Down in Macon, Georgia, C. Thomas Howell found himself walking among the tombstones of some names he knew well. Within the gates of the Rose Hill Cemetery, the actor and musician was deeply moved when he finally came across the late members of The Allman Brothers Band. There, brothers Gregg and Duane Allman, along with former bandmates, drummer Butch Trucks and bassist Berry Oakley, are all interred within close proximity to the 18-room Tudor revival home where the band, their friends, extended family, and roadies lived from 1970 through 1973.
Now a museum, Howell, a longtime fan of The Allman Brothers, always wanted to visit the house where some of their seminal albums were born, then found himself on an unexpected trek retracing some of the steps, and favorites spots, of the iconic band’s days in Macon in the early ’70s.
“I had never been down that way, so we took the weekend to hit some of the haunts of the boys,” Howell tells American Songwriter. “We went to the cafe where they used to hang out, and when they didn’t have any money got fed and taken care of regardless.”
At H&H Soul Food on 807 Forsyth St., Mama Louise, real name Louise Hudson, fed the band during their starving artist days. “There’s a beautiful story there,” added Howell, “because once they made it, they made the owner of that cafe their personal chef and changed that person’s life completely.”
Revisiting the steps of the Allmans inspired the actor—known for his iconic roles as Ponyboy Curtis in the 1983 Francis Ford Coppola drama The Outsiders as well as E.T. and Red Dawn—to write “Rose Hill,” one of the more personal musical threads in a collection of songs Howell, who also goes by Tommy Howell, wrote for his upcoming debut album, out 2023.
On a break from filming the new Netflix action-comedy series Obliterated (produced by the team behind Cobra Kai) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Howell spoke to American Songwriter from his home in Nashville and talked about revisiting the Allman Brothers’ past, writing songs for the first time, the stories behind “Rose Hill,” his more country-rock single “Whiskey Demon,” and how music and acting were intertwined for him all along.
AS: What struck you the most being down in Macon, visiting some of The Allman Brothers’ favorite spots, and stepping into The Big House?
TH: I’ve always been a real fan of Duane [Allman] and the enigma behind what happened with him. They have a real interesting story. They were raised by a single mother, and he basically broke all the rules and went and hung out with all the musicians in the type of clubs where young white guys weren’t really hanging out. And he started studying with the masters and learning how to play the slide back when it wasn’t cool and people weren’t really doing it.
When I discovered that it wasn’t Eric Clapton playing that slide on “Layla,” I felt slightly cheated, because I had been such a fan of Clapton’s for so long. When I discovered that it was Duane, that led me to his escapades down into Muscle Shoals [FAME Studios] and all the music that he was doing down there. He really changed a lot of careers, and I felt like when I got the chance, I wanted to visit those spots. Rose Hill was the place that I really wanted to go because I knew about “Little Martha” (1972) and “Elizabeth” [“In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” 1971] and I knew they had hung out down there and wanted to see what it was about. Ironically, that’s where Otis Redding is also buried.
I walked around and visited Little Martha and Elizabeth Reed’s grave, and the train rolled by, and there was a lazy river down there. I finally went up to where the boys are resting, the four of them—Butch Trucks, Berry Oakley, and the two brothers—and the irony of it all just hit me so deep. I was doing what they used to do, and now they were here and I just really sat back and took it all in and opened up spiritually to the whole place. I thought, “wow, this is not bad spot to hang. I bet Otis Redding sits back and listens to the boys.” And that’s how the song [“Rose Hill”] was born. People call it a tribute, and I didn’t intend for it to be a tribute. I just experienced something really cool for myself and wrote some of the truths that were in front of me, and it turned out to be “Rose Hill.”
AS: You barely picked up a guitar before the pandemic, and now you have a collection of songs you’ve written. How did these tracks start coming together for you?
TH: I was doing a play in Los Angeles and I was four days away from opening night when LA shut down (around the pandemic). The company that I was working with had prepaid and rented an apartment for me, since I live in Nashville, to stay [in LA] and ride it out and see what was going to happen. As I was hanging out, my son decided to join me for a month or so and we got a couple of guitars, and we hadn’t played at all. I started strumming and picking and looking online. I swear to God, I didn’t put it down. I still haven’t put it down, and I’ve played every single day since.
AS: You not only started playing guitar for the first time, but you were also writing songs as well. How did you transition into songwriting?
