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Story Came First For Tom T. Hall

Tom T. Hall

Even in a city and an era that rewarded unique and ambitious characters, Tom T. Hall stood out in 20th century Nashville. Rural by upbringing yet as literary minded as a poet or a magazine staff writer, the Kentucky native was a masterful songwriter and artist who infused country music with unusual plotlines, complex humanity, social insight and refined wit. The best-known of his 30-plus top ten country hits, including “Harper Valley PTA,” “I Love,” and “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died,” only hint at Hall’s vast output of thoughtful, moving songs that earned him the sobriquet “The Storyteller.” News of Hall’s death on Friday at age 85 swept across Nashville and the world to much grief and acclaim.

“It saddens me to think Tom T. Hall has passed away,” wrote songwriter Rodney Crowell. “His Faster Horses album was in constant rotation on my turntable for years. He was as complicated a gentleman as he was a masterful storyteller and poet. I admired the man. I miss him already.” Nashville roots rocker Will Hoge noted that “Tom T Hall was an absolute titan. If you ever met him or worked with him you saw it immediately. His songs live on forever to prove it. Thanks for setting the bar so high.”

Besides his musical output, Hall was the author of nine books, including novels, songwriting advice volumes and the important memoir The Storyteller’s Nashville. Hall was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008 and granted a BMI Icon award in 2012. He and his late wife Dixie Hall were voted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame for their extensive catalog of songs and their support of new generations of artists through their at-home Fox Hollow recording studio in Franklin, TN.

Bluegrass gave Hall his start in professional music when he joined the Kentucky Travelers as a teenager, working around his hometown of Olive Hill, KY. He was already writing songs and poetry by that point, so during some years in the Army and as a DJ in Kentucky and Virginia, he wrote and sang until his songs got noticed. His first important cut was “DJ For A Day,” a top ten hit for Grand Ole Opry star Jimmy C. Newman in 1963. Two days into the new year, Hall moved to Nashville to take a staff songwriting job with Newman’s music publishing company.

Hall’s writing career lifted off gradually but convincingly, earning his first #1 song in 1965 when Jonnie Wright released “Hello Vietnam.” But it was Jeannie C. Riley’s take on the small-town morality play “Harper Valley PTA” - winner of a Grammy and a CMA Award - that established his reputation as a master of narrative and character, a short story writer who worked in melodic verse, often in songs without choruses. The 1968 smash chronicled a real event that Hall remembered from being about ten years old, rooted in his respect for a modern woman taking on the hypocritical social structure of his provincial hometown.

About that same time, Hall inserted a fictional T. into his name and launched his recording career, where he could better develop his unique style of solo-written story songs. While most songwriters embellish on overheard lines and stories, Hall was his era’s musical analog to the new journalism of Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe, mingling astute chronicle with philosophy. His opening lines leap into the middle of situations yet orient us with some precise observation or teaser. “The man who preached the funeral said it really was a simple way to die,” he sings to launch “The Ballad Of Forty Dollars.” It’s a jewel box of drama, again drawn from youthful eavesdropping, in that case on some inebriated grave diggers. In ten short verses and less than three minutes, we bear witness to a place, its people, their rituals and their debts.

One recurring theme in Hall’s work is the receiving of wisdom from regular people and elders. In “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine” an “old gray black gentleman” working in a bar discourses on the simple things he’s come to cherish and rely on. In “Faster Horses (The Cowboy And The Poet),” the narrator hears an earthier list - “younger women, older whiskey, more money” - from a “leather tanned” cowboy. One of Hall’s biggest hits as an artist and signature songs, “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died,” is straight memoir, save for the fictional name of the titular character. The real fellow, Lonnie Easterly, was Hall’s guitar-picking musical mentor, and the song’s mix of gratitude and regret and questions about death through the eyes of a “barefoot kid” couldn’t be more mature or endlessly fascinating.

Hall sometimes tried to see the world with naive eyes. At the height of his fame as a recording artist he stunned his record label and peers with the news he’d written an album of children’s songs. Songs Of Fox Hollow came out in 1974 and to his team’s surprise produced a major hit single with the charming “I Love.” In 2011, Nashville artists Peter Cooper and Eric Brace produced a Grammy-nominated update of the album with guest artists such as Patty Griffin and Jim Lauderdale recording at the Hall’s Fox Hollow studio. “It was a new kind of literature,” Hall told me about the album in an interview at the time. “It was something I wanted to say that I’d never had an excuse to say before. . .I didn’t write this album for my nephews and not for kids in general. I just wrote it for myself. The child in me, you might say, if that’s not too poetic.”

And yet among the personal songs and the idiosyncratic scenarios were solid workhorse songs and lighter material that continues to be interpreted. “That’s How I Got To Memphis” was cut by Solomon Burke, Rosanne Cash, Buddy Miller, The Avett Brothers and dozens of others. “Me And Jesus” became a rollicking gospel bluegrass standard. A late career Hall song from his final studio album, “Little Bitty” turned right around as a country chart-topper for Alan Jackson.

In 1965, Hall met English songwriter Dixie Dean at a music industry banquet, and they were married until her death in 2015 at age 80. Later in life, the couple wrote for the bluegrass market, which acknowledged them with numerous songwriting awards and cuts by dozens of artists. Hall retired more officially than most performing songwriting artists do in the 1990s, but he was coaxed back to the stage in 2005 to be a Country Music Hall of Fame Artist In Residence.