My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

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A half-dozen songs that never really were big hits (but may have been famous)

It is not so much true since the late 1970s but in all genres of music (except rock) there was a strong tendency for songs that were really big hits to be covered by many artists.

Here we will be looking at three really well-known country songs that never really were major hits for anyone, yet were so frequently covered that they became well-known hits, two songs that had Billboard not discontinued its regional charts, would have been recognized as big regional hits, and one song that was a huge copyright for a well known singer that isn’t well known and never charted at all.

1) Back in 1968, I purchased a few 45 rpm records. Lacking the patience to fool around with flipping records every 2:35, I soon switched to purchase of LPs. Among the few 45s that I purchased was Merle Haggard’s “The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde”. This record certainly was a hit reaching #1 on the Billboard and Record World country charts, but the B side was the revelation for me.

Back then I often didn’t get around to playing the B side of a 45 until later, but Dad had the Branded Man album that Haggard had issued the year before and every song on it was really good, so I flipped over the single to find one of the truly great country songs in “Today I Started Loving You Again”,

Back then Billboard did not usually track B sides and album tracks, so as far as Billboard is concerned the real hit on the song was Sammi Smith’s single from 1975 that reached #9. Kenny Rogers, Arthur Prysock and Emmylou Harris all issued singles that failed to crack the top forty. Record World, which did track B sides, had Haggard’s version reach #25.

I have no idea how many artists recorded “Today I Started Loving You Again” as an album track. Certainly, dozens of country artists did it (I probably have thirty country albums from the late 1968-1972 period that contain the song) and untold numbers of singers from other genres such as pop singer Al Martino, R&B singers Bobby Bland and Bettye Swann. I still hear country bands perform the song to this very day. For me, it’s a song I memorized on first hearing it and it has stuck in my memory since then

 What a fool I was to think I could get by

With only these few millions tears I cry

I should have known the worst was yet to come

And that crying time for me had just begun

2) Almost as well known as “Today I Started Loving You Again” is “Silver Wings”, which was an album track on Hag’s 1970 album A Portrait of Merle Haggard and was the flipside of “Working Man Blues. I can basically make the same comments about “Silver Wings” as I did about “Today I Started Loving You Again”. I heard the song frequently on the radio, but it never charted for Haggard. In fact, the only time the song ever charted was by the Hager Twins, Jim and Jon, who took it to #59 in late 1970.

 Silver wings shining in the sunlight

Roaring engines headed somewhere in flight

They’re taking you away, leaving me lonely

Silver wings slowly fading out of sight

“Don’t leave me,” I cried

Don’t take that airplane ride

But you locked me out of your mind

Left me standing here behind

3) Felice and Boudleaux Bryant wrote many famous songs that were big hits for the likes of the Everly Brothers, Carl Smith, Jimmie Dickens and countless others. While “Bye Bye Love” surely is their best-remembered song, I suspect that “Rocky Top” may be their second most famous song. The bluegrass duo of Sonny & Bobby Osborne got the song up to #33 on Billboard’s country chart in 1968 and Lynn Anderson got it to #17 in 1975 but that is it as far as chart success is concerned. The song ’s fame has spread far and wide beyond its limited chart placements it is an official Tennessee State Song, it is the University of Tennessee’s unofficial fight song, and has been recorded hundreds of times. The progressive bluegrass duo of Doug Dillard & Gene Clark (with Donna Washburn on vocals) issued the song in 1969, and that remains my favorite version of the song. Artists as diverse as Phish, Buck Owens, and Conway Twitty have recorded the song. Everybody knows the song and everybody sings along whenever the song is played

 Rocky Top you’ll always be

Home Sweet Home to me

Good ol’ Rocky Top

Rocky Top Tennessee

Rocky Top Tennessee

4) Bob Luman’s 1969 recording of “Come On Home And Sing The Blues To Daddy” probably was a regional hit in the southern states, reaching #24 on Billboard’s country charts (it reached #13 on Record World). Written by Ray Corbin, Luman’s record was featured in heavy rotation as a oldie when I returned to the US in August 1971; during its chart run WHOO DJ Clay Daniels told me that it often was the most requested song on the station and I know from personal experience that nearly every county cover band in Central Florida kept it in their playlist for a good decade after the song’s chart run.

Charley Pride, Wynn Stewart, Waylon Jennings and Bobby Bare recorded the song as an album track (so did many others) and I have heard Waylon and Bare perform it on stage.

