspired by the early honky-tonkers, Armstrong began writing songs of his own. “I instantly felt like I’d found a type of music that I really had a knack for, one that came easily and naturally,” he says.
When writing, Armstrong says he often considers how songwriters such as Harlan Howard or Ira Louvin would go about arranging the song. “I sometimes write songs with a particular voice in mind,” he says. “Like, ‘I Wonder If I’ll Ever Love Again’ [on Heart Songs] I wrote for Wynn Stewart to sing, even though he had passed away many years before.”
Armstrong’s songs are strewn with stories of lost love, self-pity and loneliness — odd subject matter for a man who’s about to married. Asked why his songs are so sad, the only answer Armstrong can muster up is a quote from a favorite singer, Jimmie Skinner: “If you can’t feel a little sad now and then, you just wouldn’t be human.”
The term “heart songs” refers to a songwriting style that was popular among country musicians in the 1940s and ’50s. “A lot of the people who are playing old-school country and honky-tonk seem to capitalize on the hard-drinking, hard-living, blue-collar imagery of it, but that’s not the image I want to project,” Armstrong explains “The great heart-song singers could really project sincerity, and that’s what I’m aiming for too.”