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This week’s issue of Music Notes will only discuss one issue before we get to reviews, and that’s the death of Tom T. Hall.

Tom T. was one of the all-time greats. A true humanist, no one could write a song that got to the heart of the complexity of human beings better than he. He was a remarkable individual as well–in a genre where bad behavior was the norm and apologized for, Tom T’s bad behavior might be drinking a bit too much, losing at cards, and then writing a song about the experience. No one has a bad story to tell about him. He was genuinely beloved. That’s not common in the history of country music, where dealing with George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Ira Louvin, Hank Williams, Johnny Paycheck, and so many other iconic figures could and often did lead to extremely unpleasant experiences.

But that T was a good guy isn’t really the reason we need to remember him. It’s the songs. Songwriters have long been the backbone of Nashville. A lot of key country figures over the years either never wrote or wrote very little, relying on the songwriters. That includes George Jones, Bobby Bare, Patsy Cline, and many others. Even really great songwriters would often record songs by these geniuses of songwriting. Most of them are largely unknown as country musicians themselves. A lot of times that’s because they aren’t very good singers. Sometimes, it’s just bad luck. Country music fans know the work of Harlan Howard or Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, but everyday people don’t really. People know Shel Silverstein from his children’s books, but he was more known for a long time as a country songwriter. Larry Cordle is one around today who a few people know but most don’t. Mickey Newbury was hugely important on the Outlaw Country scene of the 70s, but more because people recorded his songs than because he got rich recording them. John Hartford made a lot more money writing “Gentle on My Mind” than he ever did recording. Willie Nelson did a whole album of Cindy Walker songs in 2006 to bring attention to this long forgotten great writer. I could go on.

Occasionally one of these songwriters breaks through and starts a successful recording career, even becoming a big star. Willie Nelson is perhaps the most classic example of this, a guy who worked those rounds writing big hits for others for 15 years or more before breaking through on his own. Kris Kristofferson is another example of this, even more so because he is such a horrifically bad singer (I like him anyway, but let’s be real). Natalie Hemby is a recent example, who is just working with a record contract and touring with a full band. But her long-time writing partner and friend Lori McKenna is still having to pitch those songs. Well, this was where Tom T. Hall initially fit into country music. He was just a guy, a songwriter like so many others pitching songs to Nashville hitmakers. And he had a huge hit in 1968 when he wrote a song called “Harper Valley PTA” that was recorded by an unknown Jeannie C. Riley and became an oddball hit and something of a voice of a new generation in Nashville. T made a lot of money on that song. He bought himself a big ol’farm outside of Nashville. And there he would go about working up one of the most remarkable careers in the history of country music. He was a pretty limited singer. His songs didn’t fit any kind of normal country music style. He told complex stories that often didn’t lead to any conclusion. He was funny. He was genuine and humane. He also had a sense of humor that could sometimes lead to bad songs. But his biggest downside was his overwhelming sentimentality, which really was his downfall and why he doesn’t have a truly perfect album despite his astounding songwriting talent.

Hall’s weaknesses also is a reason why, unlike nearly every other country star, his Greatest Hits collections are not a good way to access his catalog. It’s unfortunate, but people really liked some of his worst songs. “I Love” has a strong case for the worst song ever recorded in music. I despise that song with the flame of 1,000 suns. It is so, so awful. It’s just a list of sentimental things Hall loves. It’s sap beyond sap. But people liked it. “I Like Beer” is a tremendously stupid song. Harmless, but stupid. People loved that too. So you really have to go into the albums themselves. Let me just go through a couple here.

