Tom T. Hall’s song, “That’s How I Got to Memphis” is a deceptively simple song. It answers the question implied by the title in the first two lines—”If you love somebody enough, you’ll follow wherever they go”—and then spends the succeeding stanzas describing the desperation that prompted the trip. By the end of the song, the narrator has arrived in the river city, broke and hungry. He still hasn’t tracked her down, but the song’s not about the finding; it’s about the seeking. And the music reinforces that yearning at every turn.
Hall himself, who died Friday at age 85, was a deceptively simple man. He looked like a banker and sang in the plainest of baritones. But he had 30 top-20 country singles, including six #1’s, and he wrote nearly as many hits for other artists. The only explanation for this paradox is the power of his songwriting. His songs evoked working-class conversations so suggestively that the listener could imagine the setting, the backstory and the future resolution—all of which he left undefined so the audience could fill out the story.
His influence spread beyond the country-music industry where he spent most of his career. Just look at the artists who have recorded “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” Bobby Bare had a #3 country hit with it in 1970, and Deryl Dodd had a #36 hit with it in 1996. But it became a favorite of Americana artists and was also recorded by Rosanne Cash, Buddy Miller, the Avett Brothers, Eric Church, Charley Crockett, Lee Hazelwood, Kelly Willis, Scott Walker, Joe Pernice and Solomon Burke. How could they resist a song filled with so much longing?
Much is made of Hall’s childhood in the small, Appalachian town of Olive Hill, Kentucky, but it was his education at Roanoke College on the G.I. Bill that enabled him to turn that community into literature. He had been reading Sinclair Lewis’ novels, and he longed to write something similar about the gap between how his neighbors thought of themselves and how they actually acted. But rather than writing a book, he wrote a song: “Harper Valley, P.T.A.,” a #1 hit for Jeannie Riley on both the country and pop charts in 1968 before inspiring a movie and a TV series.
Based on a memory from Olive Hill, the clever lyrics tell the story of a “widowed wife” whose teenage daughter brings a note from the high school P.T.A. complaining that her mother is wearing short skirts, drinking in public and dating wild men. The mother marches right down to the school, barges into a P.T.A. meeting and reads them the riot act, pointing out their own not-so-secret problems with alcohol and adultery. It’s a classic tale of turning the tables on hypocritical moralists. In a final twist, it’s revealed that the song is being sung years later by the daughter herself.
“As a kid,” Hall told me in 2007, “I had this epiphany that anything that could happen anywhere could happen in Olive Hill. We had aristocracy; we had poor and the middle. We had politicians; we had gangsters. We had family feuds. People lived and died. That’s where ‘Harper Valley P.T.A.’ came from. I knew if I wrote about a flower in a field near Olive Hill, I was writing about every flower in the world. The same was true if I was writing about people. I took that and then read all the great books and learned all the great concepts, and the songs came out.”
“‘Harper Valley PTA’ is a song so good they made a movie out of it,” Mary Gauthier told me that same year . “It captures a certain place at a certain time perfectly by the use of microscopic details. He’s like a journalist the way he describes a scene. He’s one of the greatest story songwriters of all time. He takes me where he wants me to go and makes me feel it. It’s a journalistic approach—just tell the story and let the listener decide. Don’t moralize about it. He was so good at that.”
Hall moved to Nashville at age 27 after Jimmy C. Newman had a hit in 1963 with one of Hall’s songs, “DJ for a Day.” Even though he wrote the pro-war song, “Hello Vietnam,” for Johnny Wright in 1965, Hall was more liberal than most in the Nashville. He could put a fiercely independent woman at the center of “Harper Valley P.T.A.”; he could write an anti-lynching song like “Dew” and an iconoclastic song such as “The Monkey that Became President.” “(Old Dogs, Children and) Watermelon Wine” may be a tribute to those three things, but it’s also a condemnation of pretty much everything else. No wonder John Prine recorded it.
What Hall bequeathed to the Americana movement that so admired him was a finely honed sense of irony. “Homecoming,” for example, is sung by an ambitious musician who’s back in his hometown after a long spell away. But it’s not the triumphant return you might expect; the narrator apologizes for missing his mama’s funeral, for not writing and for looking like a ghost. It’s so skillfully done that the listener can figure out all the things left unsaid.
