Tommy Howell Takes a New Path in Life For American Storyteller
Tommy Howell is better known as C. Thomas Howell from his long career as a film and TV actor, one which he began as a teenager (The Outsiders, E.T., Red Dawn, The Walking Dead). He continues to be very active on small and large screens, with a new series coming up on Netflix called Obliterated from the makers of a previous show he has worked on, Cobra Kai. Calling himself by a more laid back moniker is part of a new integration of music and acting in his life. Hailing from a ranch and rodeo background, Howell feels that his current public life incorporates his true identity more fully than it has in the past.
During the pandemic period, working on a film idea led Howell to take music more seriously in his life and led to a discovery of a meaningful fascination with songwriting. Learning to play the guitar, write songs, and even perform publicly as a musician led him down a transformative road that has now landed him in Nashville. He released his first album, American Storyteller, this winter, and has an intense schedule of related performances coming up where he plays songs, tells stories from his life, and often brings along interesting guests. I spoke with Howell about this life-changing journey that he’s been on and his perspective as a newly minted songwriter and musician who also continues to be an actor.
Americana Highways: When you were working on this album, that was a time where you had more time at home, but now that it’s out, you’re quite a busy man, as I understand it!
Tommy Howell: Covid slowed everything down. I hadn’t played any music and I didn’t play an instrument. I grew up in a music-less home. But I grew up on a ranch in a rural environment, and my family were all cowboys. Rodeo was a big part of our lives. My father was a professional bull rider who became a stuntman, which was my intro into the movie business. But when Covid hit, I really had a chance to sit down and reflect for half a moment. There was a project on my mind that I wanted to do, a film project about an old cowboy who makes a record that gets a lot of heat, and he kind of walks away from the [music] business to go ride horses. He ends up connecting with an estranged daughter.
It was a story I wanted to tell, and I could do all the cowboy and ranching elements, but I didn’t have a clue when it came to music. I wanted to try to make that as authentic as possible. When Covid hit, I was getting ready for the opening night of a play on the Friday of the week that they shut down the whole country. I was sitting there in LA with a place and nothing to do, so I ordered a guitar and started plucking chords. Slowly but surely, my journey began.
It happened relatively quickly, and I realized in a short period that my 40 years telling stories in a two-hour format could be a pretty seamless transition into a two-minute format. I just needed to know the rules. I started to meet and hang out with music people and I fell in love with music. I fell in love with being able to tell stories. I discovered something I didn’t know about myself, that I loved sharing aspects of my own life. When it’s your own life, you don’t think any people will be interested.
You could have the most exciting life, but if someone tells you, “You need to write a book.”, your natural reaction is to say, “Oh, stop! I don’t have anything to say.” But when I started to sit down and lay things out, I realized that I have had a special life that really lends to this platform. Now we’ve been blessed to play in front of people, whether it’s a hundred people or a few thousand. Being able to draw people in and elaborate on stories has been such a pleasure for me, and to find a home for that. That’s Country music and the people who appreciate it.
AH: Did you find talking about your own life difficult at all? I imagine that being an actor, it was necessary to keep a lot of your life private.
TH: Being raised in the rural environment was something that I didn’t feel comfortable exposing as a kid. No kid feels great going to school and telling people that they’re raising pigs or beef cattle. It’s not considered cool. We’re somewhat forced to hide that and that’s what I did. But once I really embraced who I was and where I was from, and stopped worrying about what other people thought, things changed. The time during Covid gave me a second chance. There’s also my age of 55. When you hit 50, the idea of mortality starts to set in. Something I think about now is sitting in a room with people and really appreciating them. Really, the platform of music is about sitting together and having an exchange. They may come to see me, but I come to see them. I walk away with a lot from that.
AH: This sounds like it’s a pretty big transformation of your way of looking at yourself and in what you want to do creatively. Is your life very different now than it was?
TH: Trusting and following this musical path led me to the best part of my life. I live in Nashville now and play music every day. I apologize for my language, saying it like this, but Hollywood is a fickle bitch! She’s beautiful and I courted her for years. We had some success, but I never really got to a place where I felt I could marry Hollywood. Music has given me the opportunity to only take jobs that I really want to take and not have to pretend that I’m someone who I’m really not.
Nashville is a place where you can really be yourself and hone that artistically. A lot of people here find an international place, and some find a unique little niche. For me, I don’t have any boy band plans. We just now signed a residency with the City Winery here in Nashville and we’re going to do 50 shows starting in May. I’ll be bringing in friends I’ve worked with over the years like Charlie Sheen and the cats from Cobra Kai. It’s called “Backstage with Tommy Howell.” We’re not filming it, it’s a live performance. It’s a throwback to old variety shows.
AH: You were writing and you were thinking about this project during the pandemic, but when did you make the decision to play in public for the first time? Was that a big leap?
TH: When I look back, I realize that if we were measuring this on a ruler, I have a 0.8 millimeter range, vocally, on a twelve inch ruler. [Laughs] But I can do “me” well. If I stick to doing what I do, we do well. That was a bit of a process. In the beginning, I was so clearly not a singer and so clearly knew nothing about it that it wasn’t something I would even consider. I’m not someone who sang in the shower.
AH: Did you think that other vocalists might sing your songs and you’d just be a writer?
TH: When I started to learn a few chords, through the beauty of the internet, I was able to learn more. I was talking to some music people and I said, “I can’t sing.” They said, “You probably can sing. You just need to learn what your range is and stick with that.” It wasn’t going to happen for me to become Whitney Houston. But once I figured Tommy Howell out, with a tone that’s salty and gravelly. It lends towards storytelling and the type of music that I write and play. I’m also not afraid of talking about my own career. I felt like I’d be open about that. I wrote a song called “Hell of a Life” which covers my career over the years and highlights some of the projects that people know me from. That’s one of my most popular songs and people connect with it. So I’ve learned to be authentic and write stuff I know about.
AH: It sounds like the opposite of compartmentalizing your life. You’re instead working towards integrating the different aspects of your life. That’s a choice and it sounds like it’s a relief to you to get to be the same guy in both of these roles.
TH: There are artists and actors who don’t want people to know who they are, but that goes against what Country music and storytelling are about. As an actor, you can play a role and be as authentic as possible. The actors who do that the best are our favorite actors. But when you get up on stage, people can sense truth, whether you’re singing or just saying hello. I feel at ease in front of people on stage. Maybe it’s surprised a lot of people that I’m doing this. When you see an actor becoming a musician, the majority of people subconsciously roll their eyes. They may feel the actor is taking advantage of their platform. I’m one of those people. I judge it. But most of the actors that perform music have had to struggle and I’m not really sure why. Singers cross over into acting fairly well.
AH: I agree. That’s actually fairly common for singers to become actors and there is a weird difference when things go the other way. It’s less allowed somehow.
TH: Back in the day, you had to sing and dance if you were going to act. You’d be a triple threat. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. I’m not for everybody musically, but I think I surprise people a lot more than I disappoint people with the band I’ve put together, the songs I’ve written, and the album.
AH: You mentioned the genre country music earlier, but your approach is fairly broad, isn’t it? I think you’ve got some Southern Rock in there.
TH: Whether you like country music or not, you might like this. There’s a little bit of a lot sprinkled into that album. There are some bluesy moments. There are mountain music moments. We’re mandolin-driven and harmonica-driven. So there’s a country feel to it, but there’s a real Texas thunder southern rock vibe in a lot of our songs that I’m really proud of. That sound has disappeared over the years and I grew on that sound, whether it was Lynyrd Skynyrd, or The Allmans, or Marshall Tucker.
AH: You’re approaching music in a new way, as a new thing in your life. How do you approach songwriting? Does it feel new or weird to you?
TH: I approach everything like this. When I’m doing a scene, I don’t start with the words. I start with intention, tone, and behavior. What’s the intention and tone of this scene? Then the behavior works its way in. Once I’m clear on those aspects, the words are easy. There was a real, direct correlation between that and music for me. I used to ask this question all the time, “So, what comes first when you write a song? Do you write the words first, or do you write the music first?” I got a lot of “It depends.” But now I have the answer. Really how it goes down is this: what comes first is intention and tone. Are we writing a love song? If my intention is to write a love song. I already know, musically, that there are certain chords which lend themselves to that sound. I start with that. That eliminates so much. That’s the answer.
I can drive down a country road that says, “Local Honey.” That paints a lot of images in my mind. Where can we go with that? I write that down. I thought I was going to end up writing a song called that, but that became a lyric for me instead. It ended up in a song that I wrote called “Hope I Did.” A guy is in love and says he woke up in heaven. I’ve never had great success sitting down and saying, “I’m going to write this type of song and I’m not going to leave until I write it.” There’s something forced about that. But getting a sense of tone and intention first, that really allows me to put all the pieces together.
I start collecting all my bits. I get a hook or a phrase that I know that I’m going to work with, then there’s a key word or two in there. I grab a list of rhyming words that work with my key words. I write them down and move on. It’s become like a puzzle for me. The aspect I love about it the most is the puzzle aspect and putting it together to make the most sense for us all. That’s been awesome.
AH: Thanks for sharing that. I’ve heard people talk about choosing a mood for a song, but if your choosing tone and intention also, that’s going to give you a lot more trajectory.
TH: One hundred percent. A lot of people talk about writer’s block, but this is the answer to writer’s block: find your tone and intention. When I was first writing songs, I thought I had to continue writing and not stop until I had finished a song. Now I’ll spend two weeks on a song. That was something I had to allow myself to do. Walking away can be beautiful because when you come back, the answers can be so obvious. I allow myself more time with the process and that’s helped a lot.
Thank you very much for speaking with us Tommy Howell. Find more information and links to his music here: https://tommyhowellmusic.com/
Enjoy our previous coverage here: Song Premiere: Tommy Howell “Hell of a Life”