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Album Review: Tom T. Hall – ‘Ballad of Forty Dollars and His Other Great Songs’

ballad of forty dollarsTom T Hall had been knocking around Nashville for a few years working with Jimmy Keys, Jimmy C. Newman and Dave Dudley, when Mercury finally signed him to a recording contract in 1967. Although he had been supplying songs to artists such as Jimmy C. Newman, Dave Dudley and Johnny Wright, Tom was such a prolific songwriter that he still had a large song bag of previously unheard material from which to choose for his first album. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that Mercury had a clear idea as to how they wanted to market him at the time.

The Ballad of Forty Dollars and His Other Great Songs would not be released until May 1969; however, Mercury would start issuing singles off the album almost immediately. “I Washed My Face In The Morning Dew” made its Billboard chart debut on August 5, 1967. Tom said that he wrote the song for Flatt and Scruggs but they passed on it, so he recorded it himself. While not a giant hit (it spent ten weeks on the charts peaking at #30), it encouraged Mercury to keep moving forward. Moreover, the song was recorded as an album cut by numerous other artists, most notably Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton on their Just The Two of Us album. Porter loved the song and sang it on the Opry and kept it in his live act for the next thirty-nine years.

The first strange town I was ever in, the county was hangin’ a man
Nobody cared if he lived or died, and I just didn’t understand

(Chorus)
So I washed my face in the morning dew, bathed my soul in the sun
Washed my face in the morning dew, and kept on movin’ along

The next single “The World The Way I Want It” was probably a poor choice for the follow up as thematically, it was too similar to the first single without having the compelling storyline. That, plus the market for songs of social or spiritual conscience was limited:

I’d pay the debts of all the poor and let them start anew
I’d find each man who wants to work a decent job to do
I’d give hope to the hopeless and I’d give the sick their health
I’d give the high and mighty heart to share the nation’s wealth

The song topped out at #66 and charted for only three weeks. The production is marred by unnecessary background singers.

The next single, “Ain’t Got The Time”, fared similarly charting for only four weeks, reaching #68. I think that if it had been the immediate follow up to ‘Morning Dew’ it would have been a bigger success, as it has a very nice melody, in fact it’s one of my favorite Tom T Hall songs. At first listen one may think the song about being selfish but the larger theme is of being true to oneself.

I can tell your heart’s been broken in two you are looking for a shoulder
I’ve found out that other people’s tears just seem to make me older
I’d like to help with your broken heart really I think it’s a crime
But I ain’t got the time ain’t got the time

All that I can give you is a well wish
I hate to be that way I know that it’s selfish
But baby I’ve got a destiny to meet and I know it’s on down the line
Ain’t got the time ain’t got the time

Plantation Records released Jeannie C. Riley’s version of Hall’s composition “Harper Valley PTA” just before “Ain’t Got The Time” was released. By the time the Hall’s next single was due, “Harper Valley PTA” had become a massive international hit and radio programmers were really interested in finding out what else Hall had up his sleeve. The answer was “The Ballad of Forty Dollars”, the first of the great story songs to become radio singles.

While the song nearly has been forgotten, at the time it was released, the song was a sensation and many prominent country artists recorded it as an album track – I have at least thirty such covers in my record collection. Told from the perspective of a day laborer, it makes a very mundane (but very important) event come to life

The man who preached the funeral said it really was a simple way to die
He laid down to rest one afternoon and never opened up his eyes
They hired me and Fred and Joe to dig the grave and carry up some chairs
It took us seven hours and I guess we must have drunk a case of beer

And the surprise twist

Well, listen ain’t that pretty when the bugler plays the military taps
I think that when you’s in the war they always had to play a song like that
Well here I am and there they go and I guess you’d just call it my bad luck
I hope he rests in peace, the trouble is the fellow owes me forty bucks

“The Ballad of Forty Dollars” reached #4 and stayed on the charts for eighteen weeks.

At the time this album was released, rarely were more than two singles issued from an album, and many albums of the day would have but one single released. Consequently, possibly the strongest song on the album, “That’s How I Got To Memphis” was not released as a Tom T Hall single. That doesn’t mean that the song got lost. Far from it as label mate Bobby Bare would take it to #3 in the summer of 1970 and Deryl Dodd would get the song on the charts again in 1996. Significant album cuts on the song include Solomon Burke on his 2006 album Nashville and Rosanne Cash on her 1982 album Somewhere In The Stars:

If you love somebody enough
You’ll go where your heart wants to go
That’s how I got to Memphis
That’s how I got to Memphis
I know if you’d seen her you’d tell me ’cause you are my friend
I’ve got to find her and find out the trouble she’s in

If you tell me that she’s not here
I’ll follow the trail of her tears
That’s how I got to Memphis
That’s how I got to Memphis

“Cloudy Day” is a tale about an apartment Hall had in Nashville, although the song is more about how it feels when you’re having a really bad day:

