Tom Armstrong started playing music in a punk band influenced by bands like Dinosaur Jr and Soul Asylum, then performed some Free Jazz to finally record two Honky Tonk gems. The first one, Sings Heart Songs issued in 1999, with its graphic reference to Ray Price on the cover is a beautiful piece of fine music and sad songs (I Wonder If I'll Ever Love Again, Sleep Never Will Come, I'm Damned, If I Only Knew...). Three years later, Songs That Make The Jukebox Play, this time a Jimmie Skinner reference in the title, uses more or less the same musical recipe (shadows of Webb Pierce, Ray Price, Skeets McDonald and Hank Williams are floating around) but the slight difference with the previous album is, at the end of the album, a possible hope with "Hard Times Are Gone".
This interview is another old one that I had in my files. If I remember correctly it was made sometimes around 2001 or 2002. But like others before, I thought that the answers weren't too anchored in the actuality and I could put it here.
Sadly, Mr Armstrong has taken a break from performing (at least as a main act, I've seen he now plays bass in a honky tonk band) but his records (Sings Heart Songs and Songs That Make The Jukebox Play) are still here. Hopefully he'll change his mind and will record a new one soon.
So if you like Tom's music, I hope you'll like to this interview and his points of views about the music, Nashville, the songwriting etc. If you don't know him, check his
website, hear a song, read this and discover one of the last honky tonk hero.

by Fred "Virgil" Turgis

Where do you come from?

I grew up in Springfield, Illinois. It's a small city of about 100,000 people 200 miles south of Chicago & 100 miles east of St. Louis. My dad's from a farm in southeastern Illinois and my mom is from a small town in western Illinois. In 1983 I moved to Iowa. I spent eleven years in Des Moines and Iowa City. In 1994 I moved to San Francisco and have been in the Bay Area ever since.

What is your musical background? When did you start playing music?
What/who decided you to pick an instrument or to sing?

Music wasn't a big deal in my family, it was appreciated but no one was really an enthusiastic musician or singer. When I was ten or eleven years old I started listening to 60s pop music, the Beatles and the Byrds, that's when I got really passionate about music.
My sister had a cheap classical guitar and some songbooks that had basic chord diagrams in them so I started teaching myself to play guitar. The first song I played all the way through was "Yesterday", I picked out the melody by ear. Once I got down the basic chords I played along with records and learned a lot that way. I also took some guitar lessons and learned a little music theory. I started writing songs when I was 15. As a teen I had a lot of angst to work out.

Can you tell us about your punk band/years. Did you listen to country music at that time?
When I was 13 or 14 my sister married this guy who would take me out in his car and play me Elvis Costello, The Clash, The Jam, The Buzzcocks, all that sort of stuff. There were also a few guys who worked at a local record store who encouraged me to listen to Captain Beefheart, Ornette Coleman, Wire, Pere Ubu, you name it. So I got hooked on seeking out music that was out of the mainstream. I played in a few cover bands when I was a teen, then after I moved to Iowa I joined a band that played all original material and that was it, I was hooked. By the mid-80s American indie rock was really hitting its stride. There were labels like SST and Homestead and Touch & Go, and all those great bands like Sonic Youth and Big Black and Husker Du.
I was in a band called the Hollowmen, we made two records and played around on the indie rock circuit in the midwest for five years, with one tour on the west coast in 1989. We broke up at the end of that year. We had big amps and played really loud. We loved Soul Asylum and Dinosaur Jr. so there was some of that in our sound. We wrote most of our material collaboratively. I listened to a little bit of country in those years, I had a Patsy Cline album and a Kitty Wells tape and a few other things. Country music didn't figure much as a direct influence in the kind of music I was making, but I loved the sense of melancholy in Patsy Cline's music and was hoping to get some of that feeling in the Hollowmen's music, even if the sound and methods were otherwise very different.

Did it have an influence on your punk songwriting?
There wasn't much direct influence of country music in the Hollowmen's sound. There was maybe a hint of country in some of the vocals, my sense of harmony has always tended toward close harmony in 3rds, which is common in country. But not much in the lyrics, rhythms, or arrangements.

