Thomas Howell is one of the most prominent young actors of the 1980’s, known for his generation-defining role in the classic The Outsiders, among other fine films. He continues working in film and television today, but his artistic interests broadened with time. He’s taken on the name Tommy Howell for his debut album American Storyteller and its eleven tracks bear out the wisdom behind his decision. It may surprise some that this paragon of some of the 1980’s most popular movies has turned his creative attentions toward music that is a mix of blues, outlaw country, and singer/songwriter sensibilities.
It proves to be an invigorating listening experience. “Whiskey Demon” serves notice that Howell is intent on kicking ass with a raucous reflection on whiskey and the havoc, good and bad, it can cause. It’s similar in spirit to several songs you may have heard without ever sounding too imitative. This sort of familiar territory is a key for a performer who is making his debut. He further aligns himself with the cause of blues/Southern rock on the album’s second track “Rose Hill”. It references an important location in Southern rock history without ever pandering to that audience and the layered musical approach is intelligent and hard-hitting without ever sacrificing its soulfulness. Howell, at every turn, is well-served by accompanying musicians who understand this music chapter and verse.
“Miss Maybelle” is, arguably, one of the album’s light-hearted rockers with a touch of risqué. It may seem a bit of a stretch to say it, considering the album’s musical allegiance, but Howell never goes in for crass – yet the song is intensely physical and dirty without it. The musicians once again deliver the goods for Howell without ever overshadowing him. He’s the undisputed center of this and other tracks included on American Storyteller. “’88” turns in a different direction as Howell sets aside the fire and brimstone Southern rock in favor of pure blues. It introduces an acoustic bent that only continues growing over the course of the release. The acoustic instrumentation never cuts out the grit though.
“Cold Dead Hands” is a strongly individualistic track that celebrates the freedom to bear arms while defying anyone to take it away from him. It has more limited appeal than many other cuts on the album, however, though its target audience will definitely welcome it with a wide embrace. “Hope I Ain’t Dead” is the album’s one out and out love song and layered with direct details certain to appeal to any listener. Some listeners may wish for a few more lyrics in this one, but Howell certainly communicates his affection for the song’s subject.
“Ponygirl” ends the release with the gentlest number included on American Storyteller. It’s a lilting track in many ways and full of melodic gifts. Howell isn’t content providing us with an one dimensional effort and excels just as much with the blues rock rippers as he does the softer cuts. It’s a satisfying release on every level.