Legendary Country Music songwriter and performer Tom T. Hall passed away at the age of 85 on August 20, 2021. This is my remembrance of a man whom I never met, saw in concert once at a fire company carnival, but has always felt like a distant uncle to me – as much as it is a remembrance of a man I knew most of my life, my father.
The first time I heard Tom T. Hall's music … I can't remember because it's always been there. The music your parents - or whomever raised you - listened to is as much a part of you as the crazy brightly colored shag-carpet remnant that lined the floor of the room where you first heard that music. For me that music was on the records my father played and sang along to, the turntable propped up on speaker cabinets he had built.
There were plenty of performers of dad's era represented: Simon & Garfunkel, Peter & Gordon, The Chairman of the Board himself, even a little Roy Clark pickin' n grinnin' when I was young enough to still want to spend a Friday night with the old man. But the featured performer on for each of these nights was Tom T. himself. Most folks know Tom T. Hall from his penning of "Harper Valley PTA," or "I Love." Maybe you're familiar with "I Like Beer" (see below). Even though it was his most famous song, "Harper Valley" wasn't on the rotation for our weekly record concerts.
Remembering it now, it's likely my father was unwinding from a long week's work, adding his own rich baritone as he joined in the singing while spending some time with his boy, As often as not I remember poking at his desk calculator (If you punch in a number and hit the square root button enough times, it always resolves to 1!) or using up his scratch pads for I don’t remember what nonsense. I have a lot of memories from the almost 40 years I shared with my father, and these will always be some of the fondest.
I like to think my father was also using the medium of those songs as life lessons. Rather than sitting me down, wise to the fact that kids rarely listen to what their parents try to tell them, he instead gave the floor to The Storyteller and let his catchy melodies and insightful lyrics impart an ethos. These lessons might not be directly applicable when you're 7, but nearly 40 years later, they apply.
Stay with me as I remember some songs:
- From "A Week in a Country Jail" I learned to be wary of speeding and the potential caprice of local law enforcement - the former a lesson I'll admit it took me much longer and several hundred dollars more than it could have; the latter lesson is not one I, as a white man, need worry about beyond the possibility of maybe spending a few days in jail, as per the song.
- "The Ballad of 40 Dollars" and “Who’s Gonna Feed Them Hogs?” teach us that there's always a job to be done, even when those for whom you're doing the work are (literally) beyond their ability to repay you.
- "Salute to a Switchblade" is a 3-minute master class in international relations, post-WWII Army life, and what can go wrong when talking to a pretty woman in a bar - throw in an additional lesson on the evils of overindulgence in drink.
- In Counterpoint to "Salute", there's "I Like Beer" and "The Bar with No Beer," the former a fun tune about being honest with yourself, the latter a comic lament for those who go without.
- "Me and Jesus" taught me that my Faith is Mine, and no one else's business. We got our own thing goin'.
- "I Love" and "I Care" are two of the purest songs ever to exist and just thinking about them makes me well up because the human heart was never meant to hold this much love at one time.
- "Faster Horses" and "Hat Full of Feathers" show a young person the dangers and ridiculousness of braggadocio from differing perspectives.
- "That's How I Got to Memphis", "I Miss a Lot of Trains", and "The Year That Clayton Delaney Died" speak of heartache, grief, and recovery; they give us the tools we need to move on when "I Love" and "I Care" just aren't enough.
I could go on like this through the bulk of his discography, but I'll wrap up this reminiscence with "Sneaky Snake." There's no lesson here beyond maybe if you too want to get your young one into music (specifically Tom T. Hall, I guess?), play "Sneaky Snake" for them. This song was the funniest GD song to me when I was a little kid. It's fitting that it was written from an experience Mr. Hall had on his own property/refuge at Fox Hollow; because, as much as Tom T. Hall's music was full of lessons for me then and now, it has been and will always be a refuge for me as much as a memory of time well spent with my father - and that ridiculous (-ly awesome) yellow and orange shag carpet in his office.