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Forever Young 

A folk musician’s life, love and getting down the road

click to enlarge Don Armstrong on stage at Hotel Congress last month.

Danyelle Khmara

Don Armstrong on stage at Hotel Congress last month.

It's a cool night in March and Don Armstrong converses with the Club Congress audience like old friends. About 75 people sit in chairs on the dance floor. There's a couple in a corner dancing every song with abandon.

Musicians join Don on stage while he sings and plays acoustic guitar. They play a host of things—violin, mandolin and banjo, as well an accordion and saxophone.

Don breaks into "Texas Spring." His longtime partner Victoria Armstrong wrote the song while they were on a trip back to upstate New York. Don wrote "Texas Eagle Shimmy." Victoria was afraid of flying, so they took the train. It was one of the last trips they took together, writing songs for Get Me Down the Road, their last album.

Bobby Ronstadt played accordion on the Get Me Down the Road's "Texas Spring," and when he heard Victoria's vocals—a high octave harmony—he could hardly believe she was terminally ill with colon cancer.

Victoria stopped going to the studio in November 2013, six months before she died. She's finished all her vocal, keyboard and guitar tracks, but Don couldn't bring himself to complete the album for a while.

"I was afraid that there might have been mistakes that we didn't catch at the time, but we nailed it." he says. "She nailed it. When she was on fire, it just came through."

Back at the Congress show, Don introduces his musicians, calls longtime friend Slim Rost, "the finest bassist in Tucson—that we could afford." The audience howls and Rost chuckles.

Don introduces Alex Flores on saxophone, and a woman in the back yells, "Hi Alex."

"Oh, your mom's here," Don says, to a chorus of laughter.

It's like that. Don's a natural. He played with Victoria for the 42 years of their marriage, but he got his start at Caffé Lena, in upstate New York, in 1964. The coffee house was, and still is, one of the most sought-after venues for folk musicians. Founder Lena Spencer asked Don to do a guest sets there when he was 16—not long after Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk and John Phillips, from The Mamas & the Papas, were playing there.

Don was graduating from high school the week Dylan first recorded "Like a Rolling Stone." Spencer invited him to a private party for Dylan at the coffee house. She gave Don two conditions: don't tell anyone about the party, and don't talk to Dylan unless he talks to you first.

"Which didn't happen," Don says, laughing. "He was actually pretty drunk."

At 24, Don moved to Southern California. He was under contract with Mike Nesmith from The Monkees' record company, Countryside Records. Don was unsure about where his music career was going. Then he ran into Victoria.

And when the record label had a shake-up, and Nesmith's company was dropped, Don didn't care. His future was clear. He just wanted Victoria.

Victoria was 8 years older than Don and had already been in the biz a for while. In the span of her six-decade career, her songs would be covered by Judy Collins and Jerry Jeff Walker and others.

Early in their relationship, Don had a strong premonition. He knew one day he'd have to watch her die. He loved her. He would do whatever he had to.

In '73 they moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Joaquin was born, followed by Celeste three years later. Mornings, Victoria and Don would tell each other their dreams. Don dreamt of people he'd later meet. He dreamt of people the day they would die. He dreamt of himself in Paris, writing with a feather quill. Though this dream sparked a fascination with Paris, they wouldn't go (Victoria hated flying.)

Nights, they played shows. They moved back to upstate New York for better schools and venues. The kids got so used to their shows, Joaquin would yell out the punchlines to Don's favorite jokes. Celeste pretty much grew up at Caffé Lena, only realizing when she was an adult the coffee house's historical importance.

"Absolutely none of my friends had parents that were anything like my parents," Celeste says.

Her parents played children's concerts at schools and libraries. She remembers being in sixth grade, in an auditorium with her entire elementary school, watching her parents lead sing-alongs and tell jokes. She was mortified.

Her friends also didn't have music rooms at home. She and Joaquin tried to play every instrument in there—drum set, keyboard, guitar, bass.

Don and Victoria had day jobs too, like so many artists. Don sold electrical appliances, and Victoria worked in a high-end consignment shop.

One evening, Graham Nash came into the shop looking to buy luggage. He asked Victoria if she could open the store later, so he could shop without the prying eyes of fans. She agreed, and he gave her two backstage passes to his show with David Crosby and Stephen Stills that night. She once did the same for Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant.

Celeste and Joaquin moved back west after high school. Don and Victoria started touring again. After frequenting Tucson for 15 years, they moved here in '07.

When Victoria got sick, Don dropped everything to care for her at home.

"He stepped into an incredibly frightening situation and never showed any fear, just total unconditional love for my mom," Celeste says.

The last couple days of her life, Don heard her calling him. Right in his ear, her voice said, Don, I need you. In the next room, she lay, unable to speak above a whisper.

The hospice nurses kept her out of pain. She died at home. For days after, Don could hear her calling his name.

Don went through Victoria's clothes, making piles of what would go and what would stay. He came across a blouse that was especially nostalgic. One strand of her hair clung to it.

"It was almost like she was here again," he says.

She called his name at night, waking him from dreams. He called her name right back. One night, he spoke to her.

"Do you hear me when I call your name?" he said. "I just want you to know how much I love you. I want you to know how much you're loved. And I want you to know how grateful I am for all the things you taught me. All the lessons you taught me in our relationship together, especially the ones that I didn't want to learn. And I want you to know how sorry I am for my pride and my stubbornness."

Relief washed over him, and without

knowing why, he went to his filing cabinet. His hand landed on a letter he'd never seen before. It was from Victoria.

"If you remember my voice so strong and true then you'll remember how much I love you," she had written. She compared their lifelong love to a dried rose. "The petals have fallen off, but the sweetness is still there," she wrote. "I hope you'll forgive me for all my unkind words and deeds. For you will always be the one for me."

It was a double-edge solace, like a strand of hair, like a dried rose—so sweet but leaves you wanting more. But Don suspects he and Victoria have already had many lives together.

"Energy doesn't die. It doesn't dissipate. It turns into something else," Don says. "We always felt we were twin souls."

Don compares this life to one day in second grade. At that moment, it feels like everything—who you're going to play with, what you're going to have for dinner, do after school. That day was an eternity to you.

"Now, you can look back and say, 'that was a part of my life—a significant part—but in comparison to all the rest, it's just a moment,'" he says.

Last October, Don went back to New York again, back to play Caffé Lena. A bunch of Tucson friends caravanned with him. Other friends showed up that had known Don and Victoria for longer than they'd known each other.

Don is writing more music now than ever. He's recording his first solo album, tentatively to be released this summer on Ronstadt Records, and playing all over. A lot of people he meets now didn't know Victoria.

"They know her through the music now," he says.

Victoria used to write every day. Don thought the fans were only there to see her, playing the keyboard, singing like wild fire. After she died, he wrote to deal with his grief and to measure his healing.

"You have to have new things that come take your attention, that change the battery," he says.

For Christmas 2015, he got an email from Celeste.

"Time to get a passport, Dad. I'm taking you to Paris."

Don wrote "Going to Paris" later that day, which will be on his upcoming album.

On the way to Paris, sitting next to his grown daughter, he looked out at the lights of Winnipeg, the Hudson Bay and Greenland's setting sun. And when he woke to the shores of Norway, he wrote "One More Star Before Daybreak."

The song still sparks his adventurous spirit every time he plays it, singing, "Tonight, we're one more star before daybreak."


More by Danyelle Khmara

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