Despite an insanely consistent run of successful singles in the 1970’s, Tom T. Hall inexplicably feels forgotten today, not even a year removed from his death in August 2021.
Historians love to define the decade as the Outlaw era, which doesn’t do much to celebrate or capture the contributions of the greatest songwriter in country music history.
Bobby Bare said, “Tom T. Hall captures the language, the mentality, and the soul of our people better than anybody who ever wrote a song.”
George Jones said, “By far the all-time greatest songwriter/storyteller that country music has ever had.”
Yet Hall is most remembered as the songwriter behind massive hits made famous by other artists: Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley P.T.A,” Alabama’s “Song of the South,” George Jones’ “I’m Not Ready Yet,” and Alan Jackson’s “Little Bitty.”
I offer this ranked list of twenty-five of his best songs to honor his towering legacy, and, hopefully, invite listeners unfamiliar with its breadth and beauty to spend some time with them and see what all the tears and fuss are about.
“Day Drinkin'” (with Dave Dudley)
Day Drinkin’ [Single]
Hall recorded this duet with Dave Dudley. Released exclusively as a single, it reached #23 on the charts. It’s a simple enough song about two buddies who apparently spend a lot of days drinking together.
Dave Dudley held a special spot in Tom T. Hall’s heart. He was the first Nashville star to record Hall’s songs in the 1960’s after Hall moved to Nashville on January 1, 1964 to become a dedicated professional songwriter. Hall became a “sideman” for Dudley as a piano player when he was trying to supplement his $50.00 a week draw for writing songs for Newkeys Music which was run by Jimmy Keys in partnership with Dave Dudley and Jimmy C. Newman.
Incidentally, Newman was the first Nashville star to record Hall’s song when Hall was still earning a living as a radio station dee jay, which, not surprisingly, was titled “DJ for a Day.” Apparently, Nashville was a groovy little town.
All of this is to say Dave Dudley and Tom T. Hall had a special friendship. This song captures that camaraderie, familiarity and comfort. It’s as wonderfully slurry as Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup,” just with a lot more warmth and personality. While Keith’s song celebrates the beer you drink, Hall’s song celebrates the friends you drink beer with.
“The Grocery Truck”
Places I’ve Done Time
Think about how hard so many people have tried to depict rural poverty in America. We have the photography of Shelby Lee Adams and Dorothea Lange. Among many others, there are the novels of Erskine Caldwell, Cormac McCarthy, and Barry Hannah. We have the contemporary memoirs of Jeannette Walls, Tara Westower, and Sarah Smarsh. Thankfully. we also have this song about being down on your luck and poor in eastern Kentucky. It’s about beans, greens, and gratitude. It isn’t sentimental bologna or cheesy privileged slumming. The song is heartfelt, honest, and hard.
“That Song is Driving Me Crazy”
Hall creates an ear-worm about an unnamed song that he simply has to hear time-and-time-again. The song is doing exactly what the title says; Hall is almost deranged with delight at what he is hearing. The Dixieland melody marches behind lyrics that could serve as a primer for country songwriting stereotypes: home, broken hearts, buddies, and beer. The song is repetitive and insanely infectious. It is the most unexpected of sing-alongs from an artist not known for country jams.
In today’s language, the song is “meta.” It’s a song about a specific unspecified song that is somehow every song. Just a quirky brilliant song about the power of music. Still, what Tom T. Hall fan hasn’t wondered what song specifically inspired this madness. It was released in May 1974 as the lead single from his Mercury album Country Is. It reached #2 on the charts.
“What a Song”
Two amazing songs about songs. This is Hall’s subdued and self-referential answer to his own song, “That Song is Driving Me Crazy .” Whereas the earlier song was a youthful drinking and dance number, this one is a mature and reflective ballad. It is, however, just as slippery, seductive, and elusive. A vague song about the vagaries of love. He wants to hear the greatest song they ever wrote, a simple tune with simple lines. He fell both in and out of love to this song.
He described it as “the saddest, happy song” he ever heard. The song touched the very heart and soul of him with every note. Oh, what a song, what a song, but what song? We will never know. This wonderfully wistful song was from Hall’s 1997 Mercury album Home Grown. It was not released as a single.
“Jesus On the Radio (Daddy On the Phone)”
Ol’ T’s in Town
Okay. Make that three songs about songs. This one is about the tension between Sunday morning gospel music and Saturday night honky-tonk. Sung from the perspective of a child watching this dynamic break up his home, you can feel his mother’s conviction wrestling with his father’s addiction. The wonder of this song is the misguided exuberant sincerity of the invite from the drinking cowboy to his crying wife to “Come on down to Tootsie’s and have yourself a beer.”
The frantic and oddly inviting instrumentation sounds like a nervous breakdown, as the mother is literally left alone and holding the phone while trying to raise a family. Jesus on the old grand old gospel time radio show is the exasperated mother’s only salvation and strength. It allows her, albeit from her knees and in tears, to assure her son that he need not worry that they are alone in this domestic tug-of-war. This song was never released as a single. It was however, the B-side of the “The Old Side of Town” single released from his 1979 RCA album Ol’ T’s in Town.
“Who’s Gonna Feed Them Hogs?”
In Search of a Song
The song opens with a bed-side porcine prophecy of lost money and missed meat as a hog farmer is laid up and unable to care for his drove. A miracle allows this man, who was not expected to live at all, to simply put on his overalls one day and leave the hospital. This after days of calling out from a medicated fog, “ Here I am in this dang bed, and who’s gonna feed them hogs?”
It reminds me of the Craig Wiseman and Tony Lane penned song “That Was Us” that both Tracy Lawrence and Randy Travis recorded. In that song, a group of once hell-raising boys repent and help a sick farmer bring in his crop. Except here, the “neighbors don’t care,” and even his wife is too busy elsewhere on the farm to feed them while he was in the hospital. We are left to wonder what was behind this hog farmer’s miraculous recovery.
This song isn’t novelty or even silly. It is just a strangely compelling story rooted in working-class responsibility, rural details, and faith. Joe Diffie would have nailed this song.
You know you are dealing with a Tom T. Hall song when it is framed as a conversation between the storyteller and a waitress. I have always loved how at the song’s end, the narrator asks, “Would you bring me some coffee and a hot ham sandwich, please?”
“One of the Mysteries of Life”
Hall takes my breath away with this achingly tender and gentle take on the numinous mystery of love. Hall has taken words Jimmy C, Newman spoke to him early in Hall’s career about success being like a bird : “If you hold it too tight, you’ll kill it. If you don’t hold it tight enough, it will fly away.” He applies that wisdom to love. It’s genius and wonderful and kind and thoughtful. Like all Hall songs, it is painfully fair. He says, “Love puts sunshine in our days then steals our sleep at nights.” This song is the prettiest proof on my list that Hall is a uniquely capable singer equal to the challenge of his own material.
“Bill Monroe For Breakfast”
I am not historian enough to sort this song out. Most stories I have read about Hall’s childhood have him listening to Ernest Tubb’s radio show in the morning on the family radio. Maybe Tubb played Monroe’s music on his show. I don’t know. I do know that Hall and his wife Miss Dixie spent their final years together writing and performing bluegrass.
Hall recorded critically acclaimed bluegrass albums in 1976 (The Magnificent Music Machine), 1982 (The Storyteller and the Banjo Man), and 2007 (Tom T. Hall Sings Miss Dixie and Tom T.) Hall even produced a film in his musical retirement about a murdered fictional bluegrass musician titled “Who Shot Lester Monroe?”
I like to think of bluegrass music book-ending his life. I also like to think of Bill Monroe’s music sustaining a poor farming family at the breakfast table like the bread of life and the word of God. This song is from his 1997 Mercury album Home Grown, which was arguably his first step back to bluegrass. Although it was never released as a single to country radio, it did reach number one on the bluegrass charts.
“Ships Go Out”
Songs From Sopchoppy
Somewhere along the way I read that this song was a tribute to all the country music pioneers who had died. The song opens with, “Ships go out I see them every day/Ships go out I watch them sail away/ And on the decks I see my smiling friends/Ships go out but they never do come in.”