How did you come to country music? Punk and free jazz are not really the best introduction for this kind of music.
Country wasn't the main type of music I was exposed to growing up, but it was always around. My older brother had an album of Johnny Cash and I remember loving "I Walk The Line" when I was four or five years old. We used to watch "Hee Haw" every Saturday night, right before Lawrence Welk. Whenever we'd go visit my dad's family on the farm you'd hear country music in the house or in the truck or on the tractor. My guitar teacher when I was 15 & 16 was a country picker so a lot of what he showed me was based on that. I remember when I first heard Patsy Cline when I was 18, driving around with a drummer friend of mine, and being captivated by it.
When the Hollowmen broke up I recorded an album's worth of rootsy rock stuff that had more of a country influence to it but it never got released. After that I got really interested in expanding my musical horizons, writing in unusual time signatures and making up my own chords. From there I abandoned songwriting completely and played almost nothing but spontaneously improvised music/noise for a few years. Playing free-form music and really being good at it is much harder than it looks, it's a very demanding and abstract kind of discipline. After a while I found it unsatisfying. Meanwhile I was buying country records in thrift stores and bargain bins, and I started to get more and more into it. I found some really good stuff right off the bat, like Jimmie Skinner and Bobby Austin and Wynn Stewart, and got really inspired. I loved the simplicity and directness of the songwriting, it was very refreshing to me because it said what it had to say without artifice or obfuscation, and the melodies and chord structures always resolved back to the 1, making the songs sound so whole.
I was also going through some changes in my personal life with a romance that petered out, so I was feeling lonesome and confused and had a lot of mental & emotional garbage to sort out. So I decided to try writing songs in the country idiom. Immediately the songs started pouring out effortlessly and I decided to accept the fact that my musical strength was as a songwriter, not as an improviser. I also decided to work harder on my singing, to try to sing accurately on pitch and carry a melody instead of bellowing or mumbling, and with a lot of practice over a couple of years I improved quite a bit.
After I moved to San Francisco I saw Junior Brown and Wayne Hancock play in the clubs. Seeing them showed me it was possible to play this kind of music in this day and age and make it fresh and relevant. They inspired me, but I also knew I had my own spin on country and honky-tonk, my own contribution to make to the music, so that motivated to make my first CD and put together a band to play it.

Have you ever been tempted by playing rockabilly? It shares a certain energy/anger with punk but with a more musical approach.
Rockabilly isn't my thing. I like it in small doses but I don't think I'd be good at it. Webb Pierce and Faron Young sounded awful when they tried to sing rockabilly, I think the same would be true of me.

Are you still influenced, one way or another, by your punk period?
Most definitely. I think the best punk rock and the best country music have a few qualities in common, like honesty and sincerity of delivery, and saying what you mean in a very direct way. I also learned a lot from playing improvised music about spontaneity and being open to the moment. Now I get that by providing a song structure for my musicians to improvise on. My guitarist and steel player and fiddler are all players who never play the same solo twice, I really love that. It keeps the music fresh and exciting. I still listen to punk on college radio sometimes, and just yesterday I was spinning some of my Sun Ra and Mal Waldron records. The last show I went to see was Ornette Coleman at the SF Jazz Festival.

What about the recording of your first album? Did you play and tour live with a country formation before recording. Was it hard and long to get the right sound?
No, I didn't tour or play live with a band before we made that record. That line-up was put together just for the recordings. I had worked with the engineer, Joe Goldring, on another project. I told him what kind of record I wanted to make and he said he'd love to do it. Shortly after that I ran into the bass player, John Walter, who was an old friend of mine from my hometown in Illinois. He introduced me to the steel player, Steve Cornell, who was in Red Meat at the time. Steve then called in the drummer, Les James, who's also in Red Meat. The four of us did our parts in three live sessions. We'd get together the night before each session and run down the material, then we'd go in the next day and knock out four songs in two or three hours. Those guys were all such good players that we got most of the songs in a few takes.
The recording sessions weren't hard at all, it was the mixing that got difficult. Joe used different microphones and different techniques on each of the three sessions, so each session sounded very different from the other ones. It took a lot of work to get it to where we were satisfied with the mixes. About the time we did the last session in 1997 I started playing with my current guitarist Mike Wolf and put together the core of my live band, with Les James on drums, Greg Reeves on bass, and David Phillips on steel. Those guys are the ones on my new CD "Songs That Make The Jukebox Play," though Greg has since bowed out and now Rob Douglas is my first-call bassist. Doug Adams played fiddle on both records and he still makes it to my gigs when he can. The second CD is more the sound of a seasoned unit, as we played most of those songs as a band quite a bit before we recorded them.