Probably Hall’s best album is In Search of a Song, from 1971. This is almost all gold. It starts with one of his big hits, “The Year Clayton Delaney Died,” a childhood remembrance of a hero musician of his who taught him how to pick and drink. It’s great. That’s followed by “Who Gonna Feed Them Hogs,” about a hog farmer in the hospital who wills himself back to health because no one will feed his pigs and someone has to do it. T tells it from the perspective of someone talking to a waitress and ends by ordering “a hot ham sandwich please.” Who writes this song other than Hall? No one. Then it goes on to “Trip to Hyden,” about the horrible mine disaster there shortly before Hall visited town, which I’ve written about here. In this song, Hall, who is from eastern Kentucky initially, goes back to check it out and just talk to people. This is just worth reprinting in its entirety here:

Tossed and turned the night before in some old motel
Subconsciously recallin’ some old sinful thing I’d done
My buddy drove the car and those big coal trucks shook us up

As we drove on into Hyden in the early morning sun

Past the hound dogs and some domineckered chickens
Temporary-lookin’ houses with their lean and bashful kids
Every hundred yards a sign proclaimed that Christ was coming soon
And I thought, “Well, man, he’d sure be disappointed if he did.”

On the way we talked about the 40 miners
Of the 39 who died and one who lived to tell the tale
We stopped for beans and cornbread at the Ed & Lois Cafe
Then went to see the sherrif at the Leslie County Jail

They took us to the scene of that disaster
I was so surprised to not find any sign of death at all
Just another country hillside with some mudholes and some junk
The mines were deadly silent like a rathole in the wall

“It was just like being right inside of a shotgun.”
The old man coughed and lit a cigarette that he had rolled
Back in town I bought a heavy jacket from a store
It was sunny down in Hyden but somehow the town was cold

The old man introduced the undertaker
Who seemed refreshed despite the kind of work I knew he did
We talked about the pretty lady from the Grand Ole Opry
An’ we talked about the money she was raisin’ for the kids

Well, I guess the old man thought we were reporters
He kept reminding me of how his simple name was spelled
Some lady said, “They worth more money now than when they’s a-livin’. “
And I’ll leave it there ’cause I suppose she told it pretty well

This is just astounding. First,

“Every hundred yards a sign proclaimed that Christ was coming soon

And I thought, “Well, man, he’d sure be disappointed if he did.”

This might be the best lyric ever written about driving around rural Appalachia.

Then there’s the fact that visiting such a mine disaster doesn’t actually reveal anything. Then there’s the conversations with the locals and the reality of life that the woman ends the thing with. Just great work. It’s also great work precisely because it’s not a political song.

After that we have “Tulsa Telephone Book,” a fun one-night stand song. Then it’s “It Sure Can Get Cold in Des Moines.” This is another song that really gets at T’s humanity. It’s about being on the road, going to the bar, and seeing a woman weeping silently in the corner. He and everyone else knows why she’s weeping–she has separated from her man for some reason and is moving away, waiting for the bus. He doesn’t talk to her. He just observes and thinks about her. “The Little Lady Preacher,” which T swears is all true was about his work as a bass player working on a religious program with a young and tremendously attractive female preacher and her rough and tumble husband. “LA Blues” is kind of a throwaway about being on the road and drinking a lot. “Kentucky, February 27, 1971” is another masterpiece, about visiting an old man way up in the eastern Kentucky mountains and just listening to him talk all day about the way things are.

At this point, this is an A+ album. But then the last three songs undermine its power like so many Hall songs did. “A Million Miles to the City” is a pointless piece of sentimentality about kids wondering about the big city. “Second Handed Flowers” is about a woman he used to see when his date bailed on him but now she’s on her death bed and it doesn’t work at all. And finally there is “Ramona’s Revenge,” about a relationship that develops between a deaf-mute girl and another slightly disabled man in a small town. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great. So the album closes on a mediocre three notes. That happened too often. No one was there to tell him to separate from the wheat from the chaff I guess.

That was Tom T in a nutshell. “I Like Beer” is the 10th best song on I Wrote a Song about It, only ahead of the hideous “Lyin’ Jim.” But that album also includes “The Girl Who Read the Same Book All the Time,” another of his deeply humanistic songs that almost no one else could ever write because no one else had his skills to think like this and then turn it into a song. It also includes excellent songs such as “Deal,” “From a Mansion to a Honky Tonk,” “Fallen Women,” and “Sad Song for My Friend.” Other than maybe “Deal” these are not well known songs. But my god are they great. Even the odious “I Love,” which led off his less than great 1973 album For the People in the Last Hard Town has the astounding “Pay No Attention to Alice,” about a gathering of him and his friends and the alcoholic wife of his friend. With lines such as

Don’t talk about the war, I was a coward
Talk about fishing and all the good times raising Hell
Empty that one down, we’ll get another
It’s gettin’ late, we might as well

we see how committed Hall was to honesty in songwriting. And if his honesty meant silliness or sentimentality sometimes, well, we probably couldn’t have had the greatness without the other side of that. He was the great humanist songwriter. Later in his career, he went back to writing bluegrass songs for other artists, including the wonderful and chilling “The Midnight Call” for Don Rigsby on his wondrous album of that name he released in 2003 and which I think is the best bluegrass album of the 21st century.

Tom T. Hall stopped performing a long time ago. I never had the chance to see him. Probably if I had it would have been a bunch of his songs that I don’t like. But I will always cherish his albums. And I strongly encourage to hunt them down in any way you can. Again, the Greatest Hits albums are limited in quality. Go get the studio albums.

Finally, if you really want to engage with Hall’s life, check out the episode on him from the truly fantastic Cocaine and Rhinestones podcast. You want to listen to all of these, even if you aren’t a huge country music fan.

Let’s listen to some of Tom T. Hall’s greatest songs.

Album Reviews:

Ivo Perelman/Gordon Grdina/Hamin Honari, The Purity of Desire

It’s only been in the last 4 or 5 years that I’ve really discovered the beautiful possibilities of combining avant-garde jazz with North African and Middle Eastern music. The droning nature of the latter provides a wonderful backdrop for the intensity of the former to often make really extravagant noise, at least in the right hands. Well, Ivo Perelman, one of the top saxophonists of the last quarter-century is certainly the definition of the right hands. Here he is with Grdina on oud and Honari on a variety of percussion. The idea of improvisational music on the oud is a real departure from the normal way that instrument is deployed but Grdina certainly hangs in there with Perelman. Cool stuff.

A-

Loretta Lynn, Still Woman Enough

It’s great to hear Loretta record anything as she nears 90. That her voice still sounds pretty good is quite surprising. She’s always been a great country singer and that hasn’t changed. She’s not writing too much these days it seems, which is not so surprising. So this album consists of a few originals, a few traditional songs, and a few new songs, sprinkled in with lots of her friends. Oddly, what doesn’t work is the spoken word version of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” with just a banjo strummed in the background. The duet with Margo Price to redo “One on the Way” also falls a little bit flat. The closer, a remake of “You Ain’t Woman Enough” with Tanya Tucker is much better, with Tanya’s now pretty rough voice sounding real good with the material. In the end, this is an extremely minor album in Loretta’s catalog, but I’ll take what I can get.

B-

Buddy and Julie Miller, Breakdown on 20th Ave. South

Speaking of great country songwriters, there’s the duo of Buddy and Julie Miller. They’ve had a number of albums themselves over the years, although more Buddy solo albums because of Julie’s less than great health. After not being able to record much in the 2010s, in 2019, Julie joined Buddy on a new set of tunes and this is just really solid work. They sing great together and she adds so much to his voice. In fact, each of these songs is a Julie Miller solo composition, highlighting her great songwriting after so long on the sidelines. I’m not sure I’d call this a great album, but it’s certainly a worthy, solid release, one I can see listening to repeatedly.

B+

James Yorkston, The Wide, Wide River

I enjoyed this more than I thought I would upon reading about it. Clearly in the Van Morrison lineage, Yorkston, who is from Scotland, provides a set of expansive loose jammy jazzy compositions, i.e., a lot like a classic Morrison album. This is the kind of thing that could go very wrong without some discipline, which evidently has impacted some Yorkston albums in the past. But this is a fun release with solid, often pensive songwriting and excellent vocal work. I think a lot of people around here will like it.

B+

As always, this is an open thread for all things music and art and none things politics or disease.

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