 I hear say your new romance has faded

Just the way ours did some time ago

I’ve lost count of all the times I’ve waited

For you to tell me that you’ve missed me so

Come on home and sing the blues to daddy

If things don’t work out the way you planned

Come on home and sing the blues to daddy

Tell it all to one who understands

Just like a child that’s found a brand new plaything

Each one is more fun than those before

But there’s a faithful one that’s always waiting

To be picked up and kicked around some more

5) Nobody much remembers Pat Daisy, and RCA artist who got lost in the shuffle at RCA, but her recording of “Everybody’s Reaching Out for Someone” reached #20 on the Billboard country chart in 1972 (it reached #13 on Record World). Written by legendary songwriter Dickey Lee, the song reached #1 on the WHOO and WSUN Countdowns and I suspect that the tale for both Luman’s song and Daisy’s song is that either a station played the song and played it a lot, or simply never added the song at all (or perhaps added a different recording of the song). Whatever the case, the song was recorded by numerous artists including Lynn Anderson, Brenda Lee, Dickey Lee and Kitty Wells

Everybody’s reaching out for someone

Everybody’s knocking at some door

And long before I ever found you

You’re the one that I was reaching for

 

Just like the trees along the river bend

Lift up the branches to the sun above

We spent our lifetimes reaching for a friend

Cause everybody reach someone to love

 

And everybody’s reaching out …

Interestingly enough the song was revived in 1993 when the Cox Family recorded the song as the title cut for their first album on Rounder. The album was produced by Alison Krauss, and through their efforts, the song made its way into the bluegrass repertoire, where it is occasionally heard to this day.

6) Until “Harper Valley PTA” was released on August 24, 1968, Tom T Hall’s biggest copyright was a song that you may have never heard. By 1968 Tom had written a number a number of hits for other artists, including Johnny Wright’s #1 country hit “Hello Vietnam”, and had written a couple of minor hits for himself. “Hello Vietnam” received no pop airplay and sales of county singles in that era could be 50,000 copies.

On September 25, 1965, The Statler Brothers released a Tom T. Hall song as the B side of their debut single for Columbia. The single, “Flowers On The Wall” went #2 country, #4 pop and #1 in Canada, selling nearly a million copies in the process. The album Flowers On The Wall also sold well and for each 45 or album sold, Tom T Hall picked up a songwriting royalty. The song “Billy Christian” did not receive much airplay (I heard it a few times on WCMS) but I’m sure it helped keep the wolves away from Tom T’s door

It’s a pretty good song and is (or has been) available in a digital format

 If you’re listenin’ Billy Christian come on home

Are you listening Billy Christian if you are then go on home

Everything is like you left it she spends all the time alone

All that music never thrills her like it did when you were there

 

Go on home Billy Christian if you care

What a team they were together Billy Christian and his wife

People loved to hear them singin’ that was their success in life

But the eyes of Billy Christian were the wild and wandering kind

 

Now Billy’s wife sings solo all the time

Are you listening Billy Christian…

All the fellows tried to date me but she never blinked an eye

Every night she sings her same sad song and cries

 

Now where is Billy Christian does he ever hear the song

Does Billy Christian know he’s welcome home

Are you listening Billy Christian…

Go on home Billy Christian if you care

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Reissues wish list part 2: MCA and Decca

webb pierceFor most of the Classic Country era, the big four of country record labels were Decca /MCA, RCA, Columbia and Capitol. Of these labels, MCA/Decca has done the poorest job of keeping their artists’ catalogues alive in the form of reissues.

When speaking of the big four labels we will need to define terms.
MCA/Decca refers to recordings released on MCA, Decca, Brunswick and for some periods, Vocalion.

During the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Decca (later MCA) can be argued as having the strongest roster of artists. Such titans as Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Webb Pierce, Conway Twitty, Jack Greene, Bill Anderson, Jimmy Martin, The Osborne Brothers, Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn frequently dominated the charts with many strong second tier acts such as The Wilburn Brothers, Jimmie Davis, Roy Drusky, Jimmie C. Newman, Johnny Wright, Cal Smith, Bill Phillips, Crystal Gayle, Jeanie Seely, Jan Howard and Red Sovine passing through the ranks at various times. Crystal Gayle, of course, became a major star in the late 1970s and 1980s

In the early digital days MCA had virtually nothing of their classic artists available aside from some Loretta Lynn, Bill Monroe and Conway Twitty discs. Then in 1991 they started their County Music Hall of Fame Series, showcasing artists elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, because of industry politics, their biggest stars, Webb Pierce and Conway Twitty, had not yet been elected.

