(Pictured: Tom T. Hall, on stage in 1976.)
I wonder if Tom T. Hall and Don Everly ever met. It’s possible, I suppose, Nashville contemporaries who traveled down every road to perform. Everly’s passing is a monumental one; now only Jerry Lee Lewis remains from the original class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Today, records like “Bye Bye Love,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” and “Wake Up Little Susie” are like redwoods, eternally strong and great, and if it’s difficult to find anybody under the age of 50 who can sing a lick of them, that’s their loss.
Despite Everly’s passing, I’m going to continue with my original plan for today, which is to reboot part of a thing I wrote about Tom T. Hall 10 years ago, almost to the date of his death. Although he wrote a bunch of famous songs sung by others, including “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” “Hello Vietnam,” “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” and “I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew,” I spotlighted five hits worth hearing in the man’s own voice.
“The Ballad of Forty Dollars” (#4 country, 1968). Hall’s first Top-10 country hit, and a great example of the observational, storytelling style that makes Hall’s music so compelling. Why the song is called “The Ballad of Forty Dollars” doesn’t become clear until the very last line.
“Salute to a Switchblade” (#8 country, 1970). Hall served in the military in Germany during the late 50s, and “Salute to a Switchblade” describes the adventure of a young American in a beer hall who tries to pick up a fraulein without knowing she has a jealous—and well-armed—husband. Hall’s parenthetical observations at the end of each verse are hilarious.
“The Year That Clayton Delaney Died” (#1 country, #42 pop, 1971). When Hall was seven years old, the man who taught him how to play guitar died. Clayton Delaney was not the man’s real name; neither was he the kindly old man you envision when listening to Hall’s tribute—“Clayton” was only 19 or 20 years old when he died.
“Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine” (#1 country, 1972). This might be the loveliest melody Hall ever wrote, and it’s a beautiful arrangement, with those shimmering countrypolitan string flourishes so common in Nashville productions of the 60s and 70s. It’s a lovely lyric, too: “That night I dreamed in peaceful sleep of shady summertime / And old dogs and children and watermelon wine.”
[“Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine” is far better than I described it in 2011, and I’ve come to love it more in the last 10 years. It seems almost miraculous now, as close to perfection as anything ever gets.]
“I Love” (#1 country, #12 pop, 1973). “I Love” was Hall’s biggest pop hit, deceptively simple and moving, and it even manages to be funny, when Hall gives up the opportunity to make an obvious rhyme with the word “vine” …
Bonus track: Hall wrote Bobby Bare’s hit “(Margie’s at) The Lincoln Park Inn.” It’s a song that takes me deep into memory, with vivid associations.… The sound is pure late-60s countrypolitan, but the lyric is a powerful lesson for writers everywhere: good storytelling is not only about what you put in, but what you leave out.
[Bare’s version of “(Margie’s at) The Lincoln Park Inn” is fine—all except for those parentheses—but you might as well hear it in Tom T.’s voice.]
[Further bonus tracks: “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet)” and “The Homecoming,” another song where the power of the tale is in what Hall doesn’t say. Don’t write in to ask, “What about ‘I Like Beer’?” It’s fine, but it’s not in the ballpark we’re playing in today.]
Besides “I Love” and “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died,” Hall hit the pop charts four other times, with “Me and Jesus,” “That Song Is Driving Me Crazy,” and “Sneaky Snake.” … “Watergate Blues,” bubbled under the Hot 100 in 1973 at the very moment Congressional hearings into the scandal were on TV every day.
Hall charted with “May the Force Be With You Always” in early 1978 while Star Wars was new; he hosted the flyover country TV staple Pop Goes the Country in 1980 and 1981. His last charting records were in the mid 80s; his last album was released in 2007.
What Tom T. Hall did ain’t easy. Effortless humor is hard. Making personal experiences universal is hard. Subtlety is hard. We live in a time when lots of people in Nashville are faking it, but ultimately, you’ve either got the gift or you don’t. Tom T. Hall’s gift was real—real people, real country, and real good.