It all started with a walk through a cemetery for Tommy Howell.
“It’s weird how cemeteries affect your imagination, your heart and your mind,” Howell, 55, tells PEOPLE during a recent interview. “Your soul wanders.”
The actor turned singer/songwriter once known as C. Thomas Howell traveled to Macon, Georgia this past March and ended up on the grounds of the Rose Hill Cemetery. The cemetery, which is situated on the banks of the Ocmulgee River, lovingly holds the remains of Duane Allman and Gregg Allman of the iconic Allman Brothers Band, amongst many famous others.
“I remember arriving there really wide open, sort of spiritually and creatively,” explains Howell, who is best known for his role as Ponyboy Curtis in the 1983 movie The Outsiders. “I was meditating on how fragile life really is and how it goes by in a blink of an eye.”
And it’s these exact words that serve now amongst the lyrics of Howell’s debut single “Rose Hill,” whose lyric video premieres exclusively on PEOPLE.
“[Rose Hill Cemetary] is such a beautiful place,” Howell tells PEOPLE. “As I was standing there, I couldn’t help but think how it wouldn’t be bad to just lay down right there, jam with the Allmans and listen to the trains go by down by the river. That’s how this song was born.”
Indeed, after his fateful trip, Howell returned home to Nashville, and “submerged” himself over the span of a week in the history lessons left behind within the music of artists such as The Allman Brothers Band and Otis Redding. All in all, Howell says the writing of “Rose Hill” took a total of just 48 hours.
“The words all came together easily because it was all true and written out there before me,” he explains of the song produced by Roger Miller’s son Dean Miller. “We wanted a sense of heavenly quality sonically, and that’s what I think we created.”
Certainly, Howell knows that many fans still know him purely for his work in movies such as AND and Red Dawn. In fact, he is the first to admit that his musical aspirations only began over the pandemic lockdowns, in which Howell says he was “determined to turn a bad thing into a good thing.”
“I rode out much of the pandemic with my son Dashiell and a couple of guitars,” says Howell, the son himself of a professional cowboy. “I just couldn’t put [my guitar] down. I think we spent 16 months straight playing music.”
The Americana artist with the Southern Rock edge also began to write the words to go with the music, finding the transition between acting and songwriting somewhat seamless.
“I completely understood the storytelling of songwriting,” he says. “What I didn’t know was musically how to structure a song. I needed to be taught what a chorus was and what a bridge was and why they were used and when they were used.”
“There are no rules in songwriting,” Howell continues. “There’s not really a school you can go to. And who’s to say if a song is good. So many people think their music is good and frankly, sometimes it’s not.”
Howell currently finds himself juggling an onslaught of good fortune at the moment, as he continues to nurture his thriving music career with ongoing acting ventures such as the upcoming Netflix series obliteratedwhile also playing live shows throughout Nashville and beyond.
“I wrote a song called ‘Eighty-Eight,’ which is basically about the differences between 1988 and now,” remarks Howell, who is currently working on a new EP set for release in January 2023. “It opens up with how I remember how things used to be back in 1988 when tearing walls down was the thing. Now we build them up with hate.”
He draws in a deep breath and then continues.
“Look, I’m not 24 years old trying to sell records,” he concludes. “I’m 55 years old just trying to share part of my life through my music. That’s a totally different thing.”