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Album Review: Tom T. Hall – ‘The Magnificent Music Machine’

magnificent music machineAfter a string of successful albums and singles between 1971 and 1976 in which seven of his nine albums reached the Billboard Country Top Ten, and twelve of his singles reached the Billboard Top Ten Country Singles chart (six reached number one on Billboard), Tom T Hall decided that it was time to give proper airing to his bluegrass roots. The end result, The Magnificent Music Machine would prove to be both an artistic success and a chart success, with the album reaching number eleven and the only single released, “Fox On The Run” reaching number nine.

For this project, Tom called on a number of his bluegrass friends plus some other leading lights of the genre: Kenny Baker, Johnny Gimble and Buddy Spicher on fiddle; Gene Bush on slide dobro; Bobby Thompson and J.D. Crowe on banjo; Donna Stoneman (of the legendary Stoneman Family) and Jodi Drumright on mandolin; and Trish Williams, J.T. Gray, Art Malin, and Jimmy Martin (!) on harmony vocals To try to give the album some commercial appear, Nashville session stalwarts Buddy Harmon (drums), Henry Strezelecki and Bob Moore (bass) were added to the mix.

Up to this point in his career, Hall’s albums had been almost exclusively his own compositions. While Tom T would write five of the eleven songs on this album, six of the songs came from outside sources.

The album opens up with “Fox On The Run”, a song which was added to the bluegrass repertoire by the Bill Emerson of the Country Gentlemen, but which started life as a rock song for British group Manfred Mann. The song was written by Tony Hazzard, an English songwriter who wrote hits for The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, The Yardbirds, The Tremeloes and Lulu. The song reached #5 on the UK pop charts in late 1968 (at least one of the UK charts had it reaching #1). Tom T’s version was a hard driving affair and after the wide radio exposure and sales of the album, the song would be forevermore bluegrass

S

he walks through the corn leading down to the river
Her hair shone like gold in the hot morning sun
She took all the love that a poor boy could give her
And left him to die like a fox on the run

John Prine’s “Paradise” (sometimes titled “Muhlenburg County”) follows, a nostalgic yet bitter mid-tempo song that decries the damage that the coal industry has done to the environment

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg county
Down by the green river where paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

“Mama’s Got The Catfish Blues” is a Tom T Hall composition, written, he says, in the spirit of something Carter Stanley would have written. I’m not sure I’m hearing Carter Stanley in this particular song, but it’s a good song, one that also might have made a good single

There’s a turtle on the stump and the toadfrog jump
And I guess, I could gig me a few
In settlin’ fog I caught a big water dog
Mama’s got the catfish blues

I don’t like to see her unhappy
She treats me like a water tree
I hate to see mama with the catfish blues
And the catfish are layin’ in the river asleep

“Bluegrass Break-up” is a Charlie Williams composition, about the sadness of a bluegrass band that is disbanding:

Well, we’re finally breakin’ up our bluegrass band
And the thought of it is more than I can stand
But if parting is our one chance to survive
You’ll take the dobro and I’ll take the five.

Once our music tore the world apart
When we used to pick and sing it from the heart
But then dissension came into our lives
So you’ll take the dobro and I’ll take the five.

Once our world was harmony and fun
Wildwood Flower and ten-one mighty run
We can’t patch it up, we made too many tries
So you’ll take the dobro and I’ll take the five.

“I Don’t Want My Golden Slippers” is a religious song with the sound and feel of a church choir and a mostly acoustic guitar accompaniment. Although Tom T wrote this song, it truly sounds as if it could have been written a century before.

“Molly and Tenbrooks” is derived from an old folk tale about a horserace and was made famous and fashioned into a viable song by the ‘Father of Bluegrass’ Mr. Bill Monroe. On this recording Bill Monroe guests playing the mandolin to Tom’s vocals. Interestingly, Tom T reports that Monroe had to refresh himself on the mandolin part in order to play the song – he normally played guitar or just sang when performing this song!

“The Fastest Rabbit Dog In Carter County Today” is another Tom T Hall composition, this one an up-tempo romp about a rabbit hunt.

“I’ll Never Do Better Than You” also comes from T’s pen. One of the slower songs on the album, it expresses a depth of feeling that sometimes gets overlooked among the pyrotechnics of the genre

Tom’s late brother Hillman Hall, was an accomplished songwriter, although not in Tom T’s class, of course. “The Magnificent Music Machine” is Hillman’s contribution to this album, a terrific song that I would have released as a single. For that matter, it would have made a great Jimmy Martin single.

He’s got nothing but talent and time on his hands
He loves his music, hangs out with his band
He’s got big-hit ambitions and number one dreams
He’s a high-rollin’, a magnificent music machine

He hit town with nothing but his old guitar
With visions of grandeur and being a star
He writes them and sings them like you’ve never seen
He’s a high-rollin’, a magnificent music machine

“Rank Stranger”, of course is a classic Stanley Brothers song, perhaps my favorite song from the entire Stanley canon, from which there are many classics. This song still gives me chills and Tom sings it well.

I wandered again to my home in the mountains
Where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free
I looked for my friends but I never could find them
I found they were all rank strangers to me

Everybody I met seemed to be a rank stranger
No mother or dad, not a friend could I see
They knew not my name and I knew not their faces
I found they were all rank strangers to me.

The album closes, fittingly enough, with another Tom T Hall composition “Bluegrass Festival In The Sky”.

In the sweet by and by at that Bluegrass Festival in the sky.

There’ll be Monroe Flatt Scruggs and the Stanleys
The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and the whole McGranner’s Family
Molly and the Stonemans and Martin and Crow
Dillard and Thompson and Smiley and Reno.

(And we will sing)
In the sweet by and by at that Bluegrass Festival in the sky.

There’ll be old Tige and Baker and Clements and Warren
Richmond and Harold Carl Story and Dorrin
Acker McMagaha Wiseman and Gray
The Osbornes Bill Clifton Sprung and Uncle Dave.

(And we will sing)
In the sweet by and by at that Bluegrass Festival in the sky…

It would be many years before Tom T Hall would return to his bluegrass roots when recording a solo album, but return he would. It just didn’t happen as soon as I would have liked.

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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