Tom T. Hall, a Country Music Hall of Fame artist who wrote unassuming songs with distinct depth, died Friday at age 85.
Hall died at his home in Franklin, Tennessee, according to his son, Dean Hall.
A consummate country songwriter who captured life’s intimate details with lighthearted songs such as “I Like Beer,” penned the classic “That’s How I Got To Memphis” and showcased era-defining sharpness with “Harper Valley PTA,” Hall entered the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008, alongside Emmylou Harris, The Statler Brothers and Ernest Stoneman.
He joined Kris Kristofferson and Billy Joe Shaver in bringing a class of storytelling to country music unlike those before them. Hall timelessly and empathetically chronicled human spirit — from barstool stories to cemetery caretakers — with tales that would influence generations of wordsmiths to follow.
His songbook of country hits includes “(Old Dogs, Children and) Watermelon Wine,” “A Week in a Country Jail,” “I Love” … and the list goes on.
Many knew him as “The Storyteller,” a fitting nickname gifted to Hall by another country great — Tex Ritter.
“Tom T. Hall’s masterworks vary in plot, tone, and tempo, but they are bound by his ceaseless and unyielding empathy for the triumphs and losses of others,” Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame, said in a statement Friday. “He wrote without (judgement) or anger, offering a rhyming journalism of the heart that sets his compositions apart from any other writer.”
What a songwriter wants
Born May 25, 1936, in small-town Olive Hill, Kentucky, Hall wrote his first song — called “Haven’t I Been Good To You,” according to the Country Music Hall of Fame — at age nine.
Hall, the son of a preacher, quit school after his mother died and a hunting accident left his father disabled. He cut his teeth playing bluegrass, often taking the stage after shifts at a local garment factory. He took a job at a Kentucky radio station before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1957, serving in Germany — where he sometimes performed original numbers on the Armed Forces Radio Network.
Hall moved to Nashville on New Year’s Day 1964, after gaining the ear of Music Row publisher Jimmy Key. He once told The Tennessean he was happy to move to a city with a great newspaper and a great bar, the latter referring to what now stands as Lower Broadway haunt Tootsies Orchid Lounge.
“What else could a songwriter want?” he told The Tennessean in 2008.
Hall began writing songs that other artists recorded, including “Hello Vietnam,” his first No. 1, cut by Johnnie Wright in 1965. By 1967, he signed with Mercury Records and began releasing solo music, starting with “I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew.”
“Dew” — which follows a traveler struggling to understand human cruelty — gave listeners a glimpse of empathy that would become one of Hall’s signatures.
Hall sings: “The first strange town I was ever in
The county was hangin’ a man
Nobody cared if he lived or died
And I just didn’t understand
So I washed my face in the morning dew
Bathed my soul in the sun
Washed my face in the morning dew
And kept on movin’ along”
In 1968, Jeannie C. Riley released “Harper Valley PTA,” a song written by Hall that transports listeners to a world where a single mother challenges judgements from local hypocrites. It came at a pivotal time for songs from women in Nashville, following Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe” and arriving the same year as Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City.”
And Hall crafted the story from real-world experience. As a kid in Kentucky, he said he once saw a “socially disenfranchised” woman storm “the local aristocracy [to] read them the riot act, so to speak.”
The song begins: “I wanna tell you all a story ’bout
A Harper Valley widowed wife
Who had a teenage daughter
Who attended Harper Valley Junior High
Well, her daughter came home one afternoon
And didn’t even stop to play
And she said, “mom, I got a note here from the Harper Valley PTA”
“I wrote the song 30 years later,” he told country music website The Boot in 2016. “That song was my novel. I had been reading Sinclair Lewis. As a young man, I read Lewis’ novels ‘Babbitt’ and ‘Elmer Gantry,’ which is about hypocrisy. ‘Babbitt’ is, of course, about the social structure of the small town. So, being a big Sinclair Lewis fan, when I wrote ‘Harper Valley,’ I incorporated elements of ‘Elmer Gantry’ into the song.”
