Tom T. Hall, the singer-songwriter who brought new levels of pungent wit and narrative sensitivity to country music as one of the genre’s leading figures in the 1970s, died Friday at age 85.
The long-retired Hall died at his home in Franklin, Tenn., his son Dean Hall told the Tennessean.
Hall had decades ago been bestowed with the nickname of “The Storyteller” — which, as a singular honorific in a genre as historically rich with story-songs as country, was saying something.
As a songwriter, Hall was known for hits for others, like “Harper Valley PTA,” recorded by Jeannie C. Riley in 1968, as well as his own unusually literary No. 1 country singles of the ’70s like “The Year Clayton Delaney Died” and “(Old Dogs, Children and) Watermelon Wine.” Not that all of his songs had to be that eloquent to get across; he’s also famous for the prosaically titled “I Like Beer,” a top 10 hit in 1975.
Among his best known songs are “I Love,” which spent two weeks at the top of the country chart in 1974 and crossed over to the top 40, peaking there at No. 12, and the adult contemporary format, where it reached No. 2. As recently as 2003, “I Love” was used in a popular Coors commercial.
Among some modern fans, he might be best recognized for the oft-covered “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” which has become an Americana standard.
A Grand Ole Opry member since 1971, Hall was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008. He became a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019.
Hall had the unique gift of being a deeply idiosyncratic songwriter whose tunes were nonetheless irresistible to others. His songs were recorded by Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Miranda Lambert, Alan Jackson, George Jones, Waylon Jennings and Bobby Bare, among many others.
Although he was known for chronicling unusual characters and small-town sentiments, Hall also was not afraid to take on topical subject matter in somewhat acerbic form, as with 1973’s “Watergate Blues” and 1972’s “The Monkey That Became President.”
“Damn,” wrote Patterson Hood of the band Drive-By Truckers, in a tweet. “The greatest storyteller songwriter of all time. A writer’s writer. There’s at least a dozen categories of song that he wrote arguably the best ever example of.”
#RipTomTHall Damn. The greatest storyteller songwriter of all time. A writer’s writer.
There’s at least a dozen categories of song that he wrote arguably the best ever example of.
— Drive-By Truckers (@drivebytruckers) August 21, 2021
Jason Isbell, formerly of the same band, performed Hall’s “Mama Bake A Pie (Daddy Kill A Chicken)” when the legend was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019. “The simplest words that told the most complicated stories,” Isbell tweeted Friday night. “Felt like Tom T. just caught the songs as they floated by, but I know he carved them out of rock.”
“Few could tell a story like Tom T. Hall,” said Sarah Trahern, CEO of the Country Music Association. “As a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist, he was one of those triple threat artists who continued to make an impact on the next generation. I’ll always remember growing up listening to Tom T.’s music with my father, who was a huge bluegrass and country fan.”
Said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, “Tom T. Hall’s masterworks vary in plot, tone and tempo, but they are bound by his ceaseless and unyielding empathy for the triumphs and losses of others. He wrote without judgment or anger, offering a rhyming journalism of the heart that sets his compositions apart from any other writer. His songs meant the world to Bobby Bare, Johnny Cash, George Jones and other greats, and those songs will continue to speak to generations. He was a storyteller, a philosopher, a whiskey maker, a novelist, a poet, a painter, a benefactor, a letter writer, a gift giver, a gentleman farmer and many more things. My bet is that we won’t see the likes of him again, but if we do I’ll be first in line for tickets to the show.”
Hall had long since retired from performing and recording, having delivered his last performance in 2011. He had all but stopped writing new material in the mid-’80s and performed only sporadically after the mid-’90s, enjoying life on the farm with his wife, Dixie, who died in 2015.
Hall was born in Olive Hill, KY on May 25, 1936. He came by his pointed musical wit early on, well before starting his country career, as an Army man, when he wrote comic songs about being in the military for the Armed Forces Radio Network. He enjoyed a career as a DJ at several radio stations for having his song “DJ for a Day” recorded by Jimmy C. Newman in 1963.
It was “Harper Valley PTA,” a narrative song about hypocrisy in a small town, that put him on the map as a tunesmith. Riley’s 1968 version version won a CMA Award for single of the year and sold 6 million copies.