It doesn’t matter who you are , we all must have a cloudy day sometimes
Days we can’t seem to win, days when we ain’t got a friend,
We all have days and I guess this is mine

“Shame On The Rain” is a jog-along ballad with too much “Nashville Sound” production. As Hall said ‘the thing about rain is,like tap water, you’d like to turn it on and off but you can’t do it’

After I’ve Lost such a heartbreaking game
You’d think the sub would shine, shame on the rain

“Highways” is a rather poetic traveling song:

Highways never reach above the ground and cannot know the things a cloud knows
In a million volumes they have never written to express my love

“Forbidden Flowers” is another jog-along ballad that uses the metaphor of flowers as lovers

You can pick forbidden flowers
The are ways and there are means
If you pick forbidden flowers
You may shatter someone’s dreams

“A Picture of Your Mother” is the story of a father trying to tell his little daughter about her mother, who passed away three years earlier. Although very sentimental, the song contains a universal beauty that only a true poet can capture

My little girl and I lost Mama just three years ago
And now that she is older there are things she wants to know
She said, “Please Daddy tell me ’bout my mother ’cause I miss her.”
I said, “Get pen and paper and I’ll help your draw her picture.”

I said, “First draw a heart so big there’s room for little else
Then write a million for the things that she denied herself
Draw a rose the kind of which there’ll never be another
And when you finish you will have a picture of your mother

There was never the slightest chance at the time of the song being released as a single and I don’t know of any cover versions, but this song is worthy of being revived.

“Over And Over Again” is a simple admission of wrongdoing and the promise to be faithful in the future. For some reason, this song sounds like something Roger Miller might have written.

“Beauty Is A Fading Flower” sounds like a song a bluegrass band should record. Physical beauty, of course is a temporary thing, subject to the ravages of the aging process (or worse yet, the plastic surgeon’s scalpel) but inner beauty lasts more enduringly. As Tom T Hall puts it,

Beauty is a fading flower
Love goes on and on

Ballad of Forty Dollars and His Other Great Songs is not a great album, although it is a good one. All of the songs are at least good and several of them are classics. Producer Jerry Kennedy tried a number of settings and arrangements for Hall’s distinctive vocals. By the next album, he would be 90% there and after that he had it completely zeroed in. This album would not chart but the next eighteen albums (including two hit collection) would find their way onto the charts.

Spotlight Artist: Tom T. Hall

tom t hallSongs that told a story were once a staple of country music, unlike the majority of today’s songs which seems to celebrate beer, girls and pickup trucks without there being much point to it.

Think of the country songs that have endured from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – “PT 109”, “Big Bad John”, “El Paso”, “Sink The Bismarck”, “The Battle of New Orleans”, “Cross The Brazos At Waco”, “Wreck On The Highway”, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and countless others. They weren’t just lyrics slapped together – they had something specific to say. While not every song was a story song, many of them were and they were among the most memorable songs of Country Music’s ‘Golden Age’ (roughly 1948-1975).

Even by the standards of Country Music’s ‘Golden Age’ our May Spotlight Artist, Tom T. Hall was unique. It is one thing to tell the story of great historical events (real or imagined) or of heroic figures such as soldiers and cowboys. It is something entirely different to tell the story of everyday people and make their stories seem interesting.

Tom T Hall wrote about waitresses, grave diggers, bluesmen, guitar pickers, fathers and blind children, wonder horses, people with two left feet, janitors, factory workers, single mothers wearing miniskirts, cheap motels, odd and/or deranged people, army experiences, and oh so many more, making their stories pop off your record player and into your conscience.

Thomas Hall was born on May 25, 1936, in Olive Hill, Kentucky. 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. The band had some success, recording a number of songs, although Tom doesn’t appear on any of the recordings, having left the band to join the Army in 1957. 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 disk 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 and provided Hall with substantial songwriting royalties.

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 recording 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.

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.

As far as mainstream country fans are concerned, Tom T Hall is a nearly forgotten figure who has been inactive for many years. While it is true that he took an extended hiatus from performing, in recent years Tom T Hall has emerged as a very active bluegrass songwriter, usually with his wife Dixie. Tom and Dixie record occasionally, perform rarely but supply a seemingly endless supply of hit records for many bluegrass artists. The most recent issue of Bluegrass Unlimited (April 2014) shows Hall as having three songs in the Bluegrass Top 30 – “I’m Putting On My Leaving Shoes” (#1 as recorded by Big Country Bluegrass), “That’s Kentucky (#7 By Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road), and “I Want My Dog Back” (#12 by The Spinney Brothers).

Tom T Hall was inducted to the country music Hall of Fame in 2008, an honor long overdue. In his career 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 ands 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.

In celebration of his 78th birthday, we present to you May’s Spotlight Artist, “The Storyteller” – Tom T Hall.

Country Heritage: The Storyteller, Tom T. Hall

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. Read more of this post