Lifelong friendships with artists like Dave Dudley, Jimmy C. Newman, and Bobby Bare are such a part of the Storyteller’s Nashville experience, a Nashville that – as Peter Cooper points out in his 2016 preface to Hall’s revised and expanded 1979 book about Music City – is long gone today. This song hits harder every year as the country music harbor increasingly empties out.
Identifying a song as a “list” song today is pretty damning criticism. So many “bro-country” songs were recently built by stringing together a rundown of increasingly insignificant country signifiers. At their worst, these songs seemingly identified nothing more than: partying, beer, tailgates, trucks, guns, and lots of nameless country girls in cut-off jeans as the acid test of what being country is.
When Hall wrote a list song about what country is, the connections he made were philosophical. They signified things like home, kindness, and pride. When listening to songs by Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan, come the end of them I often felt less than what I was before I started. Their love affair with county music was a negatory romance.
“Country Is” is a love song to the genre and the people who listen to it. Listening to it makes me feel wise, wonderful, and welcome beneath the country banner. Hall made an excellent case that being country is, in fact, all in your heart and not in some cornfield. This title song was a number one hit in 1974 from the Mercury album Country Is.
This is an aching song about grief, loss, and dreams with locked doors. No matter how many times I hear it, I lose it when he sings about the frog dying in his pocket. The song sounds like a fading echo from a painful past, a sad series of cruel memories. It’s distinctly atmospheric and nightmarish. It’s scary and upsetting. Cold winds blow through Hall’s darkness.
Hall lost his mother to cancer when he was 13. In his memoir he shares being unable to go to the graveyard for her burial. He watched the funeral from a hayloft with a cousin, “…too ashamed to tell him that I was glad to finally see my mother resting so peacefully after all the months of agony.” Two years later, his father was shot on a fishing trip by Hall’s Uncle Prentiss. When his father returns from the hospital, Hall describes him as, “…a badly damaged, never-to-be-the-same man…..sixty pounds lighter, with virtually no spirit left in him.” Hall would lose a brother in the Korean war.
The kicker about this song is that the narrator can dream about a place where the sun always shines, the wind never blows and nobody dies, but life has already taught him “an orphan can’t go” even to his own imagined Strawberry Farm.
“Ballad of Forty Dollars”
Ballad of Forty Dollars and His Other Great Songs
A masterclass in character development and scene writing, The song is also an amazing build up to one of the best punchlines in music history. Yet, the song isn’t a novelty or even comedy. It’s just a keenly observed episode of life.
I remember taking a continuing education course in magazine writing at Ryerson University in Toronto. The instructor was teaching the importance of setting and scene writing. She provided an example of an article describing a funeral for us to study written by Gerald Hannon, a famous Canadian journalist, The next week, I brought this song to class for her to listen to.
I think she was pissed Hall’s song painted a better picture with more interesting characters than Hannon’s article. If only my professor knew what Hall did when he said, “They study my songs in universities now.” This song climbed to number four from his debut album Ballad of Forty Dollars and Other Great Songs.
“Margie’s at the Lincoln Park Inn”
Hall often talks of this song and “Harper Valley P.T.A.” in the same breath. They are both songs about hypocrisy. He said they are “…about who we think we are, or who we want the world to think we are, and then, we who are. ”
The details are familiar and familial. Intimately and uncomfortably so. In the final verse, the narrator schemes to extricate himself from a domestic idyll as dirty with deception as his hands were earlier with bike grease. Even with his little boy’s warm puppy curled at his feet, and his wife baking cookies, the husband conveniently knows he is almost out of cigarettes because he also knows why Margie is at the Lincoln Park Inn.
This husband’s ugly treachery touches every person mentioned in this horribly elegant song of infidelity. Bobby Bare took this to #4 on the charts in 1969.
“The Year That Clayton Delaney Died”
In Search of a Song
Despite its title, this song actually says as much about the survivor guilt and impostor syndrome Hall wrestled with as a performer as much as it details the death of his childhood musical hero. And the portrait the songs paints of Clayton Delaney is a masterpiece. David Cantwell said, “Its lyrics [are] as compressed as a good poem.” This song fairly cries out “Why me, Lord?” as Hall struggles to reconcile regret with admiration for the 19-year-old who inspired him as a “barefooted kid” to become a songwriter and musician even though his idol “never took his guitar and made it down in Tennessee.” Hall said he wrote the song “believing that I owed him a debt of gratitude.”
