Skip’s note: This is part two of a two-part “drinks with” interview with Tom T. Hall and his wife & songwriting partner Miss Dixie. Part one is located here. For anyone who doesn’t know Tom T. Hall, I urge you to drop what you are doing, and go listen to the song “Homecoming.” If you’re looking for impressive numbers, Tom T. Hall has had 33 top 20 hits in Nashville and had his songs sung by (his friends) Johnny Cash, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare et al. Most recently his song “Itty Bitty” was a number 1 hit for Alan Jackson.
Miss Dixie, born Iris Lawrence, is from Warwickshire, England. She lived with Mother Maybelle Carter in the 1960s and wrote a song called “Truck-Driving Son of a Gun” in 1965 which was a hit for a singer named Dave Dudley. At a BMI awards dinner following the success of that song, she met Tom T. Hall. The Hall’s put an album out recently, Tom T. Hall Sings Miss Dixie & Tom T. on their own Blue Circle label.
This past December, my wife Timshel and I sat down at Fox Hollow, their home in Franklin, Tennessee and talked about songwriting, filmmaking, and other things they do in their “retirement.”
I think I read somewhere that you described certain songs being written while you were “in a zone.” I think you might have been talking about the song “Homecoming” at the time.
Tom T: That’s true. Homecoming was one of those. Sometimes I get into this zone – and I don’t know how I got there and I might not have the best time while I’m there, but a song comes out of it. I wish I knew more about my own songwriting than I do. I wish it were a craft — but of course it’s not. And I’m stuck with that, you know? I wish I had some management of it – if I could get a handle on it -– but it doesn’t have a handle. So I have no management over it. But sometimes you can get there and go in that zone and say exactly what – what happened. I have written songs that I didn’t understand until somebody explained them to me. I am riding along one night and there’s a preacher on the radio. It’s a long drive and it’s in the middle of the night, and it’s the only big signal I could get on my a.m. radio. And I’m listening and it finally dawns on me, he’s preaching about [the song] Homecoming, and what a son-of-a-bitch I am. [imitates preacher’s voice] “This is the kind of music they are putting out these days – This guy has been in jail. He didn’t come to his mama’s funeral, he hasn’t seen his daddy in 15 years. He’s got a prostitute in the car wearing a miniskirt, and she’s been drunk….” And I’m thinking [exhales, his eyes get big] – that wasn’t what I had in mind when I wrote that song. [laughs]
That is unbelievable. When was this?
Tom T: The 60’s. But this guy did 25 minutes on Homecoming. He never played it. What do you think of that? He heard that song on the radio someplace and man he decided to do a sermon. His name was Garner Ted Armstrong, and [the show] was called “The World Tomorrow.” He had a phenomenal talent – I’ve never heard anybody do it quite that well, maybe in Washington or someplace – but this guy could talk for an hour and not say anything. It was all biblical and biblical history and everything, and every once in a while he would take off on some current topic like my song Homecoming [laughs]. I was big in L.A. at the time – you know everything starts in Los Angeles – So the Rolling Stones discovered me first, and then the people in LA and then everything kind of started to gravitate back to Nashville where I was living [laughs]. I wasn’t a celebrity until the Rolling Stones and some other people in LA said I was. I became a celebrity here because they liked me in L.A. Especially the preachers were listening to the radio [out there] – I was astounded. I was absolutely nobody, I am riding along in this 15 year old used car, I’m not even sure where I was going – and this guy is preaching about Homecoming, and I though “Holy cow – I’ve started something here. I’ve got this guy all riled up.” Then all of the sudden – of course it;s biographical – me in the song – I didn’t realize what a rotten son-of-a-bitch I am! [laughs] I thought I was a pretty good guy.
That is out of this world.
Tom T: Isn’t that amazing? Riding along and some guy preaching about you.
When I first heard “Margie’s at the Lincoln Park Inn,” I thought “This guy has read Shakespeare” I have never heard anyone lay a song out quite so plainly without inferring some type of judgment, or indulging some sentimental angle. At the time I had a songwriter buddy of mine who was trying to get his friend off drugs — to go into rehab – and the friend had been saying, “No, I need one more weekend” so the guy said I’m washing my hands of him. I thought of that song though. I wanted to know if it was an exercise for you to write from such a disinterested or neutral place?
Tom T: “Harper Valley PTA” and “Margie’s at the Lincoln Park Inn” are the same song. It’s about who we think we are or who we want the world to think we are and then we who are. A song about Tiger Woods right now would be the same song. It’s the illusion we create and society buys into it and we let yourself off, let the other guy off. But my publisher, Jimmy Key, was in the process of the divorce and somehow I got in it. Now I never get in arguments, Miss Dixie knows, it’s just my nature to never take sides. I happened to be in the house when they were going through this divorce and I knew exactly where his girlfriend was living. The thing was she was running around too and since I knew both of them, I knew exactly who she was running around with too.
Dixie: Wasn’t you, was it? All sort of red flags go. [laughs] You know Bobby Bare sings this song and he blames Tom T. [laughs]
Tom T: Anyways, “Harper Valley PTA” and “Margie” are the same song. It’s about hypocrisy. My father was a Baptist preacher and people would get up and testify. I don’t know if they do that anymore or not. They’d say, I’m saved, sanctified and satisfied, living above sin. Couldn’t sin if I wanted to” and then they’d sit back down. And everybody buys into that. The town fathers were all drunks and running around but that was kind of a social phenomenon. I wrote “Harper Valley PTA” and it went #1 on every chart in America. It became a catch phrase.
Dixie: But do you remember what Jimmy Key said to you at the time?
