Tom T. Hall: “He brought new levels of wit and narrative sensitivity to country music.”

From an obit on by Chris Willman headlined “Tom T. Hall, Country Hall of Famer Known for ‘I Love’ and ‘Harper Valley PTA,’ Dies at 85”:

Tom T. Hall, the singer-songwriter who brought new levels of pungent wit and narrative sensitivity to country music as one of the genre’s leading figures in the 1970s, died Friday….

Hall had decades ago been bestowed with the nickname of “The Storyteller” — which, as a singular honorific in a genre as historically rich with story-songs as country, was saying something.

As a songwriter, Hall was known for hits for others, like “Harper Valley PTA,” recorded by Jeannie C. Riley in 1968, as well as his own unusually literary No. 1 country singles of the ’70s like “The Year Clayton Delaney Died”….

Among some modern fans, he might be best recognized for the oft-covered “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” which has become an Americana standard.

A Grand Ole Opry member since 1971, Hall was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008. He became a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019.

Hall had the unique gift of being a deeply idiosyncratic songwriter whose tunes were nonetheless irresistible to others. His songs were recorded by Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Miranda Lambert, Alan Jackson, George Jones, Waylon Jennings and Bobby Bare, among many others.

Although he was known for chronicling unusual characters and small-town sentiments, Hall also was not afraid to take on topical subject matter in somewhat acerbic form, as with 1973’s “Watergate Blues” and 1972’s “The Monkey That Became President.”

“Damn,” wrote Patterson Hood of the band Drive-By Truckers, in a tweet. “The greatest storyteller songwriter of all time. A writer’s writer. There’s at least a dozen categories of song that he wrote arguably the best ever example of.”…

“Few could tell a story like Tom T. Hall,” said Sarah Trahern, CEO of the Country Music Association. “As a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist, he was one of those triple threat artists who continued to make an impact on the next generation. I’ll always remember growing up listening to Tom T.’s music with my father, who was a huge bluegrass and country fan.”…

Hall was born in Olive Hill, KY on May 25, 1936. He came by his pointed musical wit early on, well before starting his country career, as an Army man, when he wrote comic songs about being in the military for the Armed Forces Radio Network….

It was “Harper Valley PTA,” a narrative song about hypocrisy in a small town, that put him on the map as a tunesmith. Riley’s 1968 version version won a CMA Award for single of the year and sold 6 million copies.

Of the classic song, Hall told in a 2005 interview, “It’s a true story… I was only 8, 9 or 10 years old at the time…The lady was a really free spirit, modern way beyond the times in my hometown. They got really huffy about her lifestyle. She didn’t go to school, but they could get to her through her daughter. She took umbrage at that and went down and made a speech to them. I mean, here’s this ordinary woman taking on the aristocracy of Olive Hill, Ky., population 1,300. When I was a kid, you just didn’t take on the aristocracy. It was unheard of…. I certainly didn’t use her real name. Out of 1,300 people, you could pick her out real quick. So a lot of things I wrote biographically. I changed the names of people.”…

Explaining the political bent in some of his material, Hall said, “I’m obviously kind of a liberal. Most of the folks around here are Republican. … Politics with me is sort of like football… it’s a dangerous and vicious and mean game. Not for cowards.”…

In 2012, he was honored as a BMI Icon at the performing rights org’s annual dinner in Nashville, where artists including the Avett Brothers, Toby Keith, Justin Townes Earle and Daily & Vincent gathered to cover his songs for the black-tie audience….

The son of a Baptist minister, Hall had a song called “Me and Jesus” but was a pluralist when it came to spirituality. “I have my own religion. I’m sort of a one quarter Baptist, I’m one quarter Catholic, one quarter Jewish. … After we had learned to kill one another and throw rocks, like that opening scene in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ once we had learned to eat and keep ourselves warm, then we got a fire going, religion came along real late in that whole process. … The first guy who came up with a religion was sitting out under a tree by himself. So I thought the best way to get a real good religion is to go out and sit under a tree by yourself and let it all happen. … I love the Jesus song. Great story. Great idea. So, I have a weird kind of religion. But I guess it’s a good one. I’m gonna find out some day.”

Also see the New York Times obit by Bill Friskics-Warren headlined “Tom T. Hall, Country Music’s ‘Storyteller,’ Is Dead at 85”


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