The artist with his wife, Miss Dixie.
Tom T. Hall spent the ‘70s writing and recording Country Music Hall of Fame-quality story-songs about being thrown in a country jail, working in a graveyard, drinking beer and the like. And smack-dab in the middle of all his serious success, he did the last thing anybody’d expect from a country hitmaker—he put out an album “for children of all ages”. CalledSongs From Fox Hollow, it was populated by characters from his farm, like Sneaky Snake and the Mysterious Fox. Nashville singing and songwriting duo Eric Brace and Peter Cooper decided it was high time for kids young and old to get hear those songs again. So they rounded up a crew of first-rate singers and pickers—a few of them bona fide country and rock legends, like Duane Eddy, Bobby Bare and Lloyd Green, and the rest bright or rising stars of the roots world, like Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, Jim Lauderdale, Elizabeth Cook and Jon Byrd—and re-recorded them (the resulting album, I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs Of Fox Hollow, was released in May to critical acclaim). Nothing could be more fitting than sitting down to talk about the old and new projects with Hall, Cooper and Brace out at Fox Hollow.
What, to you, is the difference between writing country songs for an adult audience and writing country songs for children? Is there a difference?
First of all, I got to Nashville and I was writing, or trying to write, what I call “little darlin’” songs. Just songs about boys and girls, which is what 98 percent of what music is about. And I couldn’t do that. I was not any good at it. So I started writing little narratives about things I’d done, places I’d been, people I’d met. Doing that I sort of found my niche and I got a little thing going, just writing biographically…. And then I had two little nephews. I think they were four and five years old. They came here from Monaco in south of France. …Now, I knew I lived in Fox Hollow, but these little kids didn’t know. So they wanted to know where the fox was. So I said, “He’s a very mysterious fox. But you don’t have to be afraid of him, because he is afraid of our dogs.” …And we’re looking for the fox and the snake and the one-legged chicken and all those characters. So it was just a great summer and I just used the whole thing up and put it into an album.
So you really weren’t intending the songs for commercial use at first.
Actually, they were finished before I even considered them songs. I don’t think I ever sang them for the kids. Because I don’t think they would’ve understood why I was singing them a song. …I was just the guide, you know. So I didn’t want to disappoint them by telling them I was a [country] picker. …The whole project just kind of came along. But it was not a thing that I struggled with. I didn’t have a market for it. There was no reason to be writing these songs. I never pitched ‘em to anybody. … And I never did any children’s shows. … I don’t like to talk down to children and I don’t like to entertain them. Because children, if you leave them alone, could entertain themselves much better than you can. And I don’t like it when people talk to children in baby talk.
That’s what I feel like Songs of Fox Hollow shares with other albums you made—it still comes down to strong storytelling, not hammering home a lesson.
Well, some people heard allegory in it. But it was kind of an observed thing. Everything was on the surface. I wasn’t trying to lecture these kids in these songs. They were true stories. They were stories about things that we really did that summer, and you can take the stories and make what you will of them.
Roaming around with your nephews and seeing what interested them doesn’t sound all that different from the song hunting trips you used to take.
No. I used to get in my car and just take off and drive the blue highways, they call ‘em now, and stop off in little towns and write songs, talk to people in the beer joints, pool rooms, cafes, back porches, leaning on fences. So this was just another trip around the farm with these kids, you’re right. …I was just doing the same thing I’ve always done. I didn’t make up songs about Fox Hollow. I was walking around with these kids finding them. They were already there. Sneaky Snake was here. The Mysterious Fox was here. The One-Legged Chicken was already here. I just hadn’t seen ‘em as songs until my little nephews.
Just after Songs of Fox Hollow came out was when Bobby Bare did his kids’ album Singin’ in the Kitchen and Johnny Cash did a kids’ album too. Were you all aware of what each other were doing?
I know that people used to ask Bobby Bare to sing “Sneaky Snake” and they’d ask me to sing “Daddy What If”. …I said, “I’m the other guy.”
Would you tell me the story behind the song “Old Lonesome George the Basset”? I haven’t heard too many stories that involve a song, a dog and Johnny Cash.
Well, Cash was doing a TV show. The director wanted a bloodhound. And Cash said, “Well, I don’t think we’ve got a bloodhound, but a friend of mine, Miss Dixie Hall [Tom T.’s wife], has got basset hounds. …Now, George was just a plain old basset hound. He was a pet. …He had these big wide feet and he didn’t have a show business attitude. So the story is that they had all these prize-winning show dogs walking around, but here’s old Lonesome George the Basset that winds up on the Johnny Cash show. So George got to be a show dog after all.
The new song on here that you and Miss Dixie wrote—“I Made a Friend of a Flower Today”—is that one you had laying around or did you write it for the project?
