Tom T. Hall, country music's 'storyteller,' is dead at 85

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Tom T. Hall, country music's 'storyteller,' is dead at 85
As a performer, Hall placed 21 singles in the country Top 10, most of them on Mercury Records.

by Bill Friskics-Warren

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Tom T. Hall, a country singer and songwriter known for wry, socially conscious hit songs like “Harper Valley PTA,” died Friday at his home in Franklin, Tennessee. He was 85.

His death was confirmed by a director at the Williamson Memorial Funeral Home in Franklin.

Known to his fans and fellow musicians as “the Storyteller,” Hall was among a small circle of Nashville songwriters, including Kris Kristofferson, Roger Miller and others, who imbued country lyrics with newfound depth and insight in the 1960s and ’70s. As his nickname suggests, he was a skilled narrator, although he told his stories less through the unfurling of linear plots than through the presentation of one-sided conversations or interior monologues that invited listeners into the lives of his often conflicted protagonists.

“Homecoming,” his 1969 Top 10 country hit, portrays a singer who has been away from home so long — and is so wrapped up in his own celebrity — that he hardly knows his own people anymore.

“I’m sorry that I couldn’t be there with you all when Mama passed away/I was on the road and when they came and told me it was just too late,” Hall sings in an unadorned baritone, assuming the role of the young entertainer during an overdue visit to his widowed father.

Permitting his listeners to hear only the son’s portion of the dialogue, Hall refrains from passing judgment on the man, only to have him betray his self-absorption with one halfhearted apology after another.

“I didn’t make judgments,” Hall once said in an interview. “I let the listener make judgments. When I got to the end of the story, if it had a moral, I let the listener find it.”

“Harper Valley PTA,” which reached No. 1 in 1968 on both the country and the pop singles charts for singer Jeannie C. Riley, was part allegory and part small-town morality play. Written amid mounting tensions over civil rights, women’s liberation and the war in Vietnam, the song pits an indomitable young widow against the two-faced authorities at her daughter’s school, unmasking petty hypocrisy and prejudice while at the same time giving voice to the nation’s larger social unrest. (The song gained sufficient traction within the pop mainstream to inspire a movie and a TV series of the same name.)

Several of Hall’s other compositions also became major hits for fellow artists, including “(Margie’s at) The Lincoln Park Inn,” a Top 10 country single for Bobby Bare in 1969, and “Hello Vietnam,” a No. 1 country hit for Johnnie Wright in 1965. “Hello Vietnam,” which featured backing vocals from Wright’s wife, Kitty Wells, was later used as the opening theme for the movie “Full Metal Jacket.”

As a performer, Hall placed 21 singles in the country Top 10, most of them on Mercury Records. The most successful were “I Love,” “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died” and “A Week in a Country Jail.” Each spent two weeks at No. 1 on the country chart; the sentimental “I Love,” Hall’s only crossover hit as a recording artist, also reached the pop Top 20 in 1973.

Backed by lean, uncluttered arrangements typically played by first-call Nashville session musicians, Hall’s songs were both straightforward and closely observed, forcing listeners to look at the world, and their preconceived notions about it, in a new light. Concerned with everyday lives and struggles, Hall’s concise, understated tales had the impact of well-wrought short stories. (He also wrote two volumes of short fiction and two novels.)

Thomas Hall — he added the middle initial T to his name when he embarked on his career as a performer — was born on May 25, 1936, near Olive Hill, Kentucky. His father, Virgil, worked in a brick manufacturing plant and was also a preacher. His mother, Della, died when he was an adolescent. When he was 15, Hall dropped out of school to work in a garment factory to help support the family after his father was injured in a hunting accident.

One of eight children, he began playing guitar and writing songs and poetry as a young boy. Floyd Carter, a local musician and raconteur, was an early influence, as well as the man Hall later memorialized in song as the colorful Clayton Delaney.

Hall formed the Kentucky Travelers, a bluegrass band that played at local gatherings and on the radio, while doing factory work as a teenager. He joined the Army in 1957; while stationed in Germany, he performed humorous material on the Armed Forces Radio Network, before returning to the United States three years later and enrolling in Roanoke College in Virginia to study literature on the GI Bill.

He moved to Nashville in 1964 and signed a recording contract with Mercury shortly after Cajun singer Jimmy C. Newman had a Top 10 country hit with his song “DJ for a Day.”

In Hall’s career as a recording artist, which spanned more than two decades, he placed 54 singles on the country charts. He also released more than three dozen albums, including two bluegrass projects: “The Magnificent Music Machine,” a 1976 collaboration with Bill Monroe, and “The Storyteller and the Banjoman” (1982), with Earl Scruggs.

Hall joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry in 1971 and won a Grammy Award for best album notes for the 1972 compilation “Tom T. Hall’s Greatest Hits.” He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1978 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008. In the early 1980s, he hosted the syndicated television series “Pop! Goes the Country.”

His songs continued to be recorded by mainstream country artists well into the 1990s, most notably “Little Bitty,” which reached the top of the country chart for Alan Jackson in 1996.

Hall is survived by his son, Dean; a sister, Betty Kiser; and a brother, Larry. His wife of 46 years, Iris Lawrence Hall, known to most as Miss Dixie, died in 2015.

The Halls did not have children of their own (Tom Hall’s son is from a previous marriage), but Fox Hollow, their 67-acre farm and recording studio south of Nashville, was a haven for aspiring young singers and songwriters.

Bluegrass was the couple’s passion during their final years together; for their many contributions to the idiom, including the numerous songs they wrote in that style, they were honored with a Distinguished Achievement Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2004.

“He didn’t like taking 35 dogs to a show, and he wouldn’t play golf with me because I was good,” Iris Hall, a dog lover and animal welfare activist, told The New York Times in 2008, explaining why the couple spent much of their retirement writing songs. “But songwriting was something we could do together.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Tom T. Hall, country music's 'storyteller,' is dead at 85

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