"Sings heart songs" was recorded in 96/97 but only released in 99...
I spent a long time mixing & remixing the thing. I knew I wanted fiddle on three of the songs but it took me a while to find the right player so that was a delay. I also sent it around to a few labels to see if I could get someone else to put it out. No one I presented it to wanted to do it. I had never self-released a record before so I hesitated a while before deciding to take the plunge and become my own label.

What is the part of autobiography in your songs?
It varies a lot from song to song. Some songs come very directly out something that I experienced, like "What Did I Lose" "How Much Longer" or "Brand New Memories." Some come from situations I've observed or heard about from friends like "First One To Get There" which was inspired by this little neighborhood bar that a friend of mine owns. Some are rewrites of ideas I've gotten from other songs like "You Used To Live It Up" and "Get While The Getting's Good", and some just arrive out of the blue like "Give Up On Me" or "I'm Damned". Even the most autobiographical of them often get fictionalized in some regard in order to meet the needs of the song. I like for a song to make a single point, or to express a single point of view. I don't like to look at a situation from a lot of different vantage points in a single song, I'd rather have each song express one idea. When you do that you necessarily eliminate other shades of meaning, other interpretations, other ways of looking at a situation that may be just as true as the one you're going for. In that regard they get exaggerated or fictionalized.

Did your wedding and the birth of your daughter change your songwriting?
Sure. "Hard Times Are Gone" probably would not have been written if I hadn't met my wife. It gets harder to write heartbreak songs when your homelife is happy. My wife and I get along very well and we work out our troubles together, so I don't hold onto things that go on between us and turn them into songs very much. Mostly my songs come from things that happened in my past, or things I observe happening to other people, or sometimes they come from just a word or phrase that suggests a story. In the weeks before and after my daughter was born last year I went on a writing spree, I wrote two dozen songs. Having a baby stirs things up, and I was also in a panic that I wouldn't have the time to write songs for a while so I wrote as many as I could when I had the chance.

Your first album is a graphic reference to Ray Price's Columbia album, the title of the second comes from Jimmie Skinner, but on the records you made only one cover. Are there any songs you'd like to cover on album?
There are hundreds of songs I'd like to cover. Live the band does a few like "Fort Worth Jail" by Dick Reinhart and "Old Faithful" by Mel Tillis. But when it comes time to make a record I want to do my own work. I've got well over 100 of my own songs to choose from for the next record. I think my strongest suit is my material. I make records to get my material heard, in the hopes that other like-minded folks out there might cover some of my songs someday. That said, I would love to make an album of covers, paying tribute to great under-appreciated writers and performers like Tibby Edwards, Jimmie Skinner, Bob Morris, and James O'Gwynn. Even more ideal would be to do a series of EPs where I'd sing five or six songs by one of my favorite writers or performers on each record. But given the cost of recording & pressing that project will probably remain in the realm of fantasy. My priority now is to get my own material heard.

Who are your references in term of songwriting and singing?
It's taken me many years to accept the voice God gave me. I love bass/baritone voices and I've always wished I had a deeper voice, or a more guttural, rougher, lived-in voice. But I'm stuck with what I've got so it's up to me to maximize it by finding ways to use it that work. I really dig full-throated singers like Webb Pierce, the Louvin Bros, Bobby Austin, Buck Owens, Tibby Edwards, Carl Butler, Chuck Reed, Skeets McDonald, Gene O'Quin, the kind of singers who really belt it out loud and clear. I love Ray Price and that whole school of Texas singers he's inspired like Johnny Bush, Darrell McCall, and Justin Trevino. I also love the school of singers they call groaners like Frankie Miller, James O'Gwynn, Sonny Burns, and I guess you could put Vernon Oxford in that category. I really love Charlie Rich too but I don't try to sing like him, I couldn't even get close to what he could do with his voice so I don't even try. As a writer I've gone through a lot of changes, I could point to any song and tell you whose style influenced it. "Sleep Never Will Come" and "Give Up On Me" have a strong Hank Williams Sr. flavor. "Blues & Dues" and "Eat At Home" have a lot of Skeets McDonald in them. "See The Sun Again" and "How Much Longer" come from the Floyd Tillman/Willie Nelson thing. "You Used To Live It Up" shows a Tommy Collins influence, and "If I Only Knew" is very Louvins-ish. Other favorites of mine would be Harlan Howard, Merle Haggard, and Bob Morris. Bob Morris wrote Buck Owens' theme song "Buckaroo" but he wrote a lot of other great songs that
not enough people have heard. Lately I've gotten more into that whole school of songwriting that got popular in the 60s, those gimmicky, clever, punning heartbreak songs that writers like Bill Anderson and Liz Anderson cranked out. Roger Miller wrote a lot of great sad honky-tonk songs in the years before his novelty material took off. Oftentimes when I'm writing a song I'll have a particular voice in mind and that'll influence the way it comes out, like I think "I Wonder If I'll Ever Love Again" would have been perfect for Wynn Stewart, and "I'll Match You" would sound great if Vernon Oxford sang it.