No, not specifically for the album. We drink coffee here in the morning. We can look out at the bird feeder and we can look over the hill towards the lake. One day Miss Dixie was walking around drinking coffee. She said, “Come over here.” And she pointed out the window and over the hill by the lake. There was a little yellow flower down there. …And it was very hot and dry, so Miss Dixie said, “I want you to go down there and give that flower a drink of water.” I said, “Look, we’ve got sixty acres here. I can’t go roaming over this whole property with a cup full of water, watering everything that pops up.” …I got a cup and I went down to the lake and I dipped up some water, I gave it a couple of cups of water. It straightened up. … I came back and she had a song started called “I Made a Friend of a Flower Today”.
Back when Songs of Fox Hollow was released most of your songwriting credits were solo credits. You’ve done a lot of co-writing with Miss Dixie since. When did that start?
Oh, that was an arrangement we made. When I came off the road she was president of the Humane Association. We both love bluegrass music. I started off in a bluegrass band. So I wrote her a note one morning. I said, “Look this is not working out.” Because when I retired from the road, I went to work for animal land with the Humane Association. I’m working day and night, eighteen hours a day for her charity. I said, “For this to work out, we’re gonna have to both retire. If you’ll retire from animal land, we’ll write some bluegrass songs and build us a little studio.” Because she likes to write songs, and had written songs all her life. And she said, “Okay.” So then we started co-writing on bluegrass songs and built a little acoustic music studio. We have these kids come by and record. We were [Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America] songwriters of the year ten years in a row. …We’ve had a lot of fun.
This is a question that I also put to Tom T. What’s the difference between country songs written for an adult audience and country songs written for children? Or is there a difference?
Cooper: He was always about telling the story, whatever the story was. And when he decided to tell some stories that would be of interest to kids, he knew they would be of interest, because of the kids that were on his farm and were asking these questions. He didn’t patronize to them. There was certainly nothing elicit in the subject matter and he wasn’t writing about graveyards and barrooms for the kids, but they were songs that appealed to adults. He had number one country hits with these songs. It wasn’t like ‘I’m gonna take a complete step into kiddie land’ at all. And this was when he was at the height of his career. …He was coming off of “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine” about the wisdom of a guy with probably a foot in the grave. Then he comes along with “I love little baby ducks.” There are no songs on any of his albums that are tossed off, and that includes his one real chance to toss some off, which would’ve been on the kids’ album.
Brace: There’s a certificate here on the wall that I just saw from the truck drivers’ association to Tom T. pronouncing him the Truck Drivers’ Poet Laureate. I love the fact that back in 1974 there were truck drivers driving around the country singing “I love little baby ducks”. Somehow he pulls it off because he’s just telling the truth. Tom T. does love little baby ducks. He wasn’t trying to win over a bunch of kids. You just can’t imagine a truck driver nowadays going down the road singing Barney the dinosaur songs.
I mentioned to him that just after he did Songs of Fox Hollow Bobby Bare did Singin’ in the Kitchen and Johnny Cash did a children’s album. It seems like an interesting moment in the early ‘70s when that kind of thing could be a success.
Cooper: It’s also a time when… how do I put this? Radio had not yet been formatted into absolute submission, where they were okay with playing “I Love” and “I Care” [two songs from the album that became number ones]. They weren’t demanding a certain kind of song or a certain kind of subject matter. It was a more open time. A lot of the ideas on this album in particular are, gosh, I guess today they’d be considered green, liberal, left-leaning ideas. You know, take care of the ecology, because we want to be able to hear birds sing….
How did you choose the performers and divvy up the songs on I Love?
Brace: Because of the nature of this project…just about any big-time country star would’ve wanted to be on this record. It would’ve been easy to pepper this with absolute country superstars, just because Tom T.’s such a beloved figure. But I think we wanted to make sure everybody who was involved loved this record already, that it was already part of their musical DNA, and that they loved the songs and Tom T. as much as we did. I think that we succeeded in that.
The production decisions were pretty easy. It was just get together these amazing musicians and singers and then turn on the microphones. They’re all such sympathetic players and listeners and they all knew the songs. Each of those musicians at one point or another said how important it was to know the lyrics.
It’s a meeting of worlds and crossing of generations.
Cooper: That was very deliberate.
Brace: We bring a little of the East Nashville vibe to it for sure with people like Mark Horn and Jen Gunderman and Jon Byrd and Elizabeth Cook and Tim Carroll and us.
Cooper: Well, those are the people that take Tom T.’s lessons to heart.
Brace: When people complain about modern country music, what you could really say is what’s wrong with country music is that these days on the radio there’s not enough Tom T. Hall.
Cooper: Nothing’s wrong with modern country music if we choose to call what Elizabeth Cook and Tim Carroll are doing country music—which it is. It just gets lumped into some other kind of label because of…the whims of corporate radio. These are people whose music would be different had Tom T. Hall’s songs not been around to provide lesson and inspiration.