Tom T. Hall, 1936-2021

The legendary country music singer-songwriter known as "The Storyteller" is gone at 85.

Variety (“Tom T. Hall, Country Hall of Famer Known for ‘I Love’ and ‘Harper Valley PTA,’ Dies at 85“):

Tom T. Hall, the singer-songwriter who brought new levels of pungent wit and narrative sensitivity to country music as one of the genre’s leading figures in the 1970s, died Friday at age 85.

The long-retired Hall died at his home in Franklin, Tenn., his son Dean Hall told the Tennessean.

Hall had decades ago been bestowed with the nickname of “The Storyteller” — which, as a singular honorific in a genre as historically rich with story-songs as country, was saying something.

As a songwriter, Hall was known for hits for others, like “Harper Valley PTA,” recorded by Jeannie C. Riley in 1968, as well as his own unusually literary No. 1 country singles of the ’70s like “The Year Clayton Delaney Died” and “(Old Dogs, Children and) Watermelon Wine.” Not that all of his songs had to be that eloquent to get across; he’s also famous for the prosaically titled “I Like Beer,” a top 10 hit in 1975.

Among his best known songs are “I Love,” which spent two weeks at the top of the country chart in 1974 and crossed over to the top 40, peaking there at No. 12, and the adult contemporary format, where it reached No. 2. As recently as 2003, “I Love” was used in a popular Coors commercial.

Among some modern fans, he might be best recognized for the oft-covered “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” which has become an Americana standard.

A Grand Ole Opry member since 1971, Hall was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008. He became a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019.

Hall had the unique gift of being a deeply idiosyncratic songwriter whose tunes were nonetheless irresistible to others. His songs were recorded by Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Miranda Lambert, Alan Jackson, George Jones, Waylon Jennings and Bobby Bare, among many others.

Although he was known for chronicling unusual characters and small-town sentiments, Hall also was not afraid to take on topical subject matter in somewhat acerbic form, as with 1973’s “Watergate Blues” and 1972’s “The Monkey That Became President.”

“Damn,” wrote Patterson Hood of the band Drive-By Truckers, in a tweet. “The greatest storyteller songwriter of all time. A writer’s writer. There’s at least a dozen categories of song that he wrote arguably the best ever example of.”

[…]

Said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, “Tom T. Hall’s masterworks vary in plot, tone and tempo, but they are bound by his ceaseless and unyielding empathy for the triumphs and losses of others. He wrote without judgment or anger, offering a rhyming journalism of the heart that sets his compositions apart from any other writer. His songs meant the world to Bobby Bare, Johnny Cash, George Jones and other greats, and those songs will continue to speak to generations. He was a storyteller, a philosopher, a whiskey maker, a novelist, a poet, a painter, a benefactor, a letter writer, a gift giver, a gentleman farmer and many more things. My bet is that we won’t see the likes of him again, but if we do I’ll be first in line for tickets to the show.”

[…]

It was “Harper Valley PTA,” a narrative song about hypocrisy in a small town, that put him on the map as a tunesmith. Riley’s 1968 version version won a CMA Award for single of the year and sold 6 million copies.

Of the classic song, Hall told CMT.com in a 2005 interview, “It’s a true story… I was only 8, 9 or 10 years old at the time…The lady was a really free spirit, modern way beyond the times in my hometown. They got really huffy about her lifestyle. She didn’t go to school, but they could get to her through her daughter. She took umbrage at that and went down and made a speech to them. I mean, here’s this ordinary woman taking on the aristocracy of Olive Hill, Ky., population 1,300. When I was a kid, you just didn’t take on the aristocracy. It was unheard of…. I certainly didn’t use her real name. Out of 1,300 people, you could pick her out real quick. So a lot of things I wrote biographically. I changed the names of people.”

Hall had his first minor hits in 1967 but landed the first of his six No. 1s on the country chart with 1969’s “A Week in a Country Jail.” The last of his chart-toppers was “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet)” in 1975, although his songs continued to chart into the mid-’80s.

Telling CMT.com about “I Love,” Hall said, “Irony of ironies, it’s been my biggest moneymaking song… Little Debbie Cakes bought it for a commercial, Ford Trucks used it for a commercial and then Coors Beer used it for a theme song the last couple of years. It’s been recorded by a lot of orchestras. You hear it on the elevators, which is amazing. It’s just three chords, and it’s only two minutes long. For some reason, I walked into a great melody.”

That was not his favorite among his work, by any means. “I did one great album. My best album is called ‘In Search Of A Song,'” he said in a 1998 interview. “I think that was my best shot right there. My finest hour as they say. I could listen to the whole thing all the way through and there’s nothing really crammed into it or that is made up.” But he didn’t knock the simpler hits, like “I Love” or “I Like Beer,” explaining, “You look at the most successful songs that I’ve written and they’re my favorites, because I was writing to communicate.”

