With his lyrical vignettes of colorful characters and commonplace situations, Tom T. Hall is known to classic country fans as The Storyteller.
Highly regarded as a songwriter and recording artist, his hits include “Harper Valley P.T.A.” for Jeannie C. Riley and his own recording of “(Old Dogs, Children And) Watermelon Wine.”
Thomas Hall was born in the eastern Kentucky village of Olive Hill on May 25, 1936. His mother died while Hall was just beginning to show interest in writing poems and songs. Later his father, a preacher, was disabled in a hunting accident, which led Hall to quit school when he was 15 to help support his family. This he did through various jobs, including working in a garment factory, playing in a bluegrass band and filling in as a part-time disc jockey.
Hall joined the Army in 1957 and was stationed in Germany. While serving in the quartermaster corps, he completed his high school education and entertained his fellow soