"I lived in a flat on Oak Street in the Western Addition. I'd been to some country show at the Great American [Music Hall]: Bad Livers, or Junior Brown, or something -- I don't remember what it was. I was walking home from there, walked all the way home. It was late at night, I was by myself. I was walking up Alamo park, walking up the hill there, and the layer of fog was really thick. You could see it moving. And boom, a hole in fog opened up right over the park. I just had this feeling of ... rising up through it."
He made it home, pulled out his guitar, and started writing the following lines: "I wonder what it's all for when I look at the sky and my heart opens wide/ I find emptiness there and I know I have died. I," he yodels, "I'm damned."
Tom Armstrong Sings Heart Songs, Armstrong's first album, is littered with stories like that, songs that revolve around the lonely moments where you're forced to confront yourself and don't quite like what you see. In addition to "I'm Damned," there's the bitter potshot of "What Did I Lose," cataloging all the things he doesn't miss about a relationship (the sleepless nights, the constant second-guessing); the pull of the "River & Railroad Track"; listening to his heartbeat for company on "Sleep Will Never Come"; and the lovers' last conversation on "Start Talking." On song after song, Armstrong's either lonesome or working damn hard to get there.
Armstrong's songwriting style and vocal approach echo Hank Williams' I'm-so-lonesome-I-could-cry misery, Lefty Frizzell's way with a clever line, and the sense of fear that pervades every Louvin Brothers song. In fact, he echoes -- but doesn't imitate -- those old masters so well it's surprising he's been playing honky-tonk for less than a decade.
Armstrong, 34, grew up in Illinois and Iowa, starting his music career singing and playing guitar in a Des Moines post-punk band called the Hollowmen ("We opened for Sonic Youth and Big Black in that indie rock heyday"); after that group broke up in the late '80s, he "went to art school and got all arty" at the University of Iowa. Playing drums as well as guitar, he tinkered with experimental improvisations and free jazz. And, as art-school folks are wont to do, he took an interest in kitsch, particularly the covers of vintage country records. His collection included records from famous honky-tonk musicians -- Webb Pierce, for one -- but a lot of no-names as well, like Jimmy Skinner and Tibby Edwards. "I was buying them as a joke," says Armstrong. "And then I started listening to them and thinking, 'That's a really cool song.'"
"I decided to try writing songs like that," he adds. "I'd been really blocked at that point -- I hadn't written a song for about two years. When I started playing the country stuff, the songs just started coming out." By the time he made it to San Francisco, he was well-versed in honky-tonk music, but didn't have a place to play and nobody to perform with. Slowly, he built his current band: Armstrong and bassist John Walter (who also plays in local '80s cover band Tainted Love) were acquaintances in high school in Springfield, Ill., and ran into each other by accident at a local taqueria; fiddle player Doug Adams came recommended by Starlene's Bob Tyler, another Iowa refugee; pedal steel player Steve Cornell and drummer Les James both came in to moonlight from their regular jobs in Red Meat. That group convened three times in late 1996 and early 1997 to record Heart Songs with producer Joe Goldring, who's performed with the Swans, Wade, and American Music Club spinoff Toiling Midgets, and who also runs Pigshead Studios in India Basin. Armstrong told Goldring he wanted a straightforward, live-in-the-studio approach that would showcase the group's live performance style. "He said he'd love to do it," recalls Armstrong. "I think he gets burned out on doing a lot of punk rock bands."
"I don't mean this in a derogatory way, but there's a certain squareness to Tom's music," says Goldring. "It was just so simple and unpretentious. He obviously loved country music and studied it. It was a very pure thing; he was singing about his experiences. So many people sing country with a pretentious kind of manner, and Tom is getting at the pure spirit of it. It's about heartbreak."
After recording at Pigshead's old SOMA studios -- "A damp room that was leaking through the roof, where we were trying not to electrocute each other," according to Goldring -- Armstrong shopped Heart Songs to a handful of record labels. Lacking any response, he ran off a thousand copies and released the CD himself earlier this month on his own Carswell label. The album marks a sort of official entry into a strong but relatively unappreciated Bay Area country scene that includes Red Meat, Johnny Dilks, Country Kays, and others. "It's not really a bad place for this kind of music," he says. "It's not the first place you'd think of when you think of country music, obviously. Country music is usually associated with religious fundamentalism and conservative values and blind patriotism and all that stuff. But it's a lot broader than that. Willie's a liberal."
He means Willie Nelson.
Armstrong's guitar player, Mike Wolf, came from Mississippi with a jazz background, and found himself comfortable with honky-tonk. "I wanted to find something that had some complexity to it, and in country music from the '40s and '50s the musicians had the same thing happen to them: They wanted to play jazz, but they were born with a guitar in their hand. Tom was writing in that '50s honky-tonk style, which on the surface seems simple, but there are a lot of opportunities to explore ideas. A lot of people don't realize that you can go way out there in country music, and Tom's one of those guys who lets people go way out."
Since Armstrong's been working with the Heart Songs tracks for years now, it's not surprising that they've expanded beyond their original structure. Cornell's sparkling, gorgeous pedal steel on "River & Railroad Track" has become more playful, James opens up the rhythms, and as a whole the group comes across as much like a jazz act as a country outfit, proving Bob Wills' old argument that the two genres were never terribly different from each other in musical approach. And while playing punk-inflected music didn't inform his current music much -- punk is "all about anger, and I'm just really not that angry anymore," Armstrong says -- jazz did. "I did learn a lot from trying to play improv music," he says. "That really taught me a lot about being open to the moment and being spontaneous, letting things happen."
Armstrong's new songs, he says, are "a little more high spirited with more humor to them. They don't have quite as much emotional weight as a lot of the ones I was writing two or three years ago." That places him a bit further away from his honky-tonk heroes, which makes it harder to focus on what musical well he's drawing from. Or, to be more precise, perhaps it just shows that he's being more himself than anything. "People who are my favorite songwriters aren't necessarily my favorite singers," he explains. "For my singing, a lot of my favorites are people who were kind of second-tier stars who aren't very well-remembered: Skeets Macdonald, a great, great honky-tonk singer, and another great one is Tibby Edwards.
"It's one of my fantasy projects: I'd love to do a tribute record and record Tibby Edwards, Skeets Macdonald, Jimmy Skinner songs. They're unsung heroes, really talented people who never made it big."