Tom T. Hall
On The Fringe
Tom T. Hall came to Nashville in 1964 with $46 and a guitar. Within months of his arrival, Hall's songs were on the charts. His material has been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Faron Young, George Jones, Waylon Jennings and dozens of others. Perhaps the most celebrated of these was "Harper Valley PTA" recorded by Jeannie C. Riley which sold over six million records, won a Grammy and a CMA award, crossed over to the pop charts, and insipred a movie and TV series.
In 1967 Hall was signed to Mercury Nashville. Since then he's had over 50 hit singles including 20+ Top Ten's. His simple and poignant style of writing and performing have earned him the title of "the poet laureate of country music." His songs are stories about the real life of everyday people: a daydreaming waitress, a down-and-out musician, a starry-eyed lover, a janitor, a war veteran, an innocent country kid, a hobo, and many others.
His latest project, "Homegrown," is true to his legendary talent, with eleven new songs that tell the tales as only Tom T. can tell them, with charming, powerful emotion.
The next time you hear somebody say, "They don't make country records like they used to," stop them.
It turns out that they do. They make them exactly like they did 30 years ago, full of real, live instrumental playing, unvarnished vocals and songs that stick to your ribs. Well, at least one person does. His name is Tom T. Hall.
The already legendary Nashville singer-songwriter is in the midst of a career resurgence that began three years ago when a new generation of country stylists began discovering his extraordinary body of work. After an eight-year silence, he was coached back into the studio by Mercury Nashville chief Luke Lewis. The result was "Songs From Sopchoppy," the album that spawned Alan Jackson's chart topping hit "Little Bitty."
Now comes "Home Grown." Lewis had heard Hall talk about wanting to do a completely acoustic album, so he persuaded the star to become a record producer for the first time in his career. The resulting collection proves you can still make great country records the old-fashioned way. "Home Grown" has lyrics as powerful and picking as potent as any album Tom T. Hall made 25 or 30 years ago. It's as if you're listening in on the sessions for "Ballad of Forty Dollars," "100 Children," "In Search of a Song" or any of the other brilliant LPS that defined him as "The Storyteller."
"I tried to get around the system and the way things are done," says Hall. "I wanted to do it the way we used to do. In the old days, we'd just go into the studio and have a good time.
"I turned the pickers loose. I said, 'Now gentlemen, I'm not gonna tell you what to pick. If you 'hear' something, do it.' Then I made my speech. This is a good speech. I said, 'Gentlemen, Luke Lewis has given me the money to do this album without any interference from anybody at all. So we have only one option here. And that is to change the course of country music.' I wasn't getting any laughs. I said, 'It's a joke.'
"I told them, 'Look, radio is not going to play this and we know that. So we'll just call this music Radio Hostile and not worry about it. Let's just do some music for the Tom T. Hall fans.'" That was the first and only guideline for "Home Grown." It was recorded in three days.
Increasingly, Hall's fans are becoming younger and hipper. Disenchanted with the disposable ditties that are written on Music Row today, artists are looking toward the classic composers for inspiration.
Deryl Dodd took Hall's "That's How I Got to Memphis" up the country single and video charts last year. Jackson's version of Hall's "Little Bitty" was a No.1 smash. Billy Ray Cyrus has a big hit in Europe with a new rendition of Hall's "Harper Valley P.T.A."
Hall has found particular favor among the artists working in the emerging Americana field. These aggressively rootsy stylists are bucking the slick "young country" approach with gritty images, meaningful songs and hard-edged playing. Hall's "of-the-people" songwriting style has led to recordings of his songs by Buddy Miller ("That's How I Got to Memphis"), Two Dollar Pistol ("I Flew Over Our House Last Night") and other notables in this genre. Iris DeMent, Joe Henry and a number of other Americana acts have even recorded a salute CD to their hero titled, "Real: A Tribute to Tom T. Hall."
Two years ago, Mercury sparked the Hall renaissance with a 50-song set called "Storyteller, Poet, Philosopher." The collection won a Nashville Music Award as Reissue Album of the Year. Hall was booked on a concert tour of Australia. He appeared at New York's Bottom Line. He starred at Music City's Tin Pan South songwriter festival. He was nominated as Songwriter of the Year by the R.O.P.E. organization that honors lifetime achievements. He also published his sixth book, which is his second novel.
Not bad for a guy who recently described himself as "retired."
"Ugh, that big 'R' word," says Hall's wife Miss Dixie with a frown. "When he started using that word, I didn't like it at all." "That was the healthiest thing I ever did," the songwriter protests. "I took two years off and went from being who I was to who I am."
Who he was, was one of the most influential performers in Nashville history. When the Kentucky-bred Hall left his disc jockey job in West Virginia and moved to Music City, he joined a group who transformed the country art form. He arrived on New Year's Day in 1964 with $46 and a guitar. Within the next few years composers like Hall, Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton and Mickey Newbury would turn folk art into bona fide poetry.
He began as a 9-to-5 working tunesmith, turning out numbers for Jimmy C. Newman ("Artificial Rose"), Dave Dudley ("Mad"), Johnny Wright ("Hello Vietnam"), Bobby Bare ("Margie's At The Lincoln Park Inn"), Jeannie C. Riley ("Harper Valley P.T.A.") and other stars. But, beginning in 1967, Hall himself began making records.
Signed by Mercury Records, Tom T. Hall took more than 50 singles up the charts from 1967-87. Twenty of them became top-10 hits, including such landmarks as "I Love," "(Old Dogs, Children And) Watermelon Wine," "The Year That Clayton Delaney Died," "I Like Beer," "Ravishing Ruby" and "Homecoming." He won a Grammy Award (1972), was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1978) and was inducted into the cast of the Grand Ole Opry (1980).
University scholars began studying his strikingly moving songs, pointing out that his "journalistic" approach made ordinary people seem extraordinarily vivid. On "Home Grown," we find that Tom T. Hall still has this remarkable talent.
The songs range from the nostalgic "Bill Monroe For Breakfast" and "Back When The Old Place Was New" to character studies such as his portrait of a female on the highway patrol, "Legend Of The Lady Bear," or his sketch of the delusional "Royal Annie." One moment he's deeply philosophical in "The Beautiful River Of Life" and another moment he's darkly comic in "Waiting On The Other Shoe To Fall."
"Local Flowers" is a tip of the hat to the simple dignity of The Carter Family. Hall even plays Mother Maybelle Carter's autoharp (that he stole from Miss Dixie) on the tune. The little details in the lyrics of "The Way I've Always Been" pile up to convey a heart brimming with hurt. There's good advice from a happy spirit in "Life Don't Have To Mean Nothing At All." But just when you think The Storyteller might reveal some Eternal Truths, he tosses out a simple sunshiny number like "Watertown, Tennessee."
And tucked away at the close of "Home Grown" is the lyric that perhaps best defines this American songwriting master's gift. "What a song, what a song/You know I've heard it for so long/You know it seems to be the theme song from my whole life/A simple tune, simple lines/But every time it comes to mind/I always think, oh what a song."
From Tom T. Hall's Official Website.
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