Role Models: Peter Cooper on Tom T. Hall

Tom T. Hall, with Lonesome George. Hall’s wife, Dixie, wrote a song called “Lonesome George The Bassett,” which Hall included on his 1974 hit album, Songs Of Fox Hollow.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue. 

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Every now and again, a songwriter friend will ask me, “Why Tom T. Hall?”

And when they do, I usually start by mentioning that Tom T., Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury and John Hartford changed the very language of country music, bringing a literacy and emotional clarity that was completely different than what had come before, that appealed to good old boys and presidents, to academics and grandpas, soldiers and hippies, teachers and students.

But, man, that’s nothing. What Tom T. did was grab hold of song form, shape it to fit his peculiar sensibility and brand it so clearly that anytime one of us tries to take it for a ride we’re immediately spotted, and convicted of theft.

Country music. We build choruses around the song title, and repeat those choruses three or four times. Like writers of scripts or short stories, we never introduce elements without resolving them. We shade truths, we assign blame, and we take care to craft songs so that the listener can instantly understand what’s going on, whether they tune in at the beginning, in the middle or at the 2:43 mark of a song.

Tom T. wrote a book called The Songwriter’s Handbook. It’s filled with good advice, some of which is summarized in the above paragraph, and virtually none of which Hall ever follows.

He’s got a song called “Trip To Hyden.” It’s about a visit he made to the site of a mining disaster. It begins, “Tossed and turned the night before in some old motel/ Subconsciously recalling some old sinful thing I’d done.” It never gets back to whatever the thing was that he’d done. He never sings the words, “Trip To Hyden.” There is no chorus. Oh, and the song isn’t really about the disaster, though it does include details like, “It was just like being right inside of a shotgun/ The old man coughed and lit a cigarette that he had rolled.” The song is about what and why we value. It ends with “some lady” telling the narrator, “They worth more money now than when they’s living,” and the narrator saying, “I’ll leave it there ‘cause I suppose she told it pretty well.”

Another chorus-less song is “Turn It On, Turn It On, Turn It On.” That one’s about a man who went on a killing spree in Tom T.’s hometown of Olive Hill, Kentucky. True story. But it’s really about the roots of motivation, and Tom T. refuses to pass judgment, even on a murderer. There’s one called “Homecoming,” that never says the word “homecoming.” It’s about generational distance, progress and loss. It was a country hit in 1969. When producer Jerry Kennedy heard the demo, he just exclaimed, “My God.”

Maybe the most amazing one is “Mama Bake A Pie (Daddy Kill A Chicken).” Patterson Hood will back me up on this. He loves this song. It’s about a soldier coming home from war. Not from any particular war. Just war. The first verse comments on suffering, disability, patriotism, alcoholism and fear, and it has a joke in it: “Since I won’t be walking, I suppose I’ll save some money buying shoes.” It gets better from there. The chorus – yes, there’s actually a chorus – is, “Mama bake a pie, Daddy kill a chicken/ Your son’s coming home, 11:35 Wednesday night.” I could not possibly type out the lyrics to this song without crying a little, or without laughing aloud.

I know Tom T., his ethics and his methods. It’s not just “write what you know,” it’s “Know more than you reveal.” It’s “Get the whole story, then tell part of it.” Even when he changes the names of characters – Clayton Delaney in “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died” was really a Kentucky guitar picker named Lonnie Easterling – he bases the new names on real things: Lonnie Easterling was named after Clayton Hill, which Lonnie climbed in his youth. For Tom T., judgment is neither a temptation nor a possibility. The only time he levied it was on one called “The Man Who Hated Freckles,” which was a ballad of chuckling rage that took on bigots.

He’s called “The Storyteller,” but he’s really a story-maker, building his creations not out of thin air but out of thick conscience and unyielding respect for his subjects (freckle-hating guy excluded).

I’m not Tom T. Hall, so I can pass judgment: He’s an absolute, total badass. He’s in the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and that’s not nearly enough. We songwriters should build him a gleaming marble statue and then tear it down because it can’t come close to conveying the magnitude of the man. Or, at the very least, we should listen, deeply and often, and curse him for finding everything we seek.

Peter Cooper is a singer-songwriter, veteran music journalist, and the co-producer of Grammy-nominated Tom T. tribute, I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs Of Fox Hollow. He narrates Tom T. Hall’s audiobook memoir, The Storyteller’s Nashville, available through Blackstone Audio.


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