Don Armstrong is a family man. Urbane in philosophies on faith, love, and life, the New York-gone-Arizona singer-songwriter has long since developed an intuition for riding the humanity tramway. Armstrong’s observations on sheer mortal grit have developed him into an affable everyman—a folk artist whose music is denoted by the same traits that he is identified with in everyday life, like consideration, wit, and good humor. His artistic reflections are as multi-faceted and welcoming as he is, having made the wait for the Tucson-favorite’s Mother, Don’t Give Up on Me Now all the more difficult.
The folkster laid his hat down in the studio of one Petie Ronstadt for these sessions—the home of Ronstadt Record Co., the precocious producer’s own label imprint. A long-time wish of “Papa Mike” Ronstadt, Petie’s late father, was for Don to work on his solo debut under Ronstadt wings.
“It was something I didn’t expect,” recalls Armstrong, looking back on the moment that Petie had asked him into the studio. “I thought, you know, this was his dad’s project originally.”
Don and Mike were fast friends, the latter visiting most of his shows, particularly after the passing of Victoria Armstrong—Don’s wife, and a thrilling singer and songwriter in her own right. The two spent 42 years together after fate saw it fit to pair them romantically, duetting across the country and making albums together.
“What made it work was that I knew that she had a certain joy in her voice that you could feel came from her very essence of being. She had this spirit in her that every note she sang, you felt that. I didn’t want to find her spirit when I sang after her passing; I wanted to find mine, because I knew it was related.”
“I had never liked my voice until, just a couple of years before she died, she said that she had really fallen in love with my voice and she never lied to me. She was always honest.”
Following Victoria’s death, Don recalls that it would feel like he was “singing for two people.” Papa Mike was one of the first out to his shows and would visit his performances quite often. They would begin to play together, and through this connection, Armstrong would befriend the younger Ronstadt.
Armstrong recalls with a laugh, “I remember singing a bluegrassy kind of song of mine called ‘One Precious Word’, and that’s when Petie got excited. He came up to me and said, ‘I hear tuba on that! I hear drums! I know exactly what I want to do with that one song… And of course, that’s one that was cut from Mother. [laughs]”
Don elucidates that ‘One Precious Word’ was to find its place on Mother had it remained a retrospective record. A song about the first plane ride that he had taken following Victoria’s death, finding irony in its upbeat tempo.
Following Papa Mike’s passing in the summer of 2016, Don and Petie grew closer. It was later that year that Ronstadt approached Armstrong and said, “Let’s have lunch and talk about your record.”
Armstrong states, “I was fully prepared to say that this was your dad’s vision. You don’t have to continue it. But Petie said, ‘No, I can’t wait to get started.’”
So, Armstrong enlisted a who’s-who of consummate Tucson-area musicians to play on Mother Don’t Give Up on Me Now, which eventually released in the spring of 2020. At 73 years-old, Don had finally released his solo debut, as well as the first album of his to be recorded by an outside entity.
Having officially joined the Ronstadt Record Co. family, Armstrong had the full weight of production innovator Petie behind the album. It was a unique experience for Armstrong, who up until this point had self-produced all of his music alongside Victoria.
Recalling an anxious moment, Don states, “So I’m directing Rebekah Rolland and Sabra Faulk on vocals for ‘How ‘Bout You?’ and suddenly see Petie sitting at the console. The lights go out, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh God, he’s probably really pissed.’ And he’s taking a picture of me listening to them sing, to chronicle our project, and shows me as much. And I just realized to chill, and told myself, ‘It’s not as bad as you think it is. It’s good.’”
Mother Don’t Give Up on Me Now lived a variety of lives before settling into its final form, from a retrospective of Don’s life and career, to the more forward-looking Americana LP that it’s become. Regardless, it’s obvious where his heart is—with his loved ones, from those who’ve passed like Victoria and Mike, to those who are still with us, like daughter Celeste and son Joaquin. The utterly human passion that he feels informs his art, and therein lies the true secret to how Mother ended up so darn good.
Don visited my home in early July 2021, where we got together to chat about Mother and the life he’s lived thus far. Herein is Part One of a two-part series, wherein Don chats with us about the whole burrito—from life coming up surrounded by many of the vintage folk greats, to the development of his solo debut so many years later.