For the record, Lonnie Easterling was the real name of Hall’s childhood drinking and picking inspiration. In his songs, Hall decided he would use the names of neighbors on the Kentucky hills he grew up in, and local landmarks, to protect the guilty. This song was a #1 country hit while also reaching #42 on the pop charts in 1971.
On a personal note, this song became a primer for managing my own young emotions when I was confused and frightened by childhood grief. I did what worked for Tom. T. Hall and I went out in the woods and I cried. I am also well aware that David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren ranked this as the 127th greatest country music single of all-time while I don’t even have it in my personal top ten of Tom T. Hall songs. My own rankings make me nervous.
“Shoes and Dress That Alice Wore”
Songs From Sopchoppy
There must be some unspoken agreement among country songwriters that the most heart-rending songs need to feature a woman named Alice. I hold up Merle Haggard’s “Holding Things Together” and this song by Hall as two prime examples. That Hall could still roar with this kind of first-person monologue this late in the game was saying something. The country music industry had essentially written him off as irrelevant, until Alan Jackson took “Little Bitty” from this same album to the top of the charts in October of 1996. Even with that success, however, Hall said, “ I was feeling detached from the country music business…I’d had enough of it, and it’d had enough of me.”
If only detachment always produced such results. “Dress and Shoes that Alice Wore” is a testament to Hall’s ability to find songs everywhere. This one is about the evocative power of a woman’s teal dress and red shoes. The narrator remembers Alice wearing them the night she caught him in bed with another woman. The lover describes Alice as “rude” when Alice leaves the room screaming upon discovering her husband “blinking in the nude.” She didn’t seem to know the narrator was married. He apparently lied to both women Yet, we first see the dress sadly hanging without form in a broom closet. The devastating details of the song unfold in reverse chronology; The narrator tells us it is the same outfit she wore the day she went away.
Turns out going away, however, was for good. Alice is dead. The nervous rhythm of the narrator’s conversation with the undertaker, when he asks for the shoes and dress before it all goes in the ground, is perfectly paced. It’s hard to know if he wanted the shoes and dress to remember Alice by or the woman, she caught him with. The song is one of the weirdest one’s Hall ever wrote. The smooth-jazz production choices add to the strangeness of the listening experience. Nonetheless, it is vintage Tom T. Hall. This song should have been given the “…chance to star in the galaxy of good songs.”
My second selection from Hall’s 1996 Mercury album Songs From Sopchoppy, this song was never released as a single. Hall did, however, unexpectedly produce a music video for it.
“That’s How I Got to Memphis”
Ballad of Forty Dollars and His Other Great Songs
Obviously, many people also love this song about obsession. Everyone from Bill Haley and the Comets to Bobby Bare to Lee Hazelwood to Buddy Miller to Daryl Dodd to Solomon Burke to Ronnie Dunn have covered it. It’s a simple story of a man maniacally detailing what has brought him to Memphis. He is infatuated with a woman who apparently never shared why she left. In his mind, this kind of compulsion to follow her trail is proof enough that he, in fact, loved her enough. Piecing together bits of what she shared about Memphis has brought him to the city.
The narrator hasn’t slept for three days or nights. He hasn’t eaten even a bite while following her. He starts to crack up and cry in the last verse realizing he will likely never rest in this quest to find out why she had to go in the first place. You can smell this dude’s intensity and almost taste his hunger knowing explaining how he got to Memphis doesn’t explain how he will ever leave. Hall’s original version was never released as a single.
Ballad of Forty Dollars and His Other Great Songs
This foreboding song cultivates a stunningly simple metaphor. Hall describes the many shades, colors, and textures of temptation and infidelity as cut flowers for sale in the city. Being Tom T. Hall, he also identifies other equally mysterious and dangerous wild flowers growing in the country. This song is deceptively simple; seduction reads like an article from The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
With the clarity of seed catalog copy, Hall identifies the dangers associated with picking any of these beguiling flowers. He allows that if you really have to gather them, despite the warnings, “there are ways and there are means.” The only consequence of harvesting these alluring beauties is “shattering someone’s dream.”