“On ‘Homecoming,’” Gauthier points out, “he doesn’t say if the musician telling the story has made a great choice or a horrible one. Which is great. I don’t want you to tell me how to feel. I can decide how to feel. Just tell me the story so I can visualize it. Maybe some people want the conclusion provided for them, but those aren’t the fans I’m looking for. That’s not the kind of listener I am.”
Similarly, “Pamela Brown” is sung by a man remembering the woman he once wanted to marry. But instead of what you’d expect, the narrator is thanking her for turning down his marriage proposal. If she’d accepted, he’d “probably be driving kids to school” rather than having adventures in dozens of cities, here and overseas. “Ravishing Ruby” describes a gorgeous truck-stop waitress, but Hall looks inside her head and discovers she’s not paying attention to all her flirtatious customers. She’s still pining for the father who abandoned her as a teenager.
“The music business is a funny business,” Hall told me. “Despite all the organizing and planning, there’s an element that can’t be planned—and that’s the creativity. You have to be in the right mental zone to write a good song. Humility is required. Sometimes I’d put a sneaker on my head, and I’d say, ‘This is the most ridiculous thing in the world.’ You have to accept both the sublime and the ridiculous all at once to get in the zone. But once you’re in there, all the trivia disappears, and the song just unfolds.”
When Hall first came to Nashville, he fell in with a crowd of young, obscure writers who had a similar taste for the sublime and the ridiculous: Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Roger Miller and Hank Cochran. They’d hang out at Tootsie’s Lounge, right behind the Ryman Auditorium, and beg Grand Ole Opry performers to record their latest efforts. But because they were writing for each other more than Music Row, they developed a subtlety and richness of language that differentiated them from the usual country-radio fare.
Hall himself joked, “Someone once said, ‘Tom T. and Kris are the only two men in Nashville who can describe Dolly Parton without using their hands.’ We’d all sit around and drink beer and play our songs for each other—and that’s how we got better. A lot of writers in town made a career out ‘Little Darlin’’ songs: ‘I Miss You, Little Darlin’ #1,’ “I Miss You, Little Darlin’ #2’ and so on. But Roger, Kris and I couldn’t write that kind of song; we were writing outside of that, and it pissed off a lot of producers, because they wanted a ‘Little Darlin’’ song. We tried; we wrote hundreds of them. But in our spare time, we also wrote ‘Homecoming,’ ‘Dang Me’ and ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down.’”
In 1968, when Hall married Iris Lawrence, an English songwriter known to most the world as “Miss Dixie,” she became his artistic conscience is much the same way as Kristofferson and Miller. And when Tom T. stopped having hits in the mid-1980s, he more or less retired.
“I’d watched baseball players get pushed out of the major leagues,” he told me. “They’d go to Japan for three years and then hobble home. I’d seen singers who sold a lot of records fall off the charts. They’d spend all their money trying to have another hit. After they’d spent all the money they’d made, they’d have nothing left and end up playing the county fairs. I didn’t want that to happen to me, so I planned my retirement. I even cultivated some hobbies: playing golf, raising vegetables, fishing.”
What he liked more than anything, though, was writing country songs. “I can’t quit that,” he says helplessly; “it’s just who I am.” But what could he do with those songs once he’d written them? Who’d record his songs without trying to change them to make radio happy or turning them into complicated business deals? Bluegrass singers would.
Soon he was busy writing new songs, often with his wife, for string bands. More than 200 of his songs were recorded by such bluegrass notables as Charlie Sizemore, Don Rigsby, Doyle Lawson, Dave Evans and two sons of bluegrass legends, James Monroe and Ralph Stanley II. Mr. Hall, who had always regarded Bill Monroe as “on a par with Mozart and Chopin,” had stumbled into a second career, and put his retirement on hold. He even released a new bluegrass album of his own.
Dixie Hall died in 2015, and Tom T. died on Friday. Together with his buddies Nelson, Kristofferson and Miller, Hall helped revolutionize country songwriting. And the reverberations of that earthquake are still felt in Americana today.
“I like songwriters such as Dylan, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Tom T. Hall,” Gauthier concludes, “because they ask you to participate. And leaving room for the listener to participate is not the same as being vague. If it’s vague it doesn’t mean anything; it’s just clever. I hate clever; it’s so pleased with itself. The difference between vagueness and participation is emotion—not the emotion in the writer but the emotion in the listener.”
Listen to an exclusive performance of Tom T. Hall performing “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine” at the Embassy Theatre in Fort Wayne, Ind., on Nov. 15, 1984.