City Paper is not for tourists
The fiddle, mandolin, and vocals of the 86-year-old National Heritage Fellowship recipient Howard Armstrong are rooted in the rural string-band traditions of eastern Tennessee, in the music that could be heard at medicine shows, house parties, and vaudeville performances before the development of the commercial phonograph industry. Supported by his son Ralphe on upright bass and Ray Kamalay on lead and rhythm guitar, Armstrong presents a repertoire of string-band instrumentals (“Howard’s Rag”), Tin Pan Alley tunes (“Dinah”), narratives (“John Henry”), gospel (“When He Calls Me I Will Answer”), and blues (“St. Louis Blues”) in a jazz-inflected style. Four spoken interludes showcase Armstrong’s skills as a master raconteur, and his talents as a graphic artist are revealed by the striking self-portrait on the album cover. Record stores will surely have difficulty deciding whether Louie should be shelved in the blues, folk, or jazz sections. Armstrong’s music borrows elements from each of these genres, but transcends stylistic boundaries and eludes categorization. Louie Bluie is not only one of the best acoustic releases of the year, it’s also a history lesson in 20th-century American music.