Country songs are filled with memorable characters — “The Gambler,” “Jolene,” the unfaithful wife in “Long Black Veil,” “Pancho and Lefty,” the dreamer in “Green Green Grass of Home,” the Statler Brothers’ “Monday Morning Secretary” — but no one creates more vivid characters than Tom T. Hall, who made his first appearance on earth 83 years ago Saturday (May 25) and whose genius we heartily applaud.
Kentucky-born Hall has been that rarest of songwriters — one who writes alone. Of the 54 country singles he racked up between 1967 and his “retirement” from chart combat in the mid-1980s, he wrote 42 unaided, including his seven No. 1s and 13 Top 10s.
From the late 1990s until her death in 2015, Hall collaborated with his wife, “Miss Dixie,” on hundreds of bluegrass tunes that were recorded by dozens of artists. Bluegrass had been Hall’s first love before he turned to country. The Magnificent Music Machine in 1976 was a celebration of bluegrass and featured guest performances by such heavyweights as Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin and J. D. Crowe.
But let’s get back to the matter at hand. Here are seven distinctive characters from Hall’s voluminous catalog, all of whom remains as radiant as the day (or night) they first emerged from his bubbling imagination.
“The Ballad of Forty Dollars” (No. 1, 1968)
Like the two gabby, irreverent gravediggers in Hamlet, the three good ol’ boys mentioned here are just working stiffs hired to carve out an earthen niche for a local big shot. They are less than grief stricken: “It took us seven hours,” says the narrator, “and I guess we must have drunk a case of beer.” While waiting for the ceremonies to end, they observe and discourse on the deceased’s wealth, the limousine his widow’s riding in and how good she looks in black. By the time taps are played, the narrator is already thinking of his next chore — mowing grass — and explaining why the guy’s death does leave him with a certain sense of loss.
“Homecoming” (No. 5, 1969)
People who paid too much attention in their high school and college introduction to literature classes will remember parsing through Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” which was always included in anthologies as an example of “dramatic monologue.” That’s the literary form in which a speaker reveals to the listener a personality that’s quite different from what he or she intends to convey. Hall’s “Homecoming” is every bit as skillfully executed as Browning’s “Duchess.” In it, Hall lets a guilt-nudged, down-and-out country singer condemn himself as feckless, even as he’s trying to play the dutiful son for his widowed father. Listen closely. It’s a master’s class in character development.
“A Week in a Country Jail” (No.1, 1969)
Here the singer — who’s been arrested and jailed for speeding — comes to terms with his confinement. At first, he rejects the “hot bologna, eggs and gravy” the jailer’s wife offers him. But as the week drags on, both the food and the wife grow more appetizing. You can figure it out from there. Notice how meticulously Hall accounts for time as it slowly ticks away.
“The Year That Clayton Delaney Died” (No. 1, 1971)
“Clayton was the best guitar picker in our town,” declares the narrator in this lyrical tribute. The song skips along tracing Clayton’s career from playing “up in Ohio in five-piece band” to charming the local youth with his music and his booze, to his lingering death and religious conversion. “I remember the year Clayton Delaney died,” laments the narrator, “Nobody ever knew it, but I went out in the woods, and I cried.”
“Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine” (No. 1, 1972)
It’s a stain on the Recording Academy that this song isn’t in the Grammy Hall of Fame. To quote the lyrics piecemeal would drain them of the drama coiled inside. But there’s never been a better song about a lonely old “philosopher” than this one.
The Abandoned Waif
“Ravishing Ruby” (No. 3, 1973) Ruby is a truck stop waitress whose obsession is an absentee father who promised he’d return to her but hasn’t. “Ravishing Ruby, she sleeps in a bunk out back/Her days and nights are filled with dreams of a man named Smilin’ Jack/That was her daddy’s name, that’s all she ever knew/Ravishing Ruby ain’t got time for guys like me and you.”
The Hot Mama
“Harper Valley P. T. A.” (No. 1, 1968; written by Hall, recorded by Jeannie C. Riley)
This song about a mini-skirted mama who dresses down the local parent-teachers association on her daughter’s behalf and in defense of her own reputation, launched Jeannie C. Riley’s recording career, won her a best country vocal Grammy and was made into a movie (1978) and a TV series (1981). Not a bad roll of the dice for a Kentucky boy.
Hall, who billed himself as “The Storyteller,” was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1978 and, with his wife Dixie, into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2018.