Tom T. Hall: I Witness Life - 100 Children - 2 Original LP's (CD)
1-CD with 24-page booklet, 22 tracks. Playing time approx. 60 mns.
"Lost summers are usually the winding-down periods... like the first light that fades back into darkness before dawn, lost summers have a way of ending what needed to be ended and announcing the beginning of everything that's important." One of Tom's earliest memories, when he was about three or four years old, was of insisting that his mother wake him at 5:30 in the morning to hear Ernest Tubb's 15-minute live radio show broadcast from Nashville. The entire family's love of music filled their home, and Tom began to play the guitar and write poems and songs while he was still quite young. His first guitar was made from a salt box, strings and a stick, (but was broken on purpose by his older brother Gene). Then, when Tom was eight, the Hall family moved into another house where an old Martin guitar had been left sitting in the corner of a room. Virgil repaired the Martin's cracked back with wood from a dresser drawer and, by the time Tom was he had written his first song, Haven't I Been Good To You? -inspired by a fight he witnessed while visiting a young neighbor couple.
Tom learned about show business from a "very grand old gentleman by the name of Hurley Curtis" ( `Uncle' Curt), who traveled around with his projector, screen, and cowboy films to towns too small to have movie theatres. Tom worked as his assistant for awhile, helping to organize and present the shows, and also delivering the commercial trailer at the end of each show for the local merchant who had sponsored the program. When Uncle Curt suggested that live music might attract more people, Tom organized a bluegrass band he called the Kentucky Travelers. He was laid off by the Blue Anchor overall factory during this period, so was able to devote all of his time to playing music, which soon included the band's natural progression to working on a radio station.
In those days," Tom explained in a 1967 interview with 'Music City News' editor Dixie Deen (whom he later married), "radio was so big that if you had a radio show you were considered a star. We went to a radio station in Morehead, Kentucky (WMOR) and applied for a job... We were sponsored by a man who ran a flour company. I had written a song called 'Polar Bear Flour', which was a smash with the flour man who signed us up." When the program went off the air, Tom had been so successful at selling flour that he was asked to stay on at WMOR as a disc jockey. Tom Hall was attracted to the world of show business, but isn't sure if he would have felt that way then if it hadn't been for Uncle Curt himself, an impressive man who was always polite, well-informed, and neatly dressed - "a philosopher and a thinker and... a very colorful guy. He had been a big influence on me, even though at the time I didn't realize I was learning from him. One thing he taught me was not to brag and tell big tales which, for lack of travel and experience, had been one of our favorite pastimes."
The folk art of storytelling is not only a form of entertainment, but a means of passing on family and cultural history from generation to generation. Virgil Hall, Tom's father, was an accomplished storyteller. His skills had been passed on from his own father, also a minister, and had been polished throughout his years as a circuit preacher and father of ten sons and daughters. Relatives and neighbors would gather on the Halls' front porch, where the "old people would have quite a bit of authority, because they had been out there on the world stage." Their stories had been retold over and ever so many times that "they were just masterpieces of monologue." These experiences provided the foundation for the songwriting style Tom was beginning to develop.
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Tom T. Hall did not gladly embrace the flashy role of a country music superstar as so many of his Nashville peers did, although by any standard he certainly qualified in that category. Hall was a warm, unapologetically low-key vocalist, not showy in the slightest when he was onstage. He was also a master storyteller, a thoughtful and observant songwriter who could legitimately lay claim to the handle of poet, and was uncommonly prolific on both fronts. Hall posted his first hit as a singer in 1968 and was still going strong on those charts close to two decades later, although he didn’t keep what’s probably his best-known song for himself.
Thomas Hall didn’t particularly chase fame and fortune as a young man. Born May 25, 1936 in a log cabin outside of Olive Hill, Kentucky, he grew up loving bluegrass, just as a great many Kentuckians did. He picked a little guitar in his youth and dropped out of school at 15. Hall spent time on the airwaves of WMOR radio in Moorhead, Kentucky before entering the Army in 1957 for a four-year hitch (he and Elvis were stationed in Germany concurrently). Back in the states, Tom reverted to deejaying until some of the songs he’d been writing in his spare time found their way to the offices of Jimmy Key, who ran Newkeys Music in Nashville in cahoots with singer Jimmy C. Newman.
