Tom T. Hall Biography

25 May 1936, Olive Hill, Kentucky, USA. Hall was one of eight children and his father was a bricklayer and part-time minister. Hall described the family home as ‘a frame house of pale-grey boards and a porch from which to view the dusty road and the promise of elsewhere beyond the hills - the birthplace of a dreamer’. Hall, who started to learn to play a school friend’s guitar at the age of 10, was influenced by a local musician who died of tuberculosis when only 22 years old, hence his classic song, ‘The Year That Clayton Delaney Died’. Hall’s mother died of cancer when he was 13 and, two years later, his father was injured in a shooting accident, which necessitated Hall leaving school to look after the family. A neighbour, Hurley Curtis (who was later the subject of Hall’s ‘A Song For Uncle Curt’), had a small, travelling cinema and Hall began to accompany him, playing bluegrass with other musicians. Curtis helped to find them a place on a programme on WMOR, Morehead, Kentucky, and Hall broadcast regularly as part of the Kentucky Travellers. When the band broke up, he continued at the station as a DJ, then joined the army in 1957. Several songs (‘Salute To A Switchblade’, ‘I Flew Over Our House Last Night’) relate to his army days. On leaving the army in 1961, he returned to WMOR and worked as both a DJ and a musician.

He went to Roanoke, Virginia, to study journalism; another song, ‘Ode To A Half A Pound Of Ground Round’, indicates how little money he had at that time. At one stage, he stayed with an army friend (‘Thank You, Connersville, Indiana’) and tried to find acceptance in Nashville for his country songs. In 1963, his song ‘DJ For A Day’ was recorded by Jimmy C. Newman. In 1964 he moved to Nashville and married Iris ‘Dixie’ Dean, who had emigrated from Weston-super-Mare, England, and was the editor of Music City News. Hall wrote several songs about Vietnam - ‘Goodbye Sweetheart, Hello Vietnam’ (recorded by Johnny Wright) advocates support for the war, while ‘Mama, Tell ‘Em What We’re Fightin’ For’ (Dave Dudley) assumes another stance. Margie Singleton asked Hall to write her a song like ‘Ode To Billie Joe’, and he produced ‘Harper Valley PTA’; however, it was not passed on to Singleton, who was away at the time. The song instead went to Jeannie C. Riley, who took it to number 1 in the US pop charts. The lyric related to an incident in Hall’s childhood; said Hall, ‘I wrote about a lady who had criticized a teacher for spanking her child to get at her.’ In 1968 Hall signed to Mercury Records, added a middle initial and became Tom T. Hall. His offbeat US country hits included ‘Ballad Of 40 Dollars’, which had been prompted by working in a graveyard, and the strummed ‘Homecoming’. He then topped the US country charts with ‘A Week In The County Jail’.

Hall’s best songs describe people and situations (‘Pinto The Wonder Horse Is Dead’, ‘I Miss A Lot Of Trains’), while his philosophizing is often crass (‘The World, The Way I Want It’, ‘100 Children’). The light-hearted ‘I Can’t Dance’ has also been recorded by Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris, and ‘Margie’s At The Lincoln Park Inn’, a return to the small-town hypocrisy of ‘Harper Valley PTA’, was a US country hit for Bobby Bare. Bare says, ‘That song was written about the Capital Park Inn in Nashville, but he changed the name to protect the guilty. It’s a great cheating song, one of the best’. Hall went on an expedition looking for songs and the result was his most consistent work, In Search Of A Song. Songs such as ‘Ramona’s Revenge’ and ‘Tulsa Telephone Book’ described many scenes and moods, and he was backed by superlative Nashville musicians. His next album, We All Got Together And... was not as strong but it did include ‘Pamela Brown’, in which he thanks a girl for not marrying him, and ‘She Gave Her Heart To Jethro’, to which he adds ‘and her body to the whole damn world’. The Storyteller included his finest song, a perceptive encounter with an ageing black cleaner, ‘Old Dogs, Children And Watermelon Wine’. Hall’s touring band, the Storytellers, included Johnny Rodriguez, who later became a solo star. Hall recorded with Patti Page and he championed the songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, recording his songs and writing the sleeve notes for his first album.

Amongst his numerous awards and honours, Hall won a Grammy for his notes on Tom T. Hall’s Greatest Hits. Ironically, Hall had his only substantial hit in the US pop charts (number 12 in 1974) with one of his weaker songs, ‘I Love’, a sentimental list of what he liked. He reworked Manfred Mann’s ‘Fox On The Run’ for his bluegrass album The Magnificent Music Machine, and he also made a highly acclaimed, good-natured album with Earl Scruggs. His mellow Songs In A Seashell was inspired by a fishing trip and included both original songs and standards. Although his singing range is limited, Hall can be a fine interpreter of others’ material, in particular ‘P.S. I Love You’ and Shel Silverstein’s ‘Me And Jimmie Rodgers’. In the 80s Hall concentrated on novel-writing and children’s songs. He retired from recording in 1986 but, following 1995’s box set compilation, a long overdue collection of new, adult songs appeared in 1996. The following year’s Home Grown was Hall’s strongest collection of songs since his 70s heyday.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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