Tom T: I got into town and couldn’t write Little Darling songs. Nothing wrong with them, they sell in the millions but I played “Harper Valley PTA” for him and he said, “Boy, get off that stuff and write some songs if you want to get cut around here.” And I thought boy I guess so. But anyways I couldn’t write the “Darling, you left alone and blue” or “I’m drunk in this bar and crying” I just didn’t get it. And so I started writing these story songs. I had a habit of getting a list of books of Charles Dickens or Hemingway and I’d read all the books they’d written in the order they’d written them. And then I’d get their autobiography or biography, whatever I could get. So now when they were writing a book, I knew what they were going through when they wrote the book. So I’d put that book aside and choose another writer. I learned how to write through osmosis. I learned by reading. The way I learned to write songs really was that I was a radio copywriter when I came out of the army. I could write radio copy. Bargains galore all over the store. Balloons for the kiddies. And the salesman sold the airtime would throw this stuff on my desk and I had to take it and make something coherent out these scribbled notes or something. So after four or five years writing thousands of pieces of radio copy a week and coming up with new ideas for all of them, it really honed my perception of brevity.
And then I tell this story. Shakespeare said brevity is the art of wit. I validated that somewhat because I wrote “I Love” the baby duck song some people call it, I wrote it in five minutes, recorded it in one take, it was two minutes long and it sold a million records. So where’s all the sweat blood and tears right? I think the whole process…I wrote it in five, I recorded in 15 because the musicians just ran it down. The whole process probably took 20 minutes.
That’s not a bad hourly rate.
Tom T: Yeah, sold a million records. So now you take it from there to any extent, but at least looking at the song you know it’s possible to start here.
When you first started to think “I want to write,” when you were a kid, if it happened when you were a kid, did you see a particular situation or hear a piece of music, or watch a movie, or see some guy on the street?
Tom T: I heard a story somewhere John Hartford wrote “Gentle On My Mind” after seeing Dr. Zhivago. And I saw that movie and I sure didn’t see “Gentle On My Mind” in there. Take away whatever you’re able to take away. When I was nine years old I had a suspicion that there’s something out there like reincarnation or some related something. My favorite philosopher is Spinoza. His basic philosophy is – something makes the world go round. You don’t have to give it a name. If you believe in God, you’ve got to believe in that. If you don’t believe in God, you have to believe in that because you’re witness to it. Something said “You know, human beings have these delicate eyes and when dust begins to fall, they need some eyebrows and eyelashes to keep the dust out. We don’t know what that is. Something somewhere triggered that idea. You can’t have an idea without a source. Can’t have a source without a name.
But I was nine years old and everybody was picking and singing around the house. Now I had no concept what a song was. I thought there was a factory somewhere and every six months they’d send you a new Lefty Frizzell record. I had no concept that songs were written. But I was visiting a neighbor’s house, a young married couple, this young man had just gotten out of the Navy and married his childhood sweetheart. They were having an argument and I had never seen [a husband and wife] having an argument. Now my father was a Baptist preacher so if he and my mother had them, I wasn’t privy to them. So now they were having an argument and I’d heard a lot of Hank Williams songs, you know what I mean. She said, “I am going home, going back to my mother!” and he said, “Haven’t I been good to you?” and I thought, hey that sounds like a country western song. So I went home and got my guitar and wrote this song out in the woodshed. It’s got three verses and a chorus and a meter and rhyme. So I’m sitting on the porch and everybody’s picking and singing and Clayton Delaney was there. So I got a hold of the guitar and sang “Haven’t I been good to?” and they go, “Boy that sure is a good song. Who wrote that?” And I’m thinking, Oh my goodness, I’m in some sort of trap here. Because this isn’t a real song. So I say, Oh I just heard it on the radio somewhere.” But how’d you know all the words to it that fast? I heard it a couple times! I’m sitting there thinking what can I do with this thing, to whom can I confess? I can’t go to my father and say, “I broke some sort of law or something” because I wrote this thing and people think it’s a song. And I don’t want them to know it’s not a real song because then they’ll forget about it and they won’t ask me to sign it anymore. You know, I’ve got a counterfeit 100 dollar bill. I want to spend it but I’m afraid to. Then I don’t know how it all went, but later I found out people did write songs. But I was nine years old.
I did a little show back at my high school and they built a new school and they turned the old school into a community center so they were having an open house so I was invited to sing a few songs. So I’m on stage and I say “I’m really glad to back here” and ironically my dressing room is the same room I spent two years in for the second grade. Because I said I used to sit there and look out the window and I could see the little creek where I used to fish. I could see that out the window and that’s where I really wanted to be. That’s why I failed the second grade. You don’t know the hours I sat there wishing this place would burn down. But I said I want two nine year old boys up on stage with me, we’re gonna give them free pictures and CDs so come on up. So three or four did and stood on stage and I wanted to look at them and see who I was when I wrote the first. I looked around and thought I must’ve been some sort of child prodigy because these kids could not write a song with a melody, three verses and a chorus.
You won’t get any argument from me. [To Miss Dixie] When was the time you thought “I want to write songs”?
Dixie: I grew up in England and I was a movie fan. Roy Rogers. Gene Autrey and so forth. Loved the music. I wrote a poem and entered it in a contest on Children’s Hour on the BBC out of London and I won first prize and was able to go to London and do it on the air.
Hall: But you were 10 years old though [laughs]
Dixie: Nine and half! It was around the same age. But anyway that’s how I guess that started.
Tom T: You know somebody asked Chopin, some young student was taking some tutoring, “I understand you wrote your first symphony when you were six years old.” Chopin said, “that’s true” “How did you do that” Chopin said, “Well, in the first place I didn’t have to ask anyone how to do it.” [pauses] So if you’re planning on doing this, you’re years behind.