I think this is what Rodney Crowell meant in his song “Nashville 1972” when he sang, “Tom T. Hall go drink your fill and blow us all away.”
“Your Man Loves You Honey”
The easy read of this song is how quickly we can see ourselves in someone else’s story. Hall gets so close with this one that it feels like he remembering for us. He has somehow beaten a path to our own memories of a relationship we may or may not have ever had by saying something we all certainly wish we would have. Our hoped-for memories unexpectedly become his story to tell, and I think the story is a marvel. The lyrics are compassionate, kind and confidant. It’s a wonderful song about being your own man and setting clear relationship boundaries with someone you love.
The simple, relatable details of what this man does – and how he looks – sell this song, from the opening line to the last couplet: faded jeans, shaggy hair, golf clubs, an old army sweater, and a six pack. The narrator doesn’t over play his participation in the partnership so much as he simply establishes it as sufficient evidence he is trying. In fact, the only thing he is not trying to be is someone he is not. All this guy is asking for from the woman he can’t make it in life without, is to be fair; she needs to accept she can’t change his ways.
This must be a Tom T. Hall song if it can level-headily witness something as emotionally raw as a vulnerable relationship and do it with sincerity, humor, and honesty. This reached number four on the charts.
“Mama Bake a Pie”
The theater of war rolls into a country kitchen. The rising smells of mama’s baking can’t cut through the falling tears, hurt, and awkwardness of this tragic homecoming. A wounded vet’s fears are as thinly hidden as the bottle of booze beneath the blanket covering his battered legs. The same legs he is confident his ex-girlfriend will be unable to look at even as she insists upon visiting him.
Apparently the three things he can count on at his childhood home are his quick wit, mama’s pies, and his dad being drunk. There is even an uncle so unsure of what to say that he meekly offers, “Boy, they do some real great things with wood.” From comfort food to the existential discomfort of having the local newspaper describe your life-shattering personal service as a waste of time, Hall brings the enormity of war home on a Wednesday night at 11:35 pm.
“Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine”
If Hall has a signature song, this is it. This all-time classic taught me as a kid how rewarding listening to a song can be. I could endlessly listen to either this or “El Paso” by Marty Robbins and feel as though I were hearing the story for the first time. I probably love the country trope of the wise old man because of this song. The line “God bless little children while they’re still too young to hate” has stayed with me throughout my life. All the finely observed details feel more like a short story than a song.
The historical details of this song are well documented elsewhere. I just want to celebrate this song as a marvel and a wonder, just a damn-near perfect example of what being able to listen to life, while withholding judgment, can gift you. This was a number one hit from his 1972 Mercury album The Storyteller.
“We’re All Through Dancing”
Song in a Seashell
The higher we get on my list the less I have to say about the songs. They increasingly stand apart and alone. Hall’s conversational vocals sound exhausted and relieved on this performance. The song’s metaphor is stark and simple; a dying relationship described as the end of a dance. The slight lyrics are emotionally devastating. The economy of language reminds me of “Forbidden Flowers.”
This song sighs with a weary tenderness. It perfectly captures the realization that the relationship is over, that “They’ve turned on the lights.” Hall gently offers that it is okay to cry a little whether it be from the booze or old melodies. The punch of the sung is the finality of it all, “We’re all through dancing, no more.” Hall finds not the sweet-spot, but the softness, in sadness.
[Editor’s Note: This track is not in the YouTube playlist below because it is not available on the platform.]
For the People in the Last Hard Town
The greatest list song ever written. Faron Young apparently asked Hall, “Little baby ducks? Have you lost your damned mind?” Bob Dylan famously roasted Hall and this song as being “overcooked.”
Methinks the Singing Sheriff missed his target and the bard from Minnesota protested too much. Hall maintains the point of the song was to sound like a kid wrote it. He says he wrote the two-minute-long song in five minutes. It only took two takes in the studio. He says, “ So I invested a total of nine minutes into it, and it sold more than a million copies.”