WaPo (“Country singer Tom T. Hall dies; wrote ‘Harper Valley PTA‘”):

Tom T. Hall, the singer-songwriter who composed “Harper Valley P.T.A.” and sang about life’s simple joys as country music’s consummate blue collar bard, has died. He was 85.

[…]

Along with such contemporaries as Kris Kristofferson, John Hartford and Mickey Newbury, Hall helped usher in a literary era of country music in the early ’70s, with songs that were political, like “Watergate Blues” and “The Monkey That Became President,” deeply personal like “The Year Clayton Delaney Died,” and philosophical like “(Old Dogs, Children and) Watermelon Wine.”

“In all my writing, I’ve never made judgments,” he said in 1986. “I think that’s my secret. I’m a witness. I just watch everything and don’t decide if it’s good or bad.”

[…]

Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell performed Hall’s song “Mama Bake A Pie (Daddy Kill A Chicken)” when Hall was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019.

“The simplest words that told the most complicated stories. Felt like Tom T. just caught the songs as they floated by, but I know he carved them out of rock,” Isbell tweeted on Friday.

[…]

His breakthrough was writing “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” a 1968 international hit about small-town hypocrisy recorded by Jeannie C. Riley. The song about a mother telling a group of busybodies to mind their own business was witty and feisty and became a No. 1 country and pop hit. It sold millions of copies and Riley won a Grammy for best female country vocal performance and an award for single of the year from the Country Music Association. The story was so popular it even spawned a movie of the same name and a television series.

“Suddenly, it was the talk of the country,” Hall told The Associated Press in 1986. “It became a catch phrase. You’d flip the radio dial and hear it four or five times in 10 minutes. It was the most awesome time of my life; I caused all this stir.”

Rolling Stone (“Tom T. Hall, Country Music’s ‘Storyteller,’ Dead at 85“):

Tom T. Hall, the Country Music Hall of Fame member known as “The Storyteller” for his detailed narrative songs like “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” “I Love,” and “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” died Friday at his home in Franklin, Tennessee. He was 85. Hall’s son Dean confirmed his father’s death.

[…]

“Tom T. Hall’s masterworks vary in plot, tone and tempo, but they are bound by his ceaseless and unyielding empathy for the triumphs and losses of others,” said Kyle Young, CEO, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “He wrote without judgment or anger, offering a rhyming journalism of the heart that sets his compositions apart from any other writer.”

The Nashville Tennessean (“Tom T. Hall, country music’s ‘Storyteller,’ dead at 85“):

Tom T. Hall, a Country Music Hall of Fame artist who wrote unassuming songs with distinct depth, died Friday at age 85.

[…]

He joined Kris Kristofferson and Billy Joe Shaver in bringing a class of storytelling to country music unlike those before them. Hall timelessly and empathetically chronicled human spirit — from barstool stories to cemetery caretakers — with tales that would influence generations of wordsmiths to follow.

[…]

His singing and songwriting career reached commercial heights in the 1970s, as Hall eventually topped country airplay charts a dozen times and penned more than two dozen songs that reached the top 10.

He used simple words to weave smart stories that approached subjects without bias. Hall built musical statues of local pickers (“The Year That Clayton Delaney Died”) and observed small-town grief with a light touch (“Ballad of Forty Dollars”).

Hall’s songs were a big part of my youth, as my parents were big country music fans. I remember the “Harper Valley PTA” craze and watched the movie (starring Barbara Eden) but had no idea that Tom T. Hall wrote it until much later. I mostly remember him for the novelty songs, with this one particularly memorable given the number of times we were stationed in Germany:

His last major hit is one that has been popping up on my YouTube playlists recently. It’s a good one:

While Bobby Bare made it famous, Deryl Dodd’s version of “How I Got To Memphis” from a few years back is my favorite:

But I had no idea that it was a Tom T. Hall song until the last episode of “The Newsroom.”

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Obituaries, Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. steve says:

    Awesome writer/singer. The stories really were well conveyed and besides strong lyrics the music side was good, but it was nice to have someone who could also write songs that were just fun. Even my acid head, hard rock friend from the 70s would interrupt his Zeppelin, AC/DC, etc playlist to squeeze in I Like Beer.

    Steve

    1
  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    Another legend gone. RIP

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    A life well lived. RIP.

  4. DrDaveT says:

    Sometime around 1976 one of my Boy Scout friends forced me to sit and listen to a Tom T. Hall album. I was someone who thought “country music” was an oxymoron, but I really enjoyed most of the songs. A broadening experience.

    Much later, it occurred to me how unlikely it is for great songwriting talent and great performance talent to show up in the same person. We take the category “singer/songwriter” for granted, but the skill sets are totally different. The cases where both skills are world class — Paul Simon, James Taylor, Carole King, Prince, Lennon and McCartney, John Denver, etc. — spoil us. We should also remember to honor the pretty decent performers who gave us wonderful songs that others could shine with. Tom T. Hall was one of those.