The article originally appeared in the January/February 2008 issue.
Tom T. Hall has been an author, a garment factory worker, a cemetery groundskeeper, a military man and a disc jockey. He’s also been a standup bass player, a sit-down philosopher, an inspiration to Kris Kristofferson, and a friend to one president (Jimmy Carter) and one should-have-been president (Johnny Cash).
Mostly, he’s been a writer and performer of considerable craft, inspiration and consequence. His work is shaded by a hardscrabble Kentucky upbringing and by a bedrock humanism that the people in his childhood home of Olive Hill might just have called “decency.” The characters who populate Hall’s songs muse on politics, race, religion, war and other impolite topics. The songs themselves are useful as entertainment for any of us or as textbooks for people interested in learning to write big ideas with little words, to impart wisdom without preaching or to relate tales without pronouncement. In “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine,” “I Love,” “Ravishing Ruby,” “The Year that Clayton Delaney Died,” “Homecoming” and other hits, listeners find laughter and pain, heartache and families, alcohol and onions and waitresses, but they won’t find verdicts.
Hall moved to Nashville on the first day of 1964, and he kicked around for awhile, writing songs that fulfilled his publishing quota, but didn’t necessarily distinguish him as anything other than one in a crop of talented writers.
“When I finally admitted that it’s true, that you write well about what you know about, that’s when I kind of got off the streets,” he said, sitting in his recording studio at Fox Hollow, the middle Tennessee home he shares with wife and songwriting partner Dixie. For most of his career as a songwriter and country artist, Hall wrote alone. But in the midst of what he steadfastly claims is his “retirement,” he began co-writing with Dixie, and he recently released a much-praised album of bluegrass songs called Tom T. Hall Sings Miss Dixie and Tom T.
As a child, Hall didn’t have a guitar. He’d go to a neighbor kid’s house and strum for hours, though, and upon acquiring a guitar of his own he carried it with him the way some men carry pocket watches.
“I was kind of crazy about it,” he said. “It meant a lot more to me than it did anybody else. Of course, looking back, people around me didn’t get it at all. ‘So you can play three chords on a guitar? Who gives a shit?’ But I thought, ‘This whole thing is magic.’ You could play a song and people would cry, or they’d laugh. If they were drunk, they’d get up and start dancing. Everybody else there saw it as incidental, but I saw what a powerful force it was. I thought, ‘This music will do things to people.’ They saw it as a benign force, but there I was, at liberty to wield it willy nilly.”
Tom T. Hall: I think I should be asking you about all this. You ask questions of people all the time. What do songwriters say about songwriting? Are there people who labor over songs, and write on them forever, like they’re books or short stories?
American Songwriter: Sure, that’s the way lots of people do it.
I never labored. I never took any notes, never carried a notepad. I know Hank Williams did.
Did the melodies come as fast as the lyrics?
If I got an idea for a song, the melody came with it. It’s like buying a pair of boots, and you get the box. Why labor over it? Of course, once I was in St. Louis, doing a show, and David Allen Coe, who I’d never met, came up to me. He said “I really like them songs you got out there, boy. I like that melody, too.” I got to thinking, “Well, yeah, I wasn’t big on melodies.”
Did you ever try to just add some more chords?
I knew a lot of chords, but they weren’t the chords that came with the melody that came with the idea I had for the song. Melodies are simple things. If you see a train wreck, there’s a melody. If you see a little daisy blowing in the breeze, there’s a melody. And all the rest of them are somewhere in between.
When was the first time you wrote something that still holds up for you as something distinctive and good?
I got to Nashville and I was just writing what I call “little darlin’ songs.” The publisher demanded it. They wanted five or six a week. One day I ran into Stonewall Jackson, and he said “I’m doing a prison album. Write me a prison song.” I said “OK.” I drove around the corner to our house. I told Miss Dixie [wife and songwriting partner], “Stonewall Jackson wants a prison song. I’ve never been in prison.” She said, “You’ve been in jail. Write about that.” So I wrote “A Week in a Country Jail.” That was the first real Tom T. Hall song. Bang, it went to No. 1. So I started writing about places I’d been, people I’d met. I’d bumped into all these people, like Clayton Delaney and the people that I used for “Harper Valley P.T.A.” It was like a little goldmine. I was on the street one day and somebody sang a song and someone else said, “That sounds like a Tom T. Hall song.” I thought, “Hey, that’s a good thing. Now there’s such a thing as a Tom T. Hall song. Maybe I’ve kind of arrived.”
