Hall of Fame
The liner notes to The Essential Tom T. Hall, a 1987 compilation reissued on CD last year by Mercury, feature an uncommonly wide array of testimonials. There are the usual raves from peers: Johnny Cash shares a few personal memories; George Jones calls Hall "the all time greatest songwriter/storyteller that country music has ever produced." And Don Tyson, who hired Hall to stump for his chicken empire, calls him "A Great American." But then Kurt Vonnegut chimes in with a recollection of how he first met his good friend Hall, all-star catcher Johnny Bench enthuses about Hall's hit "Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine," and Billy Carter writes that his mother trusted Hall "because a man that could sing about baby ducks the way he did loved animals, and a man that loved animals had to love people and life."
Hall is best known for writing "Harper Valley P.T.A.," probably the only country song to inspire a movie and a sitcom. But in his nearly four-decade career he has also worked as a radio jingle writer and DJ, written four novels, and toured college campuses lecturing on literature with old pals like Alex Haley, accumulating a diverse but rabid fan base along the way. As a performer he's had his share of top-five hits--"A Week in a Country Jail," "The Year That Clayton Delaney Died," and "I Love," to name a few--but his bread and butter has been the thousand or so songs he's written for the likes of Jones, Waylon Jennings, Flatt & Scruggs, Gram Parsons, Bobby Bare, Loretta Lynn, Alan Jackson, and even Perry Como.
Longtime Chicagoan Mark Linn got an introduction to Hall in the early 90s, when he caught a performance of his "That's How I Got to Memphis" by Lucinda Williams in Baltimore. Over the years Linn has dedicated himself to reviving interest in Love front man Arthur Lee and flaky folkie Michael Hurley, and by 1995 he'd become so enamored of Hall's oeuvre that, with the help of former Thurston's booker Justin Bass, he began planning a tribute record. The two originally planned to release it on Linn's tiny Delmore label, which had issued early work by the High Llamas, Scarce, and Wild Carnation, but once artists like Cash, Joe Henry, Ralph Stanley, Whiskeytown, Richard Buckner, Ron Sexsmith, and Mark Olson and Victoria Williams came on board, Linn says, they decided to try licensing it to a bigger label.
In late 1996 Linn and Bass met with Luke Lewis, the head of Mercury's Nashville department. "He knew it wasn't going to be a big moneymaker, but he thought it would be cool to have because Tom T. Hall was on Mercury," says Linn. Lewis made Linn and Bass a verbal offer, but before it could be put into writing it was overruled by bean counters in New York. After six more months of protracted negotiations, Linn and Bass decided they'd rather put the record out themselves.
In the summer of 1997, while they were waiting on a bank loan, a tape of the record fell into the hands of Sire records founder Seymour Stein, the eccentric who gave the world the Ramones and Madonna. When Stein called, Linn says, "he was so charming. He knew more about country than anyone on Music Row, and he sang Jimmie Rodgers songs to me on the phone. He blew my mind. What I didn't realize was that he's a completely elusive character, and when we started talking business he changed a lot. He became a lot tougher and we had a lot of shouting matches." It took nearly another year and a half for Sire to bring out Real: The Tom T. Hall Project, and when it did, in December, it got lost in the Christmas rush. But last week it popped up at number 35 on the Gavin Report's Americana radio chart.
The album contains some real gems. Kelly Willis nails "That's How I Got to Memphis"--the last track commissioned since, Linn admits, he'd held the tune for Lucinda Williams, who had promised to contribute and whose father, poet Miller Williams, is friends with Hall. (Williams was busy recording her notoriously perfect record, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.) Syd Straw and the Skeletons rip through "Harper Valley P.T.A.," Freedy Johnston turns the trucker song "Coffee, Coffee, Coffee" into a countrypolitan ballad complete with Floyd Cramer-style piano, and Calexico gives the mariachi treatment to "Tulsa Telephone Book," which contains the irresistible couplet "I was in Tulsa and didn't have anything going / She lived in Tulsa and didn't have anything on."
Despite some less interesting musical cuts, lines like that one keep the 17-song collection a head or two above the everlasting flood of tribute albums. Hall's narratives are rich with small, telling details and his flawed characters are presented without prejudice; his ecumenical prose frees the singers to interpret the songs as they see fit, without worrying about measuring up to some "definitive" performance. Henry does quirky justice to "Homecoming," the story of a touring country singer who drops in on his father after missing his mother's funeral, with a spare backing of down-tempo hip-hop breakbeats; and "Old Enough to Want To (Fool Enough to Try)," about a guy halfheartedly trying to avoid a romantic entanglement, survives even Jonny Polonsky's lackluster guitar-and-melodica treatment thanks to classic cracks like "I hope that gleam you have in your eye / Is a reflection from the buttons on your blouse."
Hall, who's currently fishing in Florida, couldn't be reached for his comments on the album, but Linn says he's been enthusiastic about it from the start. He personally asked Cash to record "I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew" and agreed to an especially low royalty rate. In the process, he even became reacquainted with some of his early material: when Linn and Bass played him Buckner's cover of "When Love Is Gone," recorded by Bobby Bare in the 70s, he responded, "That's real pretty, but I didn't write that song."
With so much more left to rediscover, the Tom T. Hall Project is ongoing: Linn and Bass are considering a second various-artists collection, and plan to release a CD of trucker fave Dave Dudley singing Hall's songs in late spring.
Number One Cup's show Friday at Lounge Ax marks both the end of a seven-week U.S. tour and the end of the band's career. According to singer-guitarist Seth Cohen, the members plan to pursue more specific interests incompatible with the band's collaborative creative process--particularly guitarist Patrick O'Connell, who is specifically interested in acoustic fingerpicking.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tom T. Hall photo by Dean Dixon.