Tom Catmull is originally from Houston but has called Missoula home for the last six years. You may have seen him doing his monthly stint at Shadow’s Keep, opening for Greg Brown last year, as front man for the recently formed Tom Catmull Combo, or playing solo anywhere around town with a stool and a mike. What follows is information and answers to some “either or” questions posed over the course of two nights in Catmull’s more economical haunts.
Covers or original songs? “Well, I prefer originals. The upcoming album [due out in February] will have 13 original songs—10 by me and three by John Hirshberg. But, there are so many good songs that aren’t common covers that need to be played and heard.”
[On the solo release] “Basically it’s expensive as hell, but everyone pitches in and we pick up musicians from all over town.”
Certainly Catmull plays no “Brown-Eyed Girl,” but he does a good job of imitating the more eclectic likes of Randy Newman, John Pryne and Tom Waits.
Acoustic or electric? “My first love is the acoustic six string; that is what my brothers played and what I first picked up. The first electric guitar I played gave me a headache. I didn’t know what I was doing. It is something that I want to work on but it is a much different style.”
Blues or Country (or Folk)? “Don’t forget pop, too. I grew up listening to Merle, Willie, and Waylon, as well as Nancy Griffith and Towns Van Zandt, but lately I have been listening to a lot of pop, the Old 97s, John Hiatt and Freedy Johnston—he is great, really full of energy. There is also the Americana movement led by Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle who are trying to stop the homogenization and commercialization of country music.”
Tom Catmull Combo or Tom Catmull solo? “Solo is my first love. It is how I got started and what I have done most of. It does have its limitations in terms of arrangements and variables, for example some things like ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ just can’t be done solo. The combo [which consists of Missoula stalwarts Larry Hirshberg on bass, Mark Dixon a reformed conga player on percussion and Richie Reinholdt a songwriter and guitarist (electric)] still has some kinks that need to be worked out but for the most part it gives us a lot of variation.”
Definitely see Catmull’s solo act. The night I saw the Combo, they overpowered Catmull’s voice and acoustic guitar without knowing it, burying some of his wittiest lyrics. He has a powerful voice that can be bluesy and ragged one minute then rise to that quavery country tremolo to emphasize the point of his story. And you should listen to the lyrics because he calls himself more of a “song guy,” less interested in the finger-picking technical wizardry and more after the hooky pop song that will take you on down the street like—“I’ve got a dog that loves me all day long, and I’ve got a girlfriend too.”
Tom Catmull plays Shadow’s Keep this Friday, Dec. 22 at 6 p.m.