Did you ever meet or play with singers like Ray Price Buck Owens?
No, not too much. I did get to hang out with Johnny Cuviello one night, he played drums back in the 40s & 50s for Bob Wills, Jean Shepard, and the Farmer Boys. I also met the great 50s gospel singer Chester Smith about a year ago, he's playing out again after being retired from music since 1963.

Your roots are deeply located in the classic honky tonk/ late western-swing styles. Are you treated by the medias as a revivalist or do they understand that you're also a real author ?
I've been lucky, I've gotten nothing but sympathetic press from people who really get what I'm doing. It's largely because I write my own material. I believe my songwriting is my greatest strength. The fact that I can come up with valid, authentic new songs and breathe some life into them keeps me from becoming merely a revivalist.

What is the profile of your audience ?
Mostly people over 30 years old. Usually they're people of some sort of hipster mentality, either musicians themselves or the type of music fans who like to seek out things they haven't heard before. There's a big part of the audience that's of my age group, people who came of age in the 80s and got tired of whatever it was they used to listen to and got into country. Then there's a segment that's older, people of the baby-boomer counter-culture generation who got into country with the hippy acts of the 70s like Gram Parsons and Commander Cody. Then of course there are the random drunks, and the Dancin' Man down at the Ivy Room.

Do you feel close to guys like Johnny Dilks, Big Sandy, Deke Dickerson, Wayne Hancock or The Derailers ?
Very much so. I 've met Dilks and Deke, and I've met Whit Smith from the Hot Club of Cowtown a few times. I played a showcase at SXSW in 2001 and I met
lots of Austin musicians like Roger Wallace, Cornell Hurd, Susanna Van Tassel, Ted Roddy, Brad Fordham. Here in SF I do a lot of shows with Red Meat, they're an excellent band. There used to be a good band around town called Jeff Bright and the Sunshine Boys who played a lot of Buck Owens and Ray Price style songs. I feel a lot more kinship with those artists then with Nashpop or even the No Depression scene.
When I got interested in playing country music I decided early on that I didn't want to start a rock band in cowboy hats and call it country. I wanted to see if I could play straight-up honky-tonk like they used to do, with the same kind of instrumentation and arrangements. I think my most recent CD proves I can. Some people have a big problem with the term "retro" but I don't mind it. I think it's pretty clear I'm reviving a style that hasn't been commercially viable at a significant level for forty years. I use the word "retro" myself sometimes to describe what I do. If you tell people you play country music and don't qualify it somehow they might think you're trying to be the next Phil Vassar, which is the last thing in the world I'd want to be confused with. Where I depart from some retro-minded people is in how far to take it in terms of image and lifestyle. Like I don't insist that my band members all drive 40-year old cars or play 40-year old instruments or wear 40-year old clothes or put Brylcream in their hair.

