If Tom T. Hall had never had a hit record for himself, he would be still an important figure in the history of country music. “Harper Valley PTA” alone, would have been enough to ensure him at least a footnote in the history of the genre, but long before that song became a world-wide hit, Tom T. Hall was influencing the direction of country music.
I first became aware of Tom T. Hall through my father’s collection of Dave Dudley and Jimmie C. Newman albums. All of Dave Dudley’s Mercury albums except Travelin’ With Dave Dudley (a cover album of older country songs) contain at least one song written or co-written by Tom T. Hall and you could put together a “best of ” collection for Dave Dudley comprised of nothing but songs written or co-written by Tom T. Hall. As much as any writer, the songs of Tom T. Hall helped define the sub-genre of truck driving music – and he’s not even particularly known for it!
Thomas Hall was born May 25, 1936, in Olive Hill, Kentucky (The “T “ was added later in life to give his name a more distinctive ring). Solid biographical information on Hall is scarce as he has kept his personal life as private as possible. It is known that as a teenager, Hall organized a band called the Kentucky Travelers that performed before movies for a traveling theater. In 1957 Hall entered the Army for a four-year hitch. He was stationed in Germany at the same time as Elvis Presley, and remembers that Elvis would buy hamburgers for the entire platoon on the day before payday. While in Germany he performed on Armed Forces Radio Network. His army experiences served as the inspiration of several of his later songs. After leaving the army in 1961, Hall served as an announcer or disc jockey for several radio stations in Kentucky and West Virginia, as well as performing live and writing songs.
A friend of Hall’s took some of Tom’s songs to Nashville with him, where they came to the attention of Jimmy Keys, the head of Newkeys Music, a company co-owned with Jimmy “C” Newman and Dave Dudley. Keys saw something there as he forwarded “D.J. For A Day” to Jimmy “C” Newman and offered Hall a draw against royalties to move to Nashville and become a staff writer. Newman’s recording of “D.J. For A Day” reached #9 in early 1964, becoming Newman’s first top ten recording in nearly four years. Newman was to record many more of Tom’s songs.
To augment his songwriting income, Hall went on the road with Dave Dudley. The two of them became good friends and before long, Hall was co-writing with Dudley and also giving Dudley first crack at his new solo compositions. Among the many hits Dave Dudley had with Tom T compositions were “Mad” (#6), “What We’re Fighting For” (#4), “There Ain’t No Easy Runs” (#10) and Dave’s sole #1 record “The Pool Shark”.
In 1965 Hall caught two big breaks as a songwriter when Johnny Wright took “Hello Vietnam” to #1, the first Tom Hall composition to reach #1. At approximately the same time, the Statler Brothers recorded “Billy Christian”, a song which few remember but which sold millions of copies. “Billy Christian” was a fine song but it was the B-side of the record; however, the A-side, “Flowers On The Wall” kick-started the Statler Brothers recording career.
In 1967, after several years of Hall supplying songs for other artists, Jimmy Keys thought it was time for Tom Hall to start recording his own songs. Tom had served as his own demo singer and Keys approached Mercury producer Jerry Kennedy with the idea of signing Hall to Mercury Records. Feeling that “Tom Hall” lacked oomph as a stage name, Keys relabeled Tom as “Tom T. Hall”
The first few Tom T. Hall recordings were modest hits but before Tom T could score a big hit on his own, a song that Tom T. had written for Margie Singleton, the ex-wife of Shelby Singleton (Jerry Kennedy’s boss at Mercury), made a huge splash on the pop and country throughout the English speaking world. The song lay idle for a few years before Shelby Singleton, by then the owner of Plantation Records, had Jeannie C. Riley record “Harper Valley PTA”. Jerry Kennedy played dobro on the record, which would sell over six million copies, and won both a Grammy Award and CMA award for the singer.
Hot on the heels of “Harper Valley PTA, Tom T would have his first top ten record as a recording artist when “Ballad of Forty Dollars” reached #4 in early 1969. This would kick off a solid string of top twenty hits that would run through 1980.
The first #1 arrived in early 1970 when “A Week In A Country Jail”. Smartly utilizing a “talking bluesman” style of recording, Kennedy was able to find a style that would maximize the effectiveness of Tom T’s somewhat limited voice. Tom’s biggest chart hit (and probably best remembered recording) came in mid-1971 when “The Year Clayton Delaney Died” reached #1 for two weeks. More #1 records would follow including “(Old Dogs and Children And) Watermelon Wine”, “Ravishing Ruby” (#1 Record World), “I Love”, “That Song Is Driving Me Crazy” (#1 Record World), “Country Is” , “I Care”, “I Like Beer” (#1 Cashbox) and his final #1 in 1976 “Faster Horses”.
During his years on Mercury Tom T. Hall’s albums were more than merely collections of songs, they were slices of life set to music, telling the stories of everyday people doing the various things that people do. There were songs about winners, losers, and eccentrics, about situations mundane, heroic, ridiculous and implausible. People who bought the albums wore them out from frequent playing and absorbed the lyrics of the songs and the stories as if by osmosis.
Tom T. Hall, being from rural Kentucky, had grown up with and loved bluegrass music. Some of his album tracks had a bluegrass feel to them, and in 1976 Tom T. came out of the bluegrass closet and released The Magnificent Music Machine, a collection of some originals cast as bluegrass, some classic bluegrass standards, and one rock song, “Fox On The Run” which had been a late 60s pop hit in England for Manfred Mann.
