Few songwriters have married musical lyrics with journalism like Tom T. Hall who has died at 85. For Hall wrote some of country music’s finest real-life essays to music.
There are no better examples than his barroom dissertation “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine,” an endearing love song “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” or his blockbuster “Harper Valley PTA,” based on a free-spirited woman he knew in Kentucky.
There was no more accurate reflection on his wonderful contribution to country music than from Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame, who told Rolling Stone: “He wrote without judgment or anger, offering a rhyming journalism of the heart that sets his compositions apart from any other writer.”
A posting by Drive-By Truckers reinforced this: “RIP Tom T. Hall. The greatest storyteller of all time. A writer’s writer. There’s at least a dozen categories of song that he wrote the best-ever example of”
His songs - many of them chart-toppers - would be recorded by some of the biggest names in the business – Johnny Cash, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, John Prine, Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, to name a few.
But it was a cover of his “Harper Valley PTA” by Jeannie C. Riley in 1968 that brought him instant success. It proved a pop-country crossover hit world-wide, selling six million copies and winning both Grammy and CMA awards. It inspired both a multi-million dollar grossing movie and a TV series.
Hall made no secret that it was based on a woman he knew in Kentucky. “The lady was a really free spirit, modern way beyond the times in my hometown,” Hall told CMT. “They got really huffy about her lifestyle. She took umbrage at that and went down and made a speech to them.”
And it was Hall’s ability to record the event in song that set him apart: Well it happened that the PTA was going to meet that very afternoon/And they were sure surprised when Mrs Johnson wore her miniskirt into the room/And as she walked up to the blackboard/I can still recall the words she had to say/She said I’d like to address this meeting of the Harper Valley PTA
But perhaps his finest reflection of life came from a conversation he had with an aging black janitor in a hotel lounge while attending the Democratic Party Convention in Miami. The old man opened up his mind: “Ever had a drink of watermelon wine,” he asked/He told me all about it, though I didn’t answer back/”Ain’t but three things in this world’s that worth a solitary dime/But old dogs and children and watermelon wine”
“Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine” is generally considered the finest of all his compositions, with Rolling Stone listing it at #93 on their list of the 100 Greatest Country Songs. It was included in his 1972 album The Storyteller. John Prine and Mac Wiseman would make it a memorable cover on their 2007 release Standard Songs for Average People.
Hall’s catalogue was not all about characters from chance encounters. The most popular of his own material is the enchanting love song “That’s How I Got To Memphis.” I know if you see her you’d tell me because 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
It was a hit single for Bobby Bare in 1970 and Buddy Miller did an outstanding cover on his 1995 debut solo album Your Love And Other Lies. And the song even found its way into the popular HBO show The Newsroom when star Jeff Daniels performed a credible version in the series finale.
The breadth of his writing is nicely illustrated in a rather quirky, little-known composition “I know Who I’ll Be Seeing in New Zealand” - inspired by a tour he made to far-off New Zealand in the 1970’s. Looking out the window of the blue New Zealand sky/Watching all the quiet gentle people going by/Far away from what they call the mad-ding crowd/Dreaming in the land of the long white cloud. It was included in his 1973 release For the People in The Last Hard Town which reached #3 on the country album charts. And if you want to know who Tom T wanted to see there - her name was Rebecca, another real-life character!
Of all the lifetime achievements he received – he was inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008 – the one he most cherished was his 2019 induction in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In a moment which reflected his true-life modesty, he expressed utter surprise at even being considered for such an honour.
In reality, Hall was a prolific writer full stop. He was author of nine books, including novels and short stories.
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