BY JONATHAN HOULON FOLK MUSIC EDITOR I was always surprised that Tom T. Hall wasn’t recognized during the Great Alt-Country Scare of the 1990s in the way that, say, Johnny Cash and, to a lesser extent, Willie Nelson were. Sure, there was the obligatory tribute album to The Storyteller (as TTH was often called) that included No Depression stalwarts at the time such as Richard Buckner, Joe Henry, Iris Dement, and Whiskeytown. They called it Real: The Tom T. Hall Project and it almost seemed like a reclamation effort to rescue the great man from obscurity. Hall was an enormous country music star in the ‘70s but, despite the good intentions of the alt-country crew, he never seemed to get his critical due. Well, lemme tell ya: Tom T. was a giant. In his own unique way worthy of inclusion on the Hillbilly Rushmore alongside the Man in Black, Hank, Hag, or whoever else you’d put up there.
Tom certainly could veer deep deep into the cornfield at times. Check out some of these song titles: “Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine” (yucko). Or how about this howler? “I Like Beer.” Is that so, T.? He named one tune “I Love” and then, as he was wont to do in his less accomplished moments, listed the objects of his affection, including in the very first line, “little baby ducks, pick-up trucks, slow movin’ trains and rain.” Doesn’t really make you wanna check him out, I know!
BUT, at his best, which was really most of the time, Hall abided by his own hard-hitting adage that “some people can go around the world and not see a thing while other folks can take a walk around their block and see the whole world.” Hall was an eagle-eyed observer – especially of the community he grew up around in rural Kentucky – and has been compared to Hemingway and Carver. Indeed, his lyrics possess a lapidary dignity that warrants such high praise.
Ol’ T. passed away on August 20th at the ripe old age of 85. Here’s a baker’s half-dozen for your consideration:
“That’s How I Got to Memphis”: First track on T.’s first record and one of his most covered songs. To my ears, no one does it better than Tom. He was not blessed with much vocal prowess but there’s a mellifluous quality to his limited range that works perfectly with his simple but compelling melodies. Hall sings, “If you love somebody enough, you’ll go wherever they go/ That’s how I got to Memphis.” He’s singing about a place but also a state of mind. Legendary Nashville producer Jerry Kennedy gets it all down cold, approximating a sound, to these ears, not dissimilar to that of Blonde On Blonde. Curious aside: At a Musicares awards ceremony a few years back, his Bobness attacked Tom T. for writing overcooked lyrics. The Nobel Laureate was trying to compliment Kris Kristofferson by setting up Tom as a strawman of sorts. But the whole thing didn’t make sense: Hall was as responsible or perhaps even more responsible for revolutionizing country music lyrics than Kris Kris and, as far as recorded output goes, the two aren’t in the same league: T. put out at least a dozen certifiably great records. You’d be hard pressed to find a single great-start-to-finish platter in all of Kristofferson’s oeuvre.
“Forbidden Flowers”: Tom T. wrote in his Songwriter’s Handbook, “I have often lamented that some of my favorite songs are tucked away inside albums that are out of print. I sometimes wish they could have been single records and given the chance to star in the galaxy of good songs.” Indeed, there are buried gems to be found in almost of all of Hall’s records, especially through the 70s. “Forbidden Flowers” is one such gem that, like “Memphis,” resides on his 1969 debut, The Ballad Of 40 Dollars. Though known for his narrative abilities, here Hall leans on symbolism. I used to sing this one with my band John Train in the old North Star days. But I was too young at the time to really understand that “if you pick forbidden flowers, you may shatter someone’s dreams.” I may need to give this one another shake.
“Homecoming”: The title track from T.’s second record, also released in 1969. Concerning this track, Joe Henry in the liner notes to Real: The Tom T. Hall Project writes: “Here is a one-sided conversation of an adult singing star who pops in on his widowed father for the first time in years for a brief obligatory visit while traveling through on tour. It’s like a Raymond Carver short story – a bite out of the middle of someone’s life, beginning abruptly and dangling at the end with a flash of almost unspeakable regret. It’s remarkable that with conversational small-talk, we know in a handful of verses all we need to about this man, his relationship to his family, his arrogant façade and his gnawing self-doubt.”
“I Flew Over Our House Last Night”: I always loved Joe Henry’s version of yet another great sleeper from The Storyteller. Joe cut it for his 1993 release Kindness In The World where he was backed by the Jayhawks on what has to be one of the best records from the aforementioned alt-country scare of the ‘90s. At first glance, Henry and Hall seem like odd bedfellows but a closer listen demonstrates that Joe writes with the same sort of precision about our interior world as Tom writes about the outside. Both problematize the actual distinction i.e. what counts as in vs. out? Dig? ( Last time http://www.phawker.com/2019/05/16/tribute-let-us-now-praise-joe-henry/ we talked about Joe, he was in the middle of a very serious cancer scare. I am happy to report that he has recovered and is actually hitting the road later this year!) In The Songwriter’s Handbook, Hall wrote of this number: “Picture a successful businessman-type in a jetliner; perhaps separated for some reason from a girl he had loved or a woman he had been married to. Now they are living in completely different worlds. On this evening, he is flying over her house.”
“The Year that Clayton Delaney Died”: If Tom T. had fallen off the radar, I suppose Steve Young was never even in range as far as the general public is concerned. I’ve written about him at length in other quarters. https://www.trainarmy.com/single-post/2017/02/12/rip-steve-young Check out how the Renegade Picker belts out this Hall classic which originally appeared on 1971’s In Search Of A Song, probably The Storyteller’s best overall collection and as good a place to start as any. Tom T. travelled down to Kentucky for a week, took some notes, drove back to Nashville and hammered out “Clayton Delaney” alongside a bunch of other bangers based on his trip. They don’t write ‘em like that anymore, Tom!
“Mama Bake A Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)”: When I was putting together John Train’s Mesopotamia Blues LP, I tried to connect the then-raging Iraq War to past U.S. conflicts (yes, the record was a flop!). I chose this Hall number from 1971’s 100 Children. Hoss was prolific AF, right? Here’s the opening stanza: “People staring at me as they wheel me down the ramp towards my plane/the war is over for me I’ve forgotten everything except the pain/thank you, sir, and yes, sir, I did it for the old red white and blue/and since I won’t be walking, I suppose I’ll save some money buying shoes.” Damn. Convinced yet?
“Coffee with Tom T. Hall”: Talk about criminally underrated, check out this one from my old Record Cellar labelmate, Chet Delcampo. If my memory serves me well, I think the Man himself might have heard this and given it his seal of approval. In any case, Chet’s worth checking out too! Hall certainly loved his coffee – he even wrote a couple of songs on the subject – and undoubtedly needed it to wash down the “hot bologna, eggs, and gravy” he sang so affectionately of on “A Week In The County Jail” off his debut album. I guess Tom T. wasn’t exactly a foodie! But a legend he was and remains. Godspeed, Storyteller.