By the end of 1977, Hall’s chart placements had begun to slip and Hall moved over to RCA where Jerry Kennedy’s former assistant producer Roy Dea was now working. The RCA years saw more use of material written by others and fewer top ten hits as Hall’s songwriting pen began to run dry. The two biggest RCA hits were “What Have You Got To Lose” and “The Old Side of Town” both of which peaked at #9. While at RCA, Hall’s only live album, In Concert, was recorded; however, RCA did not release the album until 1983, after Hall left the label.
Tom T. Hall combined with Earl Scruggs to release the 1982 Columbia album The Storyteller and The Banjo Man. Although the album was highly acclaimed, the two singles released only charted in the mid-70s, although one of the songs, “Song Of The South” would be a #1 record for Alabama six years later.
Tom T. Hall returned to Mercury in 1983. One 1984 single “P.S. I Love You” reached the top ten (it was a cover of a 1934 hit for Rudy Valley) but none of his other singles even cracked the top forty. At the end of 1986 Tom T. retired from recording and performed very little (mostly with bluegrass groups), instead writing some books and enjoying married life with his wife Dixie.
In April 1996 Tom T recorded his first album in a decade, Songs From Sopchoppy. While the album received great reviews, it failed to chart and the songs received little airplay. In October 1996, Alan Jackson covered a song from the album, “Little Bitty”, and drove it to the number one position. This prompted a bit of a Tom T Hall renaissance. Tom T would issue a bluegrass album the next year, Home Grown, which has been a popular favorite, then nothing more until 2008 when Tom T Hall Sings Tom T and Miss Dixie was issued, a collection of bluegrass songs written by Tom T and his wife Dixie.
Tom T Hall still writes songs and occasionally performs, almost always in a bluegrass setting. He has made the occasional guest appearance on the albums of others. Many of his songs have found great favor with bluegrass performers. Bluegrass artist Charlie Sizemore recorded an entire album of Tom T Hall songs titled The Story Is … The Songs of Tom T. Hall. The album features a recitation by Hall, and features mostly back catalog songs re-cast as bluegrass.
Tom T Hall was inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008, an honor long overdue. In his career he charted fifty-four songs, ten reaching #1 on one or more of the Billboard, Cashbox or Record World charts. Along the way he won numerous BMI songwriting awards, hosted a syndicated television, made numerous appearances on network television shows and made millions of people reflect and smile as a result of his keen eye for detail and ability to fit it into songs that told many small truths about you and your friends and your neighbors.
There are various hit collections available, in various formats for the casual fan, but the best way to listen to Tom T. Hall is to buy the albums and listen to them in the sequence they originally were released, trust me –if you do this, you cannot remain a casual fan for you too will be hooked.
Mercury released fifteen Tom T. Hall albums (plus three hit collections) during his first run on Mercury from 1967-1977 (albums issued carry dates from 1969-1978). While the earliest albums are the best, even the later albums will have much to recommend them. Be on the lookout for such albums as Ballad Of Forty Dollars,
I Witness Life, Homecoming, In Search Of A Song and my favorite Tom T album We All Got Together And … which features “The Monkey That Became President”, “Pamela Brown” (covered by Leo Kottke), “Me and Jesus” and “The Coot Marseilles Blues” . Songs Of Fox Hollow is a collection of songs aimed at children of all ages.
RCA released six albums on Tom T Hall, of which four were standard studio album, one was a children’s album and one was a live album. Be on the lookout for the only album released on Columbia, the Hall-Scruggs collaboration. The second Mercury stint resulted in an additional four albums were released, one of them being a children’s album.
For the first decade and a half of the digital era, very few of Tom T Hall’s recordings were available. Since Tom T Hall didn’t go for re-recording his hits for minor labels (he also wouldn’t record songs that he had written that were hits for other artists), this meant that as of 1993 only the Polygram reissue of Tom T Hall’s Greatest Hits (covering Hall’s career through early 1972) was generally available.
Eventually better collections would be issued domestically. In 1995 Polygram issued the two CD boxed set Storyteller–Poet-Philosopher, a fifty song collection that captured about half of Tom T’s singles plus some album tracks.
Meanwhile in 1992, the good folks at Bear Family Records in Germany released a pair of two-fers covering the albums Ballad Of Forty Dollars / Homecoming and 100 Children / I Witness Life.
The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has available both of the Bear collections above plus a pair of recent two-fers from Hux Records (a British label) covering We All Got Together And .. / The Storyteller and In Search Of A Song / Rhymer And Other Five And Dimers. If you purchased all four of the two-fers, you would have Tom T Hall’s first eight studio albums, arguably the best albums he ever released.
The box set Storyteller–Poet-Philosopher is long out of print, but a number of good anthologies have replaced it. There’s a lot of overlap so check song titles before buying any of them.
The compilers of Tom T. Hall – Ultimate Collection managed to uncover Tom’s demo of “Harper Valley PTA”. This collection contains twenty-four tracks, most Mercury material with a few RCA sides and the demo referenced above, which made its recorded debut on this 2001 collection.
Songs For Children gathers the songs from Tom’s 1974 children’s album Songs Of Fox Hollow, plus some additional tracks of children’s songs. Magnificent Music Machine, Tom’s initial bluegrass album from 1976 is still available, as is The Storyteller and The Banjo Man , Tom’s outing with Earl Scruggs.
A few of Tom’s RCA recordings show up on the various anthologies, but the only CD dedicated to those recordings is the Australian RCA Camden album Nashville Storyteller. Released in 1997, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop still has it available.
Tom’s three most recent albums can be obtained from a number of sources, including the official Tom T Hall website http://www.tomthall.net