Another week, another sad news reception while attempting to write the blog. This one really hurts.
My buddy that told me about Nancy Griffith last week just sent me another text. My songwriting hero, Tom T. Hall, passed away earlier today. Information on his passing is still being gathered, but we do know that he was 85 and had removed himself mostly from public appearances since the death of his wife Dixie back in 2015.
His songwriting thumb print ruled the 1960s and 70s. The classic “Harper Valley PTA” has been in constant rotation on hundreds of stations, with the most popular version sung by Jeannie C. Riley. However, the actual songs, be they performed by him or others, are textbook examples of what a song should be. Hall was always called The Storyteller, and songs like “I Like Beer,” “(Old Dogs and Children) and Watermelon Wine,” “I Love,” and “ Me and Jesus” would make any songwriter envious. These WERE stories! In three minutes, Hall told a great short story that John Updike would approve of.
Born and raised in Kentucky, he played in various bluegrass and country bands as a teenager, then joined the US Army, where he performed on Armed Forces Radio, writing songs about military life. He returned home to do disc jockey work at a number of radio stations. In 1963, Jimmy C. Newman recorded the Hall song “DJ For a Day,” which helped to launch his glorious career with guitar and pen. The biggest country stars of the time, including George Jones, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings, recorded Hall’s amazing work.
Just take “Harper Valley PTA.” Seen through the eyes of a young girl who gives her mother a letter from the local PTA about how risque the mother dresses. This was dangerous ground to tread in a song as it was during the 60s, but Hall made it into a comical lore. The mother goes to the PTA meeting and tells off all of the members by reporting on all of their hypocritical lifestyles. And Hall makes each line rhyme in a way that the whole stanza sticks in the listener’s mind so picturesque.
Then there’s the numerous songs that he wrote for children. “I Care” became a hit on the country charts in 1975. He married Dixie in 1969 (it was his second marriage; he married Opal McKinney in 1961 for a short period and had a son, Dan). The two of them wrote a number of hits for bluegrass bands, winning songwriting awards with both the International Bluegrass Music Association and the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America. Even as the modern country music producers and executives were looking at him as past his prime, bluegrass artists knew that he still kicked out aural gold, and country stars such as Alan Jackson knew how great he truly was.
Hall was inducted into the Country Music Hall fame in 2008, the Bluegrass Hall of Fame (along with Dixie) in 2018, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019 (way too long of a wait for that one). He preferred mowing his lawn over going to Nashville parties, and rarely collaborated with others excepting Dixie. Perhaps that was his charm in his songs. He could see the human characteristics best on his own. And each three-minute story made the listener realize that he was singing about someone that everyone seemed to know in some way.
I love all of Hall’s songs, but my all-time favorite is “Ballad of Forty Dollars.” A cemetery worker has to set up chairs for a funeral, and as it turns out, he knows the deceased. He goes on to talk about the shady way the widow handled selling some of the man’s possessions, and finishes off the song by saying that the dead man owed the singer forty dollars. The poetry that Hall uses to tell the story makes you continually listen for the next line. You want to hear it again because it’s a great short story. And that Ton T. Hall gravely voice makes it sound like a common Joe Six-Pack telling his woes. Pure gold.
I met Hall once years ago at The Station Inn in Nashville. It was at a show that was the night before that year’s AmericanaFest. Not too many people were aware he was there, but how could I not recognize one of my songwriting heroes? I went up to him and shook his hand, telling him how much his songs have meant to me and my dad. He looked tired, not in a sociable mood, but he was cordial and seemed grateful that a regular guy appreciated him. I didn’t get a photo, I’m not big on those types of pics. But I can remember everything about that few minutes. Visually clear as, say, a Tom T. Hall song.
Tom, you don’t owe me forty dollars, but I owe you a million thank you’s. Your songs have inspired my writing in so many ways. I could only hope that one of my songs could even come within spitting distance of one of your classics. You will be missed by so many, but will always be remembered and held in high regard by me.
Chew on it and comment.