A decade later, a film inspired by the song — starring Barbara Eden — was released.
One of a kind
His singing and songwriting career reached commercial heights in the 1970s, as Hall eventually topped country airplay charts a dozen times and penned more than two dozen songs that reached the top 10.
He used simple words to weave smart stories that approached subjects without bias. Hall built musical statues of local pickers (“The Year That Clayton Delaney Died”) and observed small-town grief with a light touch (“Ballad of Forty Dollars”).
In a few lines, he described what “Country Is” — setting a scene of whippoorwills and walkin’ in the moonlight — years before it became a benchmark for Music Row radio hits.
And he crossed into all-genre success with “I Love,” an endearing list of what warms one’s heart — from leaves in the wind to slow movin’ trains. The chorus ends, of course, with Hall singing, “And I love you, too.”
“Irony of ironies, it’s been my biggest money-making song,” Hall told CMT in 2005. “It’s just three chords, and it’s only two minutes long. For some reason, I walked into a great melody. It sounds almost like what Mozart would have done or Chopin. I got really lucky on that melody, and it’s been used for a lot of different things.”
But no song may be more beloved than “That’s How I Got To Memphis,” a country standard made famous by Bobby Bare.
He sings: “I know if you’d seen her you’d tell me ’cause you are my friend
I’ve got to find her and find out the trouble she’s in
If you tell me that she’s not here
I’ll follow the trail of her tears
That’s how I got to Memphis
That’s how I got to Memphis.”
“Tom T. is one of a kind,” Bare told the Tennessean in 2008. “He tells stories about people and has the uncanny ability to capture the spirit of the people he’s writing about.”
‘Do it your way’
Hall wouldn’t reserve his words for only song; he published fiction and non-fiction books.
In 1979, he wrote of the self-described “hairy-legged town” in “The Storyteller’s Nashville”; his novels include “The Laughing Man of Woodmont Cove,” “The Acts of Life,” and “Spring Hill, Tennessee.”
He stepped away from recording for a decade in the late 1980s and early ’90s, returning in 1996 to release his album “Songs from Sopchoppy.” In turn, “Sopchoppy” helped return Hall to country charts as a songwriter that year, when neotraditional star Alan Jackson cut his song “Little Bitty.”
In the 21st century, Hall focused on shepherding bluegrass music with his late wife, Iris “Miss Dixie” Lawrence Hall. They often worked from their Williamson County home, Fox Hollow — a name Hall also adopted for his kindly 1974 album “Songs of Fox Hollow: For Children of All Ages.”
As Hall wrote, recorded and occasionally performed the music synonymous with his home state, what he once called “retirement” wouldn’t stick.
Or, as he said at the 2010 Country Radio Seminar in Nashville: “People say breaking into the business is hard. You ought to try to break out of it sometime.”
Hall and Dixie Hall released a bluegrass album, “Tom T. Hall Sings Miss Dixie and Tom T.,” in 2007. Hall gave his final public performance in 2011, and in 2018 — three years after Dixie Hall died — they entered the Bluegrass Hall of Fame as a couple.
“In bluegrass, you’re pretty much selling these things door-to-door,” Hall told The Tennessean in 2007. “I always thought if I had to go back to selling anything door to door that it would be vacuum cleaners, ’cause they’re easier to sell and you don’t have to autograph ’em.”
Before Hall died, he received his share of lifetime honors in Nashville and beyond, including a membership into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1978, a Country Music Hall of Fame induction in 2008, a BMI Icon Award in 2012 and Songwriters Hall of Fame invitation in 2019.
And country music faithful may recognize him most recently for being featured prominently in Ken Burns’ 16-hour 2019 PBS documentary, “Country Music.”
But he’ll be most remembered for the songs that continue to feel lived-in for years to come.
“Art moves this way,” he said in 2010, pointing forward. “If you’re doing it the way they used to do it, that’s copying. It’s already been done. … Do it your way, and have some fun.”
The family plans to hold a private funeral. They hope to gather for a public celebration of life when safely possible, due to the ongoing pandemic. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to a local animal shelter.