Stay gold, cowboy
Like many of us, Tommy Howell had a pandemic project.
The long-adored actor (who was known in the film world as C. Thomas Howell and will be forever regarded by movie fans of a certain age as either Ponyboy, Soul Man, or Robert from Red Dawn) was exploring possibilities for a new film about a former country star when he picked up the guitar. That was June 2020.
Just over a year later, he’s taking his newfound passion on the road. After practicing every day, often for hours at a time, his hyper-focus has rearranged how he sees himself as a performer, and brought the kind of authenticity that can only come from an accidental creative awakening.
Now, Tommy Howell: An Evening of Music and Storytelling is coming to New Braunfels’ Brauntex Theatre, where Howell will perform original songs and tell stories from his decades in show business, from ET, The Outsiders, and Criminal Minds to “cowboyin’” and writing songs. To Howell, part of the draw of live shows is being able to improvise. A seasoned actor can tell the same story over and again, but he says he doesn’t plan to repeat many.
“My interest right now is just telling my story. I mean, I’ve had a hell of a 50 years,” Howell says. “I’m at the age where I can reflect upon things and share them in a light that is entertaining.”
The actor’s rebranding comes from his driving desire for the genuine, ditching the stiffer union-necessitated abbreviation of his name for the more approachable one used all his life by his friends and family. In stepping onstage and off-screen, the distance between performer and audience quickly closes, leaving one man who is still new to what he does, telling stories in real time and in one take.
“I feel like I’m a different person and have a different life, and it’s all for the better,” Howell says, adding, “I don’t want people to wonder what they should call me.”
Howell, a former rodeo-circuit champion trained by his father, still identifies with the cowboy title and is now approaching it from a musical perspective. To him, it’s all about accountability. A cowboy will be where he says he’ll be, when he says he’ll be there. He’ll help a friend with a dirty job, no questions asked.
The romance and danger in cowboy stories is a nice touch, too. That the identity just happened to work with the new project may have been a wonderful coincidence, but it probably runs deeper than that. These are all the themes that initially made Howell a celebrated actor, and they’re what draws him to the country over life in Los Angeles.
“We just basically connected all the dots,” says Howell of reuniting with old cowboy pals over music. “The music goes with the cowboyin’, and the cowboyin’ goes with the music. And it all brings the people together.”
Aside from his fanatical practicing, Howell’s rapid musical growth is due to lessons every performer learns, as well as support from big-time songwriter friends out of Nashville. The natural inclination was there. He wrote down all his ideas and planted them in his notebook “garden.” He’d describe ideas to the pros, and they’d get to their most interesting cores.
Songwriter friends including Dave Kennedy and Channing Wilson helped Howell identify his style, filtering the ideas that suited him well from the ones that didn’t. They taught him the basic tenets of song structure and how to play from tabs. He accepted the technical tips and ran with the attitude and flair he already had.
As a beginner himself, Howell’s best advice to other songwriters is to bring the irony. Shakespeare knew it as well as Marty Robbins, one of the greatest cowboy yarn spinners. Howell’s goal isn’t just to tell a story from beginning to end; it’s to tell one that makes the listener think.
A song he’s working on now, called “Local Honey,” is a play on words that takes the country slang phrase for a beautiful woman and explores ideas about inner beauty and authenticity. It’s one of the cornerstones of country music, and it’s what makes a later-in-life music career so appealing, whether it’s behind a famous name or not.
Audiences may still see a film come out of this project, but for now, Howell is riding the wave of what comes naturally to him and his band. He’s drawn to the guitar for how impossible it is for anyone to master, and he’s already looking to the mandolin and harmonica.
“I’m just going to be a beginner from now on,” he says. “I love my band members and it’s just evolved so quickly and so beautifully and so organically and so naturally ... I didn’t plan any of it. I’m just going with the flow.”
Howell will play at the Brauntex Theatre in New Braunfels on Friday, August 13, 2021. Tickets ($40 for general admission, $60 for VIP and meet-and-greet) are on sale at brauntex.org.