November 6, 2008
Tom T. Hall, one of the finest storytellers ever in country music, tells tales of great insight and description that have earned him a place among Nashville’s songwriting elite. His sense of clarity and an offbeat style have translated into true respect and admiration in Music City.
Hall, the son of a bricklaying minister, began learning music from an early age. At age 11, his mother died, and our years later his father was shot in a hunting accident. In order to support himself and his father, Hall quit school and took a job in a local garment factory. While he was working in the factory, he formed his first band, the Kentucky Travelers. In 1957, Hall enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Germany. While in Germany, he performed at local NCO clubs on the Armed Forces Radio Network, where he sang mostly original material. After four years of service, he was discharged in 1961. Once he returned to the States, he enrolled in Roanoke College as a journalism major and also took a job as a DJ at a local radio station.
One day a Nashville songwriter was visiting the station and upon hearing Hall’s songs, he decided to send them to publisher Jimmy Key. Key, who owned New Key Publishing in Nashville, quickly signed Hall to a songwriting deal. The first singer to have a hit with one of Hall’s songs was Jimmy C. Newman, who brought “DJ for a Day” into the Top 10 in 1963. In early 1964, Dave Dudley took “Mad” to the Top 10, and these successes drove Hall to make the move to Nashville.
The string of hits continued after he arrived in Music City. Johnnie Wright reached #1 with Hall’s “Hello Vietnam,” in 1966, and Hall soon started a recording career of his own. He took the plunge in 1967, signing with Mercury Records. His first single, “I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew,” was released in the summer of 1967 and became a minor hit. Hall’s other two singles in 1968 failed to crack the Top 40. Then, in the late summer of 1968, Jeannie C. Riley had a major hit with Hall’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” which spent three weeks at #1 and was named the Single of the Year by the Country Music Association. In the wake of this success, Hall’s own “Ballad of Forty Dollars” became his first Top 10 hit, climbing all the way to #4.
Throughout 1969, he had a string of hit singles, culminated by the release of the #1 single “A Week in a Country Jail” at the end of the year. The following year was just as successful, as “Shoeshine Man” and “Salute to a Switchblade” both hit the Top 10. In 1971, he had his second number one single and his biggest hit, “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died.”
For most of the early ’70s, Hall continued his chart run and became a popular live performer. Between 1971 and 1976, he had six #1 hits, and he also appeared on the popular television series Hee Haw. Hall won the 1972 Grammy for Best Album Notes, for his liner notes to Tom T. Hall’s Greatest Hits. His autobiographical book The Storyteller’s Nashville appeared in 1979, and he continued to write novels throughout the 1980s.
In 1996, Hall released Songs From Sopchoppy, his first album after a ten-year sabbatical from the music industry. That same year, Alan Jackson released a version of his “Little Bitty,” which eventually spent three weeks at #1. Hall has since retired from songwriting, but for his candor and richly textured songs about the commonfolk he received induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008.
Tom T. Hall Song Catalog
- “Ballad of Forty Dollars,” Tom T. Hall
- “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” Jeannie C. Riley
- “Hello Vietnam,” Johnnie Wright
- “Little Bitty,” Alan Jackson
- “Mad,” Dave Dudley
- “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine,” Tom T. Hall
- “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” Bobby Bare
- “A Week in a County Jail,” Tom T. Hall
- “The Year that Clayton Delaney Died,” Tom T. Hall