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Tom T. Hall – Remembering Country Music’s Preeminent Storyteller Following His Death August 20th, 2021, At The Age Of 85

Tom T. Hall

“I care about poetry, and I care about good writing. And I care about forces that move the world other than country music,” Tom T. Hall as told to Alanna Nash.  

Tom T. Hall was one of country music’s most unique voices – a man who could alternate between lacerating wit, heartfelt empathy, and, let’s be honest, excessive sentimentality.  He released over twenty Top Ten country singles from 1968 to 1986.  His commercial impact as a songwriter lasted over three decades to include penning Johnny Wright’s 1965 pro-intervention #1 single “Hello Vietnam,” as well as Alan Jackson’s 1996 folksy #1 hit “Little Bitty.”  He had massive crossover success as the writer of “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” a biting commentary about hypocrisy, that Jeannie C. Riley took to #1 on the country and pop charts in 1968.  The tale of small-town gossip resonated so much in American culture that a film titled “Harper Valley P.T.A.” was released in 1978 and a television series of the same name aired in 1981 and 1982.  

Hall was born in Olive Hill, Kentucky in 1936, and he did a stint in the Army, worked as a journalist, and as a disc jockey, before finding fame as a singer/songwriter. His background in journalism translated directly to his writing, as he had an uncanny knack for color and detail.  His first Top 40 country hit was 1967’s “I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew,” a song that critiqued the death penalty and income inequality in a way that almost sounds like a parody of the hippie movement.  Music listeners got their first serving of Hall’s sly wit on his 1968 single “The Ballad of Forty Dollars,” where a drunken gravedigger realizes he can’t collect a debt from a dead man.  

Hall’s catalogue from 1969 through 1976 is chocked full of fantastic material.  “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died,” a 1971 tale of music, inspiration, and alcoholism, became his signature song. From a narrative standpoint, it is reminiscent of Hank Williams’ relationship with his mentor Rufus Payne (a.k.a. “Tee Tot”) and Lynyrd Skynyrd picked up on the theme with “The Ballad of Curtis Loew.” However, you need much more of Tom T. than “Clayton Delaney” in your life.   

Further Essential Listening:  

1.  “Homecoming” – A tale of an awkward reunion involving a grieving widower father and a musician son whose ambitions keep him on the road.  

2. “A Week in a Country Jail” – Hall takes a shakedown in a small-town speed trap, pitches an escape plan to the jailer’s wife, then hightails it out of the state.  The Drive-By Truckers winkingly reference this number on their 2008 album cut “Three Dimes Down.”  

3.  “Salute to a Switchblade” – The country version of “Gimme Three Steps,” an Army era Tom T. escapes out of a German bar after unknowingly dancing with a married Fraulein and then being introduced to her husband’s switchblade.  (At the same time this was a hit, Bobby Bare took Hall’s “How I Got to Memphis” to #3 on the country charts).  

4.  “It Sure Can Get Cold in Des Moines” –  Life sucks when you’re poor.  It sucks even more when it’s fourteen degrees below zero in Iowa and you’re poor.  

5.  “The Little Lady Preacher” – Halls sings about a true believer who would “breathe into that microphone and send us all to hell,” although her soft spot for the boozin’ and smokin’ Luther Short contradicted her convictions.  

6.  “Turn It On, Turn It On, Turn It On” – A remarkable tale of a WWII era conscientious objector who goes on a killing spree, then tells the sheriff after he runs out of bullets that “the Lord must think a lot of you.” The title phrase is said with a smile while seated at the electric chair.  

7.  “She Gave Her Heart to Jethro” – And her body to the whole damn world.  

8.  “Ravishing Ruby” – If you move the song “Brandy” by Looking Glass to a truck stop, have the female namesake pine for her father instead of her lover, and then add mariachi horns, you get “Ravishing Ruby.”   

9.  “Pay No Attention to Alice” – Hall meets an old Army buddy, who asks him to ignore his alcoholic wife as they drive his car into a ditch.  

10.  “Watergate Blues” –  A b-side that became a Top 20 country hit. In the first half of the song, Hall recaps Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72” with less profanity. On the second half, he bemoans the diminished stature of American leadership.   

11.  “Faster Horses” – This head scratching philosophy number features banjo playing in the versus and R&B horns in the chorus.  It’s too bad that this didn’t get him booked on “Soul Train.”   

12.  “Fox on the Run” – Originally a U.K. pop hit by Manfred Mann, Tom T. Hall rides a wave of bluegrass momentum on this classic tale of lost love.  

There was a vivid attention to detail in Hall’s work that made him one of the finest lyricists in the history of country music.  May his wry deadpan voice live on forever.   

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