Of the classic song, Hall told CMT.com in a 2005 interview, “It’s a true story… I was only 8, 9 or 10 years old at the time…The lady was a really free spirit, modern way beyond the times in my hometown. They got really huffy about her lifestyle. She didn’t go to school, but they could get to her through her daughter. She took umbrage at that and went down and made a speech to them. I mean, here’s this ordinary woman taking on the aristocracy of Olive Hill, Ky., population 1,300. When I was a kid, you just didn’t take on the aristocracy. It was unheard of…. I certainly didn’t use her real name. Out of 1,300 people, you could pick her out real quick. So a lot of things I wrote biographically. I changed the names of people.”
Hall had his first minor hits in 1967 but landed the first of his six No. 1s on the country chart with 1969’s “A Week in a Country Jail.” The last of his chart-toppers was “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet)” in 1975, although his songs continued to chart into the mid-’80s.
Telling CMT.com about “I Love,” Hall said, “Irony of ironies, it’s been my biggest moneymaking song… Little Debbie Cakes bought it for a commercial, Ford Trucks used it for a commercial and then Coors Beer used it for a theme song the last couple of years. It’s been recorded by a lot of orchestras. You hear it on the elevators, which is amazing. It’s just three chords, and it’s only two minutes long. For some reason, I walked into a great melody.”
That was not his favorite among his work, by any means. “I did one great album. My best album is called ‘In Search Of A Song,'” he said in a 1998 interview. “I think that was my best shot right there. My finest hour as they say. I could listen to the whole thing all the way through and there’s nothing really crammed into it or that is made up.” But he didn’t knock the simpler hits, like “I Love” or “I Like Beer,” explaining, “You look at the most successful songs that I’ve written and they’re my favorites, because I was writing to communicate.”
Explaining the political bent in some of his material, Hall said, “I’m obviously kind of a liberal. Most of the folks around here are Republican. … Politics with me is sort of like football… it’s a dangerous and vicious and mean game. Not for cowards.”
On television, he hosted the syndicated “Pop Goes the Country” from 1980-83, and was widely seen in Chevrolet commercials.
That Hall was a strong influence on the rock generation as well was reflected in a ’90s tribute album, “Real: The Tom T. Hall Project,” that featured artists like Calexico, Joe Henry, Whiskeytown, Syd Straw, Freedy Johnston and Ron Sexsmith as well as Cash and Ralph Stanley.
In 2011, another multi-genre tribute album appeared, this one a full-length covers version of his 1974 children’s album “Songs of Fox Hollow,” with artists including Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, Duane Eddy and Elizabeth Cook, recorded to honor Hall’s 75th birthday.
In 2012, he was honored as a BMI Icon at the performing rights org’s annual dinner in Nashville, where artists including the Avett Brothers, Toby Keith, Justin Townes Earle and Daily & Vincent gathered to cover his songs for the black-tie audience.
Other honors for Hall include being inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in 2002 and the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame (along with his wife, Dixie) in 2018.
“I’m usually interviewed by people, and they start off the interview by saying, ‘Well, I guess you’re right in there with all these others guys that think that country music is going to hell and all these young kids are ruining it’,” Hall said in a 1998 interview for the Perfect Sound Forever website. “And, you know, they’re telling me what I’m thinking. And I hate to embarrass them because I don’t have that kind of story. I said: This generation should entertain this generation. It’s only fair. When I was a kid, I mowed the lawn. Now, somebody else’s kid can mow the lawn. This generation should entertain this generation.”
He continued, “I told somebody the other day, I said, ‘You know, if you see a seventeen-year-old kid riding around in a pickup listening to Tom T. Hall tapes, there’s something wrong with that kid.’… In fact, I told some of those old guys, I said, ‘You know, some of us ought to go home and let these kids have it. I think I’ll go first.’ I retired.”
The son of a Baptist minister, Hall had a song called “Me and Jesus” but was a pluralist when it came to spirituality. “I have my own religion. I’m sort of a one quarter Baptist, I’m one quarter Catholic, one quarter Jewish. … After we had learned to kill one another and throw rocks, like that opening scene in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ once we had learned to eat and keep ourselves warm, then we got a fire going, religion came along real late in that whole process. … The first guy who came up with a religion was sitting out under a tree by himself. So I thought the best way to get a real good religion is to go out and sit under a tree by yourself and let it all happen. … I love the Jesus song. Great story. Great idea. So, I have a weird kind of religion. But I guess it’s a good one. I’m gonna find out some day.”