Top 5: Wry and Sly

(Correction below.)

I have been threatening for a couple of years to write a post about singer/songwriter Tom T. Hall, and today’s the day. Let’s begin with Hall the songwriter, whose “Harper Valley PTA” we mentioned last week. It’s the most famous of his songs recorded by someone else. Among his widely covered songs that might be familiar to some amongst the readership: “Hello Vietnam,” “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” “I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew,” and “Louisiana Saturday Night.” But Hall was, as most songwriters tend to be, the best interpreter of his own material. The wry outlook of his lyrics benefited from his sly delivery. Here are five Tom T. Hall 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). My favorite Tom T. Hall record. 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 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. Hall talks about the song and performs it here.

“Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine” (#1 country, 1972). This might be the loveliest melody Hall ever wrote, and it’s a beautiful arrangement too, 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.”

“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” and goes for something else altogether. The fact that the record runs a little more than two minutes made it popular with DJs who had to back-time to hit the network news.

Bonus track: Hall wrote Bobby Bare’s 1968 hit “(Margie’s at) The Lincoln Park Inn.” It’s a song that takes me deep into memory, with vivid associations I can’t sort out or explain, but that’s a subject for another time. The sound is pure late 60s countrypolitan, but the lyric is a powerful lesson for writers everywhere: storytelling is not only about what you put in, but what you leave out.

Besides “I Love” and “Clayton Delaney,” Hall hit the pop charts four other times, with “Me and Jesus,” “That Song Is Driving Me Crazy,” and “Sneaky Snake.” A nice bit of journalism about the 1972 Democratic presidential campaign and the Watergate affair, “Watergate Blues,” bubbled under the Hot 100 in 1973 at the very moment Congressional hearings into the scandal were on TV every day.

Hall hasn’t scored a hit since the middle of the 1980s, but he’s still a relatively young man, having celebrating his 75th birthday last May. His most recent album was released in 2007 and was his first in a decade. Hall wasn’t inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame until 2008—and that was a wait too long.