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Tom Armstrong goes from Hollowmen to honky-tonk

By Ken Burke, November 2002

The musical career of Tom Armstrong personifies the word paradox. By listening to his current works, archivists would swear the 37-year-old performer was born a country singer - the heir apparent of such vintage purveyors of heartache as Ray Price or Wynn Stewart.

Au contraire.

Armstrong played art-punk, indie-rock and free form improvisational jazz before he latched onto the sounds of classic '50s and '60s country. However, once he refocused his creative sites, he crafted two emotionally resonant CDs of authentic old-school honky-tonk, including the recently self-released "Songs That Make The Jukebox Play."

Born in Springfield, Ill., Armstrong took up the guitar during middle school and was pretty well grounded in the '60s pop-rock of The Beatles and The Byrds. He made his first public performance playing covers of songs by such punk and New Wave icons as the Buzzcocks, The Clash and Gang Of Four, in a puckishly named high school band Flawless Ketchup.

It was during his six-month association with the post-high school group, Smile Corps, that Armstrong discovered his knack for songwriting. "It was a really weird band," recalls the artist from his San Leandro, Cal. home. "The main songwriter was this guy from Des Moines. His forte was Bauhaus, Joy Division, that kind of stuff. He would write things by coming up with a few repetitive chord changes and just make stuff up. I said, 'Wait a minute! That's pretty easy - I could be a songwriter.'"

Attending Drake University in Iowa, Armstrong formed The Hollowmen, an art-punk aggregation that released LPs on the Pravda and Amoeba labels during the late 80s. (Not to be confused with England's The Hollow Men.)

"Both albums got a little distribution and college radio play," remembers Armstrong. "But neither album sold out of its first pressing, and we didn't make a lot of money out of it."

Armstrong disbanded Hollow-men and went back to college to get his degree in drawing and painting. It was at the University of Iowa that he and friend Ed Gray began experimenting with free-form improvisational jazz that contained more than a touch of performance art.

It wasn't until the early '90s that hard-core traditional country began insinuating itself into Armstrong's consciousness, at first only as a joke.

"I started buying old country albums at thrift stores - mainly for camp or ironic value," explains Armstrong. "I was really lucky because a few of the first things I found were by Jimmie Skinner, Bobby Austin, T. Texas Tyler and Wynn Stewart. Then I started listening to them and thinking, 'That's not just campy, that's actually really good music!'"

In retrospect, Armstrong realizes country music had always been part of his life and art. He remembers liking Johnny Cash's "I Walk The Line" as a small boy, and his guitar instructor taught him basic structures and ideas about harmonies from a country perspective. Even during his punk phase, the singer-songwriter felt the influence of classic country.

"One of my main inspirations for starting the Hollowmen came when I heard Patsy Cline. I really liked the sadness in Patsy Cline's music, and I saw it as the same type of emotional center that bands like R.E.M. were presenting at the time - that same type of melancholy. Obviously, the musical setting was real different, but the mood and the emotional aim were things I really responded to."

The offer of an apartment and a regular job led to Armstrong's eventual move to San Francisco. Unsettled by the new location and smarting from a recent romantic break-up, he began writing hurtin' songs. Then, while playing guitar at a rock session, Armstrong mentioned to engineer Joe Goldring that he'd like to try recording old style country, and the pieces moved haltingly into place.

Conscripting old friends and members of another Bay Area country act - Red Meat, they recorded "Tom Armstrong Sings Heart Songs." Unsure about his new direction, Armstrong tinkered with the album's mixing for nearly three years before releasing it on his own Carswell label (a tribute to his uncle, abstract painter Rod Carswell).

Surprised by strong reviews and half-decent sales, Armstrong put together a live band and began playing Bay Area clubs when not working his day job providing computer support for an affordable housing firm.

While the cover of Armstrong's debut paid homage to a 1957 Ray Price LP, the recent "Songs That Make The Jukebox Play" reflects the artwork and title of a 1957 Jimmie Skinner album. Those aren't the only differences. Singing live helped him sound more confident and, responding to club patrons itching to dance, he mingled some fast shuffles in with the steel-laden misery ballads.

Buoyed by pockets of independent airplay worldwide, Armstrong's two critically acclaimed albums are being readied for a 2003 European release by the Glasgow-based Spit & Polish label. Growing appreciation aside, don't look for this stylistic throwback to come to a honky-tonk near you anytime soon.

Blessed with a happy marriage, a one-year old daughter and respectable employment, Armstrong is comfortable playing such Bay Area clubs as The Make Out Room, The Ivy Room, The Starry Plow and El Rio.

"I'm never going to make the million-seller charts, and I don't expect to," says Armstrong philosophically. "I'm probably going to be a little regional, independent country music maker for the rest of my life - and I'm happy being there, trying to make my little contribution to the music."