Trained as a pianist, with only a semester of study in composition, he had seen only a few traditional operas by Puccini and Mozart. He had no American models in mind, though he did admire the ballet scores of Aaron Copland.
What he did know were the people he was writing about. He grew up in North Carolina in a similar culture, his father an itinerant preacher (as is the lead male role in the opera). He wrote the "Susannah" libretto himself.
"I think what is captivating about the piece is that these are normal people," Armstrong said. "It's easy for us to think that these are hillbillies or bumpkins, that they're not very educated people. All of that being said, they're very human people, and these are all human issues and things that happen anywhere, but they're just more clearly defined in this sort of setting."