TH: I discovered that I had a knack for writing songs that came from a background of telling stories as an actor, working with really great writers, and understanding that process, which was the seamless transition into telling stories in song. When I did season 11 of The Walking Dead, I met a friend of mine that lived in Atlanta and is a musician, and we started to hang out a little bit. We wrote a couple of songs, and that was my introduction to it from somebody that did it for a living. He taught me what a bridge was and how to use them. There are really no rules, but there are some unspoken guidelines. Once I got a feel for that, it created a monster.
AS: Opening up and hitting a truly personal space (outside of scripts and roles) is as real as it gets. How do you think making music and writing songs has changed you over the past few years since you started?
TH: It’s made me a better actor. It’s made me an overall better artist. I’m a better communicator. Once you strip that fear away from being out there in front of people … I was at Opry when Connie Smith completely forgot the lyrics to a song, and she moved on, and nobody thought twice about it. You learn that it becomes as big as you want to make it, a mistake. Just kick it aside, bury it and move on like a professional. Every time we play, there are mistakes. A lot of people don’t hear them, but we try to get better as we go.
I always wanted to be a musician, and one of the things that I found that I loved about it the most is that I had spent a lot of time playing other roles and other characters, behind scripts and with cameras and makeup, but this allowed me to really be myself. When you write a song, and you get it out there and for somebody, or you perform it, there’s the line, that once you step across and part that curtain, there’s no going back.
I found that the people that I started to work with and started to perform with were real people, and I fit it in. I come from a rural background. My father was a professional bull rider, and he became a stuntman, which is how I got into the business. I was raised in a rodeo background, and it’s just a part of my life and a part of my family’s life, so the transition into quote-unquote country western music was an easy one. I’m not really sure what we are yet. I think that the Southern rock vibe is completely missing from today’s music in my opinion, and there’s a niche for it. I think people want it and they like it, and it’s a simple transition for me, so I just found a home there.
AS: Playing live is a whole other element. How are you working with your band and getting a feel for how you want shows to play out?
TH: We managed to get my core band together called The Pony Express, and there’s five of them and they’re just great Nashville musicians. The guy that joined my band most recently is the brother of a guy that has been my best friend for 40 years, Darren Dalton, and he was in the movie The Outsiders with me when I was 15. He played one of the “Socials.”
I demand my shows be interactive. I like people to ask questions and I tell our stories. The first half of our shows is pretty electric and high energy and standing up and belting out some songs and a little less talking and storytelling. Then we quiet down and we break out the acoustic set. We pull up stools and we get a little more intimate and we sing songs that are much more personal. It creates a really nice vibe because we got to punch him in the teeth and then give him a hug.
AS: Without revealing too much, what can you share about your first album?
TH: I wrote a song called “Whiskey Demon,” which is going to be the title track of my album. There are probably 20 different whiskey brands buried inside of that story. It took a little bit of work to write it and make it clever and not overbearing. It’s got a real hook, like a lot of our stuff, and I’m really proud of our choruses. I wanted to get a little more of a southern rock, Texas thunder thing happening. We started with acoustic, and I love that part of what we do, but not we have some electric stuff happening in the slide on that song. It opened me up a little bit to the world of electricity, which has changed the sound for the better. I wrote a song called “Obliterated,” which is the title of the show (Netflix series), and it could be used as a title track, but I wrote it because I felt like it could give me some punch.
AS: When you think about it, is it strange transitioning into music after acting for 40 years?
TH: Mom and dad called and gave me a big thumbs-ups. Dad’s a tough critic. He doesn’t give thumbs-up. Some family can relate and be proud because nothing’s more embarrassing than “oh great, here goes another actor becoming a songwriter and a singer,” and frankly, there’s not a whole lot of them that went before me that made it easier for me. They made it a lot more difficult. I wrote a song called “Hell of a Life,” which chronicles my career. It’s just about roles that I have played that people would relate to and the experience of that.
For me, it was a real eye-opener to discover how interested the people are in my stories. I got to catch the last part of real Hollywood. I worked with Elizabeth Taylor and Ann Margret when the film was still an important event. Now, you could be in something that may not even come out. It’s all over. You can do a movie for Warner Brothers, and they’ll just cancel things if they want. That doesn’t happen in the music world. Nobody can cancel my album. Nobody can cancel me from writing songs and standing up and singing for myself, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Photos by Judd Sather Photography / Richlynn Group (PR)