Hall relocated to Music City in 1964, invited to hisliving as a songsmith at Newkeys. Success didn’t happen overnight, but Johnny Wright made Hall’s Hello Vietnam a 1965 C&W chart-topper, and Tom’s Billy Christian received plenty of exposure as the flip side of The Statler Brothers’ blockbuster Flowers On The Wall that same year. Hall also wrote extensively for truck drivers’ favorite Dave Dudley, a mainstay presence at Newkeys (Dave cut Tom’s droll Mad in 1964 and had a hit with Hall’s patriotic What We’re Fighting For the following year). It was Key’s idea to add the middle ‘T.’ to Hall’s moniker, just to add a little pizzazz.
Key convinced Mercury Records A&R man Jerry Kennedy to sign Hall as an artist in 1967. Hall decided he’d give it a try, cutting I Washed My Face In The Morning Dew as his Top 30 C&W debut with Kennedy producing. Yet Mercury wouldn’t profit from what was likely Hall’s most enduring composition of all. Singer Margie Singleton, wife of former Mercury honcho Shelby Singleton, asked Tom to write her a new number. He responded with the humorous Harper Valley P.T.A.
Margie didn’t immediately commit the epic tale of a young woman successfully facing down her judgmental neighbors to tape, but Shelby, by then heading his own Plantation label in Nashville, had sassy young chanteuse Jeannie C. Riley belt the tune with none other than a moonlighting Kennedy adding musical punctuation on dobro. Not only did Harper Valley P.T.A. become a #1 1968 country juggernaut, it followed chart-topping suit on the pop hit parade as well, rendering Jeannie an instant star and earning Hall some enviable royalty checks. Tom T. was suddenly a hot commodity.
1968 was also when Hall started scoring major hits of his own, his offbeat Ballad Of Forty Dollars going Top Five country. Homecoming followed suit the next year, and A Week In A Country Jail was his first chart-topper in early ’70. Each and every one of them told a fascinating real-life story, Hall’s keen eye for detail and subtle shading distinguishing his recordings from boilerplate weepy country fare. The driving Shoeshine Man and an ominous Salute To A Switchblade gave Hall more sustained 1970 success. The Year Clayton Delaney Died restored Tom T. to the peak of the country hit parade in ’71.
The ‘70s brought Hall a string of mammoth country sellers. A touching (Old Dogs-Children And) Watermelon Wine soared to the top of the C&W hit parade in early ’73, and the spicy Ravishing Ruby, spiced with mariachi horns, sold very well later that year. Hall deemphasized his country content a bit on some of his top sellers during this period and found mainstream acceptance in the process; the slightly mawkish I Love, basically a laundry list of Tom’s favorite things counted off at a snail’s pace, not only sat atop the C&W listings, it just missed Top Ten pop status in late ’73, while That Song Is Driving Me Crazy, Hall’s first #1 C&W hit of 1974, incorporated a razzmatazz Dixieland horn section. More country chart-toppers—Country Is and I Care—soon followed. Hall’s jolly ’75 hit I Like Beer remains a beloved staple of polka bands worldwide to this day.
Faster Horses (The Cowboy And The Poet) was Hall’s final #1 country entry for Mercury in 1976, though he continued to navigate the upper end of those charts with an unexpected bluegrass-drenched treatment of Manfred Mann’s Fox On The Run and his own Your Man Loves You, Honey. He defected to RCA in 1977 and enjoying more solid sellers with What Have You Got To Lose, The Old Side Of Town, and Jesus On The Radio (Daddy On The Phone), all Hall originals. After a brief early ‘80s stint on Columbia, Tom T. returned to his old Mercury stomping grounds and registered one last C&W Top Ten entry with his revival of the Tin Pan Alley chestnut P.S. I Love You, which harked back to a 1934 hit rendition by Rudy Vallee.
Not particularly enamored of tirelessly working the country oldies circuit to endlessly regurgitate his hits, Hall took it relatively easy in his later years, performing and recording only as much as he cared to. He passed away August 20, 2021 at the age of 85 in Franklin, Tennesseesecure in the knowledge that his was a unique songwriting talent. When it came to telling a mesmerizing story with clean, crisp precision that more often than not tugged at your heartstrings with a mellow, burnished pull, Tom T. Hall was an unalloyed master.