If you doubt the power of this simple song, just watch somebody’s face light up when they listen to it for the first time. It’s as close to earthly joy as any songwriter has ever gotten. Roger Miller may as well have been speaking about this song celebrating the simple delights of life, instead of scheming how to off himself, when he wrote, “It’s so simple, I’m surprised I hadn’t done thought of it before yet.”
“The Man Who Shot Himself”
Places I’ve Done Time
Tom T. Hall always either cast, or stood within, a shadow. He knew darkness came with the light. Hall spent an entire summer of his early teenage years sleeping while dealing with grief. He said, “Don’t know that anything was really wrong with me. I just got up in the morning, walked to the top of the hill, laid down under a tree and slept until suppertime. Somebody would wake me, I’d eat, and then go to bed.” I
n the liner notes to Hall’s 1977 About Love album, Ron Peterson, the President of the Nashville Songwriter’s Association, said, “He’s got a built-in sadness. It’s a sadness he acquired by caring a lot about people and what happens to them.”
This song is evidence of all those things. A superbly detailed, non-judgmental observation of a familiar character who shoots himself.
How much harder is it to speak to this song knowing that Hall died last August from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head?
The Storyteller shot himself.
I would like to say that Hall didn’t seem much like a man with a problem, but that wouldn’t be fair to his story. He carried a heaviness with him his entire life. He was in failing health and he had lost his wife who he later shared thinking about every day since her passing six years earlier. Hall’s music was country. His faith was in Jesus. But Hall obviously did question his daily existence, to the extent he knew exactly what he wanted when he died: his name on a stone engraved with the line, “What the hell was that all about?”
As important a song in country music as any. It changed what country songs could be, say, and sound like. The significance of this song has been better discussed elsewhere; I will let Hall speak for himself here:
“There was no joy in writing those first songs of my heritage. In fact, I had no assurance they would succeed. I still had the haunting feeling that no one cared, that these days of life were not important, and that I was writing them out into songs only as a mental purge of my misgivings about my inherited circumstance. And yet I kept writing of the bittersweet memories of my childhood and the fears and frustrations of zigzagging through a maze of disasters and embarrassments to my present. I reluctantly sang a couple of these songs for Jerry Kennedy, my producer, and after hearing the “Homecoming” he said, “My God!”
Once I decided to put these feelings into songs, I gave all. I told the untellable and dragged the past into the present, word by word. I was, at the same time, proud and ashamed. I was somehow relieved to know that these are not dangerous emotions that had to be shunned, but a part of my life that I could not relive and therefore was permanently a part of me, no matter what I felt or thought about it. It was, in all modesty, a breath of fresh air for the music business, and it encouraged others to say what they thought being a part of a life that was commonplace among country people. I would hope that other country writers took courage and chronicled our times and places in songs as others could never have done.”
This iconic song reached number five in 1969.
“Pay No Attention to Alice”
For the People in the Last Hard Town
Twenty-four titles back, my list started with a song about two drinking buddies. It emphatically ends with another one. In the spoken intro to this one, Hall shares the wife of an old army buddy of his has become an alcoholic. What he doesn’t mention is that his buddy is a drunk himself. The husband spends the whole song trying to distract the narrator with evidence there is a difference between the two conditions. For the record, the narrator is apparently no stranger to tilting them back either.
This is a song about messy lives: wars and alcoholism, apple pies and overflowing ashtrays, drunk driving and having another. Despite all that, it’s mostly about relationships, recollections, and memories. Who hasn’t known an Alice, these drinking buddies, or a Ben down at the Shell Station?
I have seen cars that have been in more than one ditch. I can smell the dirty grease and smoke in Alice’s kitchen. I know what a gravy-stained and cigarette-burned easy chair looks like. This is such a compassionate take on emotional deflection, the tension between pride and shame in derailed dreams. It tenderly, and desperately, wants to look beyond the obvious failures of one’s life and focus on the better days of “fishing and raising hell.”
What does admitting you were a coward in the war even mean in this untidy context? This song is full and fearless, familiar and haunting. There is neither virtue signaling nor shaming in Hall’s stories because he can honestly see the humanity in different lives, recognizing, despite the chaos, life – like Alice’s over-cooked chicken – “ain’t too bad.”