Country music’s storyteller is gone.
There are only a few men and women that when you regard their legacy in country music, it’s only fair to say that the music would be fundamentally different in demonstrative ways if it wasn’t for their presence. But this distinction is usually reserved for the undeniable superstars and infleuncers of the genre—people like Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Willie Nelson.
But if you ask most any country music performer or songwriter, they’ll be quick to tell you that without Tom T. Hall, what a country song is would be considered something significantly different. Tom T. Hall had the simple wisdom for life of Don Williams. He could find wit in the everyday world like Roger Miller. But nobody, nobody could tell a story within the medium of country music like Tom T. Hall.
This is how a song like “Harper Valley PTA” could go from being somewhat of a silly novelty, to instigating an entire entertainment universe and phenomenon, complete with a motion picture production and television program, not to mention a song that sold six million copies when Jeannie C. Riley recorded it in 1968, and ultimately won Grammy and CMA Awards to boot. That song alone is enough to speak to the legacy Mr. T. leaves behind.
Using the death of Tom T. Hall to reflect on his legacy, you can remark on the eight #1 singles he achieved, the some 35 records he released over his career, the memorable songs such as “A Week in a County Jail,” “How I Got To Memphis,” “I Love,” and “Faster Horses,” or all the songs he wrote for others, including some of the greatest country artists ever such as Johnny Cash, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare, and even more contemporary artists like Alan Jackson. Ask any of them, and they would set you straight about the importance of Tom T. Hall.
But any commercial accolades almost seem unimportant when regarding the Hall of Fame legacy of Tom T. Hall. Most important to understand is that nobody could write a song like him. But since plenty tried, it elevated the entire enterprise of country music, and for generations.
Of all the things Tom T. Hall leaves behind, one of the most important might not be a song or a record, but a set of books. Writing a book on songwriting is like writing a book on how to write a book. If you have to ask, you’re probably in trouble already. But Tom T. Hall’s How I Write Songs and The Songwriters Handbook are like Bibles of the discipline. Ask most any songwriter.
And none of this even begins to broach all the work he did with his wife Dixie Hall (who passed away in 2015) in the realm of bluegrass. Tom T. Hall was as prolific as he was influential.
Tom T. Hall had a #1 in 1972 with a song called “(Old Dogs, Children and) Watermelon Wine.” In one song that perhaps on paper looks sappy, disjointed, and so out-of-date even for 1972, Tom T. Hall said and accomplished more than most any modern country composition of the last 20 years.
For many country legends, they’re forgotten too early through no fault of their own. But for Tom T. Hall, he was perfectly happy fading off in the sunset. If you listened to his songs like “Watermelon Wine,” you would know why. Everything is set in the right perspective in a Tom T. Hall song. What really matters in life is set in the foreground. As the forces at play in country music moved away from his folksy lyricism, Hall didn’t attempt to fight it. He knew better. Life’s too short.
Tom T. Hall stopped writing new material for the country market in about the mid 80’s. He mostly stopped performing by the mid 90’s. Many in the public forgot about ol’ Tom T. Hall. But the songwriters, and true country fans never did.
Even in the time when Tom T. Hall moved to Nashville in 1964 after being born and raised in Kentucky and serving in the Army, people were already questioning, “What is country?” Decades later the question is an ever-present topic, full of spirited, and sometimes, acrimonious arguments. But the answer is actually quite simple. You just have to ask Tom T. Hall.
Country is sittin’ on the back porch listen to the whippoorwills late in the day
Country is mindin’ your business helpin’ a stranger if he comes your way
Country is livin’ in the city knowin’ your people knowin’ your kind
Country is what you make it country is all in your mind
Country is workin’ for a living thinkin’ your own thoughts lovin’ your town
Country is teachin’ your children find out what’s right and stand your ground
Country is a havin’ the good times listen to the music singing your part
Country is walkin’ in the moonlight country is all in your heart
Country music is Tom T. Hall. And Tom T. Hall was country music.
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Tom T. Hall passing was announced Friday evening by the Grand Ole Opry. He was 85.
Country music’s storyteller is gone.