Songwriter, performer and author, feted by fellow artists and known respectfully as ‘The Storyteller’.
The news of the death of Tom T. Hall on August 20th 2021 elicited this response from AUK favourites The Drive-By Truckers: “Damn. The greatest storyteller songwriter of all time. A writer’s writer. There’s at least a dozen categories of song that he wrote arguably the best ever example of”. That’s some claim, but one with which you would be hard pushed to find anyone who knew his music, who would take issue with it. Hall’s influence on other songwriters and on country music generally was immense. His page on the Country Music Hall of Fame website asserts that “Along with other songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver and James Talley, Hall brought to country music a new level of lyric and thematic sophistication and social consciousness”. Each of these quotes illustrates and underlines the fact that despite also being an excellent stage performer and an author of both fiction and non-fiction books, it is as a master of the art of songwriting that Tom T. Hall is most celebrated and will be most fondly remembered.
Born in Olive Hill, Kentucky on May 25th 1936 Hall began playing music at a young age, writing his first song ‘Haven’t I Been Good to You’ at nine years old. His musical tutor at the time, Lonnie Easterley, was later recalled in one of Hall’s most celebrated songs ‘The Year That Clayton Delaney Died’. He went on to form his first band, The Kentucky Travelers, as a teenager, playing bluegrass at local venues. After joining the US Army in 1957 Hall was posted to Germany where he wrote and performed original and often humorous songs for the American Forces Radio Network. On leaving the Army, Hall worked as a DJ in Virginia whilst also continuing to write songs. In 1963, one of Hall’s songs ‘DJ for the Day’ was recorded by Cajun country star Jimmie C Newman and became a top 10 country hit.
On the back of that hit Hall moved to Nashville in 1964 where he got a job as a songwriter with Newman’s publishing company. Impressed by his songs, Mercury Records executive Jerry Kennedy signed him to the label in 1967 and encouraged him to use the middle initial T in his name, to distinguish himself from others with similar names. Tom T Hall as he became known, continued to write but also began his career as a recording artist with his first single ‘I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew’. This, along with successive follow-ups failed to bring Hall any initial success but as the 1970s arrived he scored a series of number 1 hits including iconic songs such as ‘The Year That Clayton Delaney Died’ (1971), ‘(Old Dogs, Children and) Watermelon Wine’ (1972) and ‘Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet)’ (1975).
In tandem with his own recording career Hall continued to write for others most notably Jeannie C Riley who had a massive number 1 hit on both the country and pop charts with ‘Harper Valley PTA’ in 1968. The song, a swipe at small-town hypocrisy, won the CMA award for ‘Single of the Year’ as well as spawning both a film and TV series spin-off. The success of the record raised Hall’s profile enormously and made him a very in-demand writer. Further successes came with ‘The Pool Shark’ a number 1 hit for Dave Dudley in 1970 and a pair of top 5 hits for Bobby Bare with ‘Margie’s at the Lincoln Park Inn’ (1969) and ‘That’s How I Got to Memphis’ (1970). The latter over time, became Hall’s most covered song with over 150 recorded versions.
Despite his achievements, it would not do justice to Hall’s legacy to focus only on his hits. Many of his finest songs were simply too sophisticated or too esoteric to be singles. His early 1970s albums ‘In Search of a Song’, ‘The Storyteller’ and ‘Rhymer and Other Five and Dimers’ saw him explore new themes and develop his songwriting beyond the hit single format, encompassing greater depth and insight into his words. ‘In Search of a Song’ (1971) was written following one of Hall’s regular trips to Kentucky in search of inspiration. Hall noted down what he observed on his trip and then wrote songs like ‘Who’s Gonna Feed Them Hogs?’, ‘The Little Lady Preacher’ and ‘A Million Miles to the City’. As the Drive-By Truckers tribute points out, Hall wrote all kinds of songs, with equal craft – and this was arguably his most creative period.
Tom T. Hall never forgot his bluegrass roots either producing two albums with legends of the genre ‘The Magnicicent Music Machine’ (1976) with Bill Monroe and ‘The Storyteller and the Banjo Man’ (1982) with Earl Scruggs. In many ways this was indicative of how Hall followed his own instincts, a trait that set him apart from other writers. He had an empathy with working people and often detailed their experiences and struggles. Hall painted pictures with words although he was at pains to point out that his observations were just that, and that there were no morals to his stories – unless the listener wished to read one into them. His songs were often mini novellas, full of real-life characters, hence his nickname ‘The Storyteller’. Country music stars lined up to cover a Tom T Hall song, such was his standing amongst them. The list reads like a who’s who of country music: Johnny Cash, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare and Loretta Lynn to name but a handful.
In 1998 a new generation were exposed to Hall’s songs through the release of ‘Real: The Tom T Hall Project’ a compilation of his songs partly performed by the new wave of ‘alt-country’ artists emerging at that time. Richard Buckner, Calexico, Whiskeytown and Syd Straw offered new interpretations of Hall’s songs alongside songwriters like Iris DeMent, Ron Sexsmith and Kelly Willis. The inclusion of Johnny Cash and Ralph Stanley added gravitas to the collection. It speaks volumes that those artists, seen as a reaction to the bland industry generated stars of the period, held Hall in such high regard. He was one of their own, a slight maverick who never felt totally at ease with the Nashville establishment and increasingly was at odds with it.
Tom T. Hall leaves behind an extraordinary library of songs that illustrate the depth, breadth and diversity of his talent as a songwriter. His work spans five decades and his fans cross the generations. He will be missed but his music seems destined to live on amongst present and future fans of literate and compelling songwriting.