Clandestinely inward-thinking and yet beholden to a swing as much as any melody ever could be, the hook in “Possessed,” just like it is in the other songs in Tommy Howell’s American Storyteller, essentially defines the track’s personality almost as much as Howell’s voice does. Always by his side, the instrumental construct in American Storyteller expounds upon everything our storyteller shares with us from behind the microphone, and if you ask me, the minute details here deserve just as much of the credit when trying to decide why this record is the incredibly engaging effort that it irrefutably is. We might know him from stage and screen, but in this record, we meet a singer/songwriter who is as incredible with lyrics as he is a line.
“Miss Maybelle,” “Hell of a Life,” “‘88” and “Lady Luck” each feel like some of the more personal numbers Tommy Howell could have committed to master tape in this piece, but this isn’t to say that they somehow eclipse the other content here at all – nothing could be further from the truth. I see these songs as an example of his willingness to be vulnerable – which isn’t a given for anyone who has been in the entertainment business as long as he has, no matter the arm. This is a collective effort that starts from within his soul and ends with the girth of a groove, but at the end of the day, there’s not many a moment in which Howell’s personality doesn’t sound and feel like the most important piece of any song here.
Fluidity is important when listening to any tracklist in its entirety without interruption, and my gut tells me that Tommy Howell was thinking about this when he was structuring the songs in American Storyteller. The bruising “Raised by Wolves” bridges into “‘88” with the same seamlessness we find when the verses in “Hell of a Life” connect despite being separated by harmonies as big as slivers of heaven itself. “Rose Hill” sets a tone we revisit much later with “Ponygirl,” and by the time we’ve made it through the whole album, it’s more like we’ve experienced a progressive performance than simply listened to a collection of songs that someone compiled throughout a conventional studio session.
I’ve been following Tommy Howell’s film career for a long time, and while I had a lot of expectations coming into this review of American Storyteller, I was pleased to find all of them surpassed in tracks like “Cold Dead Hands,” “Whiskey Demon” and “Hope I Ain’t Dead,” one of my favorite songs on the record. Tommy Howell is giving us a vulnerable portrayal of the consummate singer/songwriter here, and even though I don’t get the impression that this is some sort of farewell to the fans and the career in filmmaking he’s assembled for himself over the years, his love for this medium is evident from all angles. American Storyteller is a home run, and for this artist, another high point in a storied life.