You know, just after I finished “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” I sang it for my publisher. He was as great guy, but I was in competition with all these people writing those “little darlin’ songs.” He said, “If you’re gonna stay in this town, you better start writing some real songs.” He wasn’t trying to be a bad guy. He was just telling me “There’s no market for this stuff.”
Because there was no such thing as a Tom T. Hall song before you started writing them, there obviously was no recognizable market for that kind of song. What made you think writing these things was a viable option?
I just wasn’t going to do anything outside of my general disposition to make it in the business. I wasn’t going to kiss anybody’s ass, and I wasn’t going to be somebody I wasn’t. I wasn’t going to suck up to people, be at the right place at the right time, wearing the right clothes, drinking the right drink. I thought writing and politics were totally opposite poles and I had to live one place or the other. I had to either be a poet or a politician, and I decided to be a poet. I got away with it, somehow or another.
You’re a fairly private person. Was it difficult for you write autobiographically and let people in on your life?
A little bit. Some of those early songs like “The Year that Clayton Delaney Died” and “Homecoming” were written in a kind of zone. It was hard to get in there, and it was kind of a weird feeling coming out of that kind of trance.
Did it serve as a kind of therapy for you?
Yeah, it was therapy. After I’d written the song, I was satisfied that I’d rounded up the emotions involved with that thing, so I could just have it in this one little page. I could just put it in a corner and go on to something else. But when I was writing those songs, I would put myself back in that place. In my mind, I was just a little barefoot kid back in Kentucky. I went back and wrote what I saw while I was there.
How did you find subjects for songs when you weren’t writing about your own past?
I’d drive to some road junction, wet my finger and hold it out the window and, whichever way the wind was blowing, I’d go that way. It seemed like kind of a poetic thing to do. I’d go for a couple of weeks. I’d take the blue highways. I’d stop in a beer joint or a pool hall or a little café, and I could sit somewhere and listen to people talk. I got the whole In Search of a Song album that way, you know? But I got to where I couldn’t do that, ‘cause they ended up knowing who I was. One day I checked in a motel and someone said, “My god, Tom T. Hall, what are you doing here?” I said, “Looking for songs,” which sounded like an innocent statement. I got up the next morning and there were 25 people in the lobby, holding tapes for me.
In “The Little Lady Preacher,” you wrote, “Lord, if I judge ‘em, let me give ‘em lots of room,” and it seems that you hold to that notion as a writer. It’s rare that you pass judgment on your song subjects.
It just wasn’t my nature. I tried to just tell what happened, and tried not to tell why. I didn’t want to write a bunch of big allegories. I thought it was presumptuous to tell people that somehow I had some insight into right and wrong. I had a religion, I guess, to just write down what happened. There’s a little bit of genius in that. If you can write what happens without covering it up with your opinions and judgments, that’ good. I had a law about that. Like in “Homecoming,” you drive in and the first thing you see is the cattle, and they’re fat and slick. You stop by the service station and see Fred. You don’t have to make it up.
In that song, though, I say something about not being there “When Mama passed away.” Well, of course I actually was there when Mama passed away. I was a kid when my mother died. But you don’t have to leave the story. You just move next door. I never got out of the geography. I stayed right there. That’s where the mother line came in. When I wrote “Clayton Delaney,” I couldn’t use his real name. Clayton was the road he lived on. Delaney was on a mailbox right by the road. Rather than go off and make up the name, I didn’t violate the rule. I named him after the road and the mailbox, to keep him there. If I’d violated my own thing and taken something out of that scene, it would have ruined the song in my mind.
You used to teach a songwriting course, but…
The funny thing is that I’m not sure that songwriting can be taught. You can teach typing and grammar and some craft. But I’m not sure you can teach writing, as I understand it. Mine is very primitive and instinctive. Otherwise, I couldn’t have written a song when I was nine years old. There wasn’t anybody within 100 miles of me who had ever written a song, so I didn’t even know songs could be written. I’d just heard some, and thought, “Oh, they go like this.”
What does it feel like when you finish a song and know that it’s a good one?
I heard a good story one day, talking to Jerry Chesnut. He said, “I wrote a song yesterday that was so good. I was sitting at the kitchen table and finished it and then I went out in the back yard and threw up.” I said, “I know that feeling.” He said the song he wrote was called “A Good Year for the Roses.” If I’d have written that, I’d have gone out in the back yard and thrown up too. What a sad, great song. I wonder if they throw up much on Music Row these days. Probably the only people throwing up are the publishers who are putting out these big advances. No, that’s not true. I shouldn’t judge these people.