In the current rush in traditional country circles to channel Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, or Buck Owens, it's usually forgotten that very few people had that kind of talent or charisma during country's Golden Age. For every Merle Haggard there were a couple of dozen Mike Luncefords, and for every George Jones there was a line of pretenders stretched around the block waiting for their grab at the brass ring.
Formerly of the Iowa-based Hollowmen and now residing in San Francisco, Tom Armstrong mines an oft-neglected vein of country history; the inspired second- and third-stringers of '50's country like Skeets McDonald and Tibby Edwards. It's an interesting approach, and one that works for Armstrong. Though not the most memorable vocalist in the world, Armstrong makes up for it as a strong songwriter (strangely reminiscent of Bill Anderson in some ways) and with some fine, traditionally minded musical backing, including Steve Cornell on steel and Les James on drums, both on loan from Red Meat. Heartbreak is the order of the day, with numbers like "What Did I Lose," "I Wonder If I'll Ever Love Again," and the waltz-time "Sleep Will Never Come" (probably Armstrong's best vocal moment here) emerging as particularly strong - or sorrowful; take your pick - tracks.
Though not an earth-shattering debut, "...Heart Songs" is nevertheless worth a listen for fans of traditional country, particularly for fans of good songwriting. (Carswell, 101 Mateo, San Francisco, CA 94131 or E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)