How is the musical (and especially country music) scene in San Francisco?
Well country music isn't exactly all the rage out here. The Bay Area is a unique place where a lot of people who don't fit in other parts of the USA come to be themselves. People out here like to think they're very forward-thinking and unorthodox, and in the US country music is widely associated with conservative social values, so your average left-leaning Bay Area citizen doesn't have much use for it. I think country music reminds too many people of the south and midwest, the places they left behind, to be that big out here.
The big thing now is DJ music, techno and hip-hop. DJs have replaced bands at a lot of places. Live music in general is in a bit of a lull these days, since the economy slowed down. Lots of people have lost their jobs or left the city, venues have closed or stopped booking music, and the biggest rehearsal studio in town closed up shop. What clubs there are book lots of punk, indie rock, metal, world beat, jam bands, jazz, Latin groups, you name it. A few years ago cover bands and retro swing bands were all the rage, but those trends have petered out. The country and Americana scenes have produced some really good acts like Red Meat, Johnny Dilks, Carrie Lee, Dave Gleason's Wasted Days, Dallas Wayne, Tom Heyman, The Bellyachers, and lots more. Most of us don't get much press locally, but there are a handful of good community radio shows that play our stuff, and a few venues where we can draw a crowd. There's still good roots music somewhere in town every week, because San Francisco is a great place to live and keeps attracting talented people.

What do you think about Nashville? Do you think country is still played there? Would you like to play at the Grand Ole Opry?
I haven't been to Nashville since 1982, when my family flew me down there to see Elvis Costello play at the Grand Ol' Opry on his "Almost Blue" tour as a Christmas present. I hear there's not much of a club scene there. I don't know anyone there. Most of my favorite bands and performers are independent, grassroots club acts who work out of Texas or California. Sure, I'd play the Opry if I had the chance, but I'm not holding my breath.

It seems there is a new generation of bands who play country music the way it must be done. Do you think Nashville (and the opry) will have to consider them?
Yes, there's a whole new crop of really good hard country, honky tonk, and western swing players that have gotten going in the last ten years. It's great. Does Nashville need them? I don't think so. Country music at the top big-business level has become a whole different kind of music from what artists like me do. I think some of my songs could have been mainstream country hits 40 or 50 years ago, but not now. I think most of the performers who want to play country music their own way, heavily informed by older styles, will have to build their careers outside the Nashville machine. That's sad maybe but that's the way it is. It's nothing new either, in the 70s they were recording the hell out of Dave & Sugar while Vernon Oxford was hanging drywall. On a brighter note, I've heard that the
Opry has been booking some indie artists with talent and intergrity like Elizabeth Cook and Mike Ireland, which is very encouraging. And who knows, maybe there'll be an upswing in demand for country that's closer to its roots, like what happened with the New Trads in the late 80s.

Do you feel yourself on war, as Wayne Hancock seems to be, against what happened to country music in Nashville ?
It's a big leap from Ernest Tubb to Rascal Flatts, and it's hard for many of us to consider the latter country music at all. But what are you going to do? Stay up at night worrying about it? Nashville's gonna crank out whatever they think will sell and they'll call it "country music" whether it fits my definition or not. What has always defined country music since its birth as a commercial entity has been a sort of consensus of the people who play it, listen to it, market it, buy it. By that definition then yeah today's mainstream country is country music, simply because that's what a large number of people have agreed to call it. And the culture has changed a lot since 1950. The suburbification and mallification of America have changed country music just like they've changed everything else. That said, I do consider today's country mainstream to be a significantly different subgenre from what I do, and I don't care for a lot of it. There's too much of the 70s country-rock sound like the Eagles in it, and some of it even reminds me of 80s hair metal power ballads and arena rock. But you know, no one is making me listen to it. I can change the channel and ignore it and go do my own thing.

Do you make a living out of your music, or do you have a day job?
Part of why I'm less inclined to really badmouth Nashville than Wayne or Dale Watson or Robbie Fulks is because I haven't quit my day job and attempted to make a living playing and selling my music full-time. If I was trying hard for a successful full-time country music career then I'd probably be a lot grouchier about not getting played on the radio, or not having a record deal, or seeing Faith Hill passed off as country music. As it is I don't expect to become a big name as a performer, because I don't plan on quitting my job and going out on tour for long stretches. I'm too happy with my home life to be out on the road all the time. Long-term I hope to gain greater recognition as a songwriter. I would love it if other performers covered my songs. That's happened a little bit, one band here in
town was playing "I'm Damned" for a while and another has been performing "Give Up On Me". I've heard rumours of bands in Illinois and Missouri covering my songs. I love that, I want more of that. I think that's the best contribution I can make to the country music tradition. I'd love to hear Justin Trevino sing one of my songs.

A last word?
Thanks for your interest in my music. There's so much music in the world today that any time anyone chooses to listen to mine I feel flattered.