Each of the discs contained fifteen or sixteen tracks or about 38 minutes of music. Many of the CDs featured artists who had not been on Decca for many years, and many featured artists who just passed through on their way to bigger and better things or had been bigger stars in the past. Among the CDS in the series were The Carter Family (on Decca 1937-1938), Jimmie Davis, Red Foley, Grandpa Jones (with Decca in the late 1950s – several remakes of King label hits), Loretta Lynn, Uncle Dave Macon (a real old-timer), Tex Ritter (1930s recordings), Roy Rogers, Sons of The Pioneers (with Decca during the 1930s and again in 1954), Hank Thompson (ABC/Dot recordings of the late 1960s and 1970s – MCA purchased the ABC & Dot labels – Hank never actually recorded for MCA/Decca). Floyd Tillman (1939-1944), Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe and Bob Wills (Bob’s best years were on Columbia and MGM). The Bob Wills recordings were 1955-1967 recordings on the Decca & Kapp labels – the Kapp recordings usually featured Nashville session players with no real feel for swing and are the least essential recordings Wills ever made.

Each of the CDs mentioned above are undeniably worthy, but are either inadequate or not representative of the artists’ peaks.

Some MCA/Decca artists have been covered by Bear Family, most notably Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe, Bill Anderson, Jimmy Martin and The Osborne Brothers. One could wish for more on some of these artists, but what is available generally is enough; however, it is expensive. Good two-disc sets would be desirable.

During the 1960s, Decca had their artists re-record their hits in order to take advantage of modern stereo technology, since for artists who peaked before 1957, such as Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce and Red Foley, their biggest hits were recorded in monaural sound. An additional consideration for Ernest Tubb was that his then-current band was larger and better with musicians such as Billy Byrd and Buddy Emmons (to name just two) being members of the band. In the case of Ernest Tubb, the re-recordings were superior to the original string band recordings.

In the case of most other artists, I think the originals were better BUT for many years the original recordings were not available and listeners of my generation grew up hearing the stereo remakes whether on records or on the radio. Since the digital era began the stereo remakes have been unavailable except on Bear Family sets. It would be nice if the stereo remakes were available, and it would be nice if MCA/Decca artists were available on decent domestic collections.

Webb Pierce – several domestic releases of Webb Pierce’s hits are available but they generally contain about a dozen songs, all from the 1950s. There is a Bear Family set that covers up to 1958 – it’s great but it misses all of Webb’s lesser later hits. Webb was the #1 country artist of the 1950s according to Billboard, and while he slipped thereafter, he was still the sixth ranked artist of the 1960s with many hits, including a couple of Record World #1s. None of this has been released on CD. What is needed is a good three CD set gathering up Webb’s 1960s (and early 1970s) chart hits plus key album tracks and the stereo remakes of the fifties hits.

For as widely popular as she was. you would expect much of Barbara Mandrell‘s output to be available. Barbara moved from Epic to ABC/Dot and when ABC/Dot was absorbed by MCA, her music was issued on that label. Barbara had 30+ hits for ABC/Dot/MCA with many #1 and top five recordings. Currently, not much is available and she warrants a boxed set.

Jack Greene and Cal Smith both had fairly late starts to their solo careers. While there exist a few hit collections for each artist (on foreign labels), neither is very complete, leaving off key songs. For Cal Smith, since Kapp and MCA are both owned by the same company, a two disc set collecting Cal’s Kapp & MCA/Decca singles should suffice (possibly a single disc with about thirty tracks would be okay).

For Jack Greene, more is needed since Jack had over thirty chart singles for Decca and issued at least fourteen albums plus a hits collection while on MCA/Decca. Jack was a superior vocalist and his albums contain recordings of others’ hits that often were better than the original hits. While not a hit for Jack, his version of “The Last Letter” is the definitive recording of the song.

The Osborne Brothers were bluegrass innovators, developing an almost unique (Jim & Jesse were doing something similar) bluegrass and country hybrid with bluegrass instruments augmented by electric guitar, steel guitar and sometimes other amplified instruments. After leaving MCA/Decca for CMH and other labels, the Osborne Brothers went back to a more traditional bluegrass approach. Almost none of that classic hybrid material is available except for a gospel CD and an excellent but short (ten songs) collection titled Country Bluegrass which seems randomly put together. No bluegrass group ever has huge numbers of hit records on the country charts, but the Osborne Brothers did chart quite a few and they should be available domestically. I would think a single disc set of thirty tracks would be acceptable, although more would be better, of course.

