Tom T. Hall Talks Joining Songwriters Hall of Fame: 'It's the Last Notch in My Pistol'

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Tom T. Hall

When analysts differentiate country music from other pop genres, the characteristic they most often mention is no longer "twang." Instead, the focus has shifted to country's ability to weave stories, balancing the right amount of imagery with a melody to create an emotional reaction.

Thus it's appropriate that the man they named "The Storyteller," Tom T. Hall, finally takes his place in the Hall during a June 13 ceremony in New York. At age 83, Hall is too frail to make the trip, though he still retains the wry outlook that aided his previous entry in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

"It's the last notch in my pistol," says Hall of the upcoming induction. "But I figured if you're a songwriter, it's the ultimate. I hadn't thought about being in that one, because it never dawned on me that they would consider me up there."

Hall is, of course, a very different songwriter than many of the other members. Among his fellow inductees this year are R&B icon Mariah Carey, rapper Missy Elliott and folk-pop figure Cat Stevens. Its previous inductees cover a wide range of musical culture: blues man W.C. Handy, pop duo John Lennon and Paul McCartney, rockers Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, disco technicians Niles Rodgers and Bernard Edwards and Broadway composers Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

But the Hall also boasts its share of country songwriters, including Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Toby Keith, Garth Brooks and Kris Kristofferson, whose literate style of writing was introduced to Nashville around the same time as Hall's.

"Somebody said, 'Tom T. Hall and Kristofferson, they're the only two guys who can describe Dolly Parton without using their hands,' " quips Hall during a one-hour conversation in a guest house at his Fox Hollow retreat in suburban Franklin, Tenn.

Hall ambles a bit more slowly than he did in his prime, and his hearing has faded, too. But his sarcasm and appreciation for word play remain intact, and he still refuses to take himself seriously.

"Nobody gives a shit who wrote these songs," he says, quoting the now-deceased Shel Silverstein ("A Boy Named Sue," "One's on the Way"). "He said, '[When] you watch somebody on TV singing a hit song, to the public, that's [the artist's] song, and they don't care who wrote it.' It's like watching an original movie on Netflix -- you don't care who wrote it."

Hall knows the world of the writer and the interpreter from both sides. He moved to Nashville on New Year's Day 1964 from a college in Roanoke, Va., where he was studying to be a novelist. Having already landed a few cuts, he had a publishing deal waiting for him in Music City.

"They said, 'Can you get by on $50 a week?' And I said, 'Well, it's worked so far,' " recalls Hall.

The publishing deal certainly worked. Hall fashioned hits early in his career for Jimmy C. Newman, Bobby Bare and Dave Dudley, among others, and he would go on to write Alan Jackson's "Little Bitty," George Jones' "I'm Not Ready Yet" and Jeannie C. Riley's crossover hit "Harper Valley P.T.A."

Mercury chief Jerry Kennedy recognized the storytelling in Hall's work and signed him to a recording deal. Hall was skeptical that he had much to offer as an artist, but he saw it as a chance to get some well-made demos that might help him land more cuts. Instead, his tales -- including "A Week in a Country Jail" (the witty diary of a speed-trap incarceration), "Homecoming" (a country star's encounter with his small-town roots) and "The Year That Clayton Delaney Died" (the recounting of a musical mentor's influence) --benefited from Hall's conversational delivery.

"I was listening to the radio one day, and somebody said, 'That sounds like a Tom T. Hall song,' " he remembers. "I said, 'I must be doing something a little different than everybody else because now there's such a thing as a Tom T. Hall song, and I'm going to buy into that.' We look for a little distinction in the world to tell one person from another."

The "Storyteller" nickname certainly helped Hall's image, distinguishing him as an expert in a challenging field. If a story song is going to work at radio, it needs to tell enough to intrigue the listener, but leave enough unsaid that it's worth repeated exposure.

"It has to make people want to come back to it," says Songwriters Hall of Fame member Bobby Braddock ("He Stopped Loving Her Today," "People Are Crazy").

Appropriately, Hall's class also includes Americana singer-songwriter John Prine, whose approach to songwriting is similar.

"As far as telling a story, I always looked up to Tom T.," says Prine. "I couldn't believe that he wasn't in 10 years ago."

Oddly enough, the non-storied portion of Hall's repertoire has given him a new place in the recent cultural zeitgeist, even if -- as he says -- nobody gives a shit who wrote it. His slightly tipsy "I Like Beer," a top five 1975 single, re-emerged as a Michelob Ultra commercial in 2018, and his "I Love," a sentimental list song crafted for a 1973 children's album, became a hard-rockin' 2002 Coors Light commercial with new, edgy lyrics and the titillating presence of twin models Diane and Elaine Klimaszewski.

"It enhanced my bank account a half-million dollars," says Hall of the Coors campaign. "I heard the commercials all the time, but I had no idea what they were singing about. That's why they paid so much money for it: They wanted the ability to rewrite it."

Hall freely credits his wife -- the late Dixie Hall, who was cremated in 2015 and is now memorialized outside the guest house -- as a key sounding board. She was a songwriter in her own right, meeting him when they sat at the same table during the BMI Country Awards in November 1964, and in later years, she shared credits with him on a passel of bluegrass songs, though he insists she did most of the actual labor on those titles.

"We were married 50 years, and we never spent a night apart in anger," he says. "Pretty good record. She never got mad enough to leave me. She got mad enough to kill me two or three times, but she wouldn't leave."

It's a shame that Hall will not be able to attend his Hall of Fame induction in New York. He'll no doubt send his thanks in a note through his emissary -- Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum senior director/producer/writer Peter Cooper -- though no one tells Hall's story quite like the Storyteller himself. And few people write songs like he does anymore, either. Country songs still lean toward stories, but rarely with the crisp detail and through-line that Hall sewed into a three-and-a-half minute tale. And almost no one writes, like he did in his heyday, by himself.

"I said very arrogantly one time that writing a song is like writing a letter to your mother: You don't need three or four guys to help you do it," notes Hall. "I know that sounds arrogant, but I was just never any good at it."

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