Johnny Wright is better know as part of the duo Johnny & Jack (with Jack Anglin), but after Anglin’s death in 1963, Wright embarked on a successful solo career which saw the release of at least six albums on MCA/Decca plus twelve chart singles including the #1 “Hello Vietnam” , the first chart topper for a Tom T. Hall song. Johnny’s wife was Kitty Wells, and while he never reached her level of success as a solo artist, apparently it never bothered Wright as he and Kitty were married from 1937 until his death in 2011 at the age of 97. A good single disc collection would suffice here.

The bulk of Little Jimmy Dickens’ career occurred for another label, but his time on MCA/Decca saw the release of two albums of new material plus an album featuring remakes of his earlier hits. The Decca albums featured a staple of Jimmy’s live shows “I Love Lucy Brown” and an amusing novelty “How To Catch An African Skeeter Alive”. I think most of this would fit on a single CD.

Wilma Burgess was an excellent singer who came along about four decades too soon. While Wilma did not flaunt being lesbian, neither did she particularly hide it. Consequently, she never got much of a commercial push from her label. Many have recorded “Misty Blue” but none did it as well as Wilma Burgess. She recorded at least five albums for MCA/Decca plus some duets with Bud Logan, former band leader for Jim Reeves. A decent two disc set of this outstanding singer should be easy to compile.

I would like to see a collection on Loretta Lynn’s siblings, Peggy Sue and Jay Lee Webb. Since Loretta’s other well known sibling started on MCA/Decca as well, it should be possible to do a good two CD set of Loretta’s kinfolks. Jay Lee Webb’s “She’s Looking Better By The Minute” is an all-time honky-tonk classic.

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

Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘New Harvest … First Gathering’

1977 saw Dolly making a decisive move in her career and taking full artistic control. The portentously titled New Harvest … First Gathering was controversial, as critics and country fans saw Dolly “going pop”. To be honest, her previous effort, the Porter Wagoner co-produced All I Can Do, started the popwards move, but this album (produced by Dolly with the assistance of Gregg Perry) was a big step further down that road, with only one track I would categorise as unquestionably “country”. The sound throughout is definitely experimental. The music was mainly recorded in Nashville but mixed in LA, with the steel guitar present on most tracks but relegated into the background so much as to be inaudible. Future country star Janie Fricke is among the backing vocalists.

The title track’s optimistic lyrics look forward to a new start following the end of the legal proceedings which had delayed her final break with Porter. As a single, it peaked outside the top 10 on the country charts, and failed to make the impact Dolly must have hoped on the pop charts. It expresses her feelings about being set free like an imprisoned eagle, and an impassioned and obviously heartfelt vocal is supported by Gregg Perry’s plangent piano and gospel backing vocals marking the new start musically.

The rather shouty ‘Holdin’ On To You’ has an intrusive almost disco beat and blaring horns, and might have been a better bet for pop success. ‘How Does It Feel’ is up-tempo, beaty and not too bad (although not country by any means), but gets far too repetitive. The peppy but equally repetitive ‘Getting In My Way’ is very pop and very annoying. I also dislike the closing ‘There’ with its mixture of gospel choir and child backing vocals and build from hushed start to full blown climax.

Dolly wrote most of the songs, but included two covers of R&B classics. A very whispery version of ‘My Girl’ (given a gender–neutral makeover as ‘My Love’) is a dud, but the upbeat ‘Your Love Has Lifted Me (Higher And Higher)’ is quite enjoyable.

The love song ‘You Are’ is a pop ballad with a delicately cooed vocal and string arrangement, which works well on its own terms, although not to my personal taste. The most interesting track, ‘Where Beauty Lives In Memory’, is an acute psychological portrait of a crazy old woman trapped in her memories of youth, beauty and a lost love. Almost alone on the album, the aural experimentation works for me on this rather poignant story.

The banjo-led part-recited ‘Applejack’ was the sole reminder of Dolly’s Appalachian roots, with its playful vocals, and backing vocals from a number of veteran stars, including Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells and her husband Johnny Wright, Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones and his wife, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis and Chet Atkins, plus Dolly’s parents. In another nod to the past, Dolly’s former producer Bob Ferguson contributes the voice of Applejack, the old man from Dolly’s childhood who is the song’s subject. Dolly herself plays banjo on the track. It is charming, but at times feels a little too deliberate an affirmation that despite the pop material elsewhere, Dolly was still a country girl at heart. It was not a single, but has become a fan favorite.

This is a very varied sounding album, and one has to applaud Dolly’s willingness to try out new things with her music, even if the result is not often to my personal tastes. It was released on CD in 2007 in Europe only as a 2for1 with its immediate predecessor, but is easy to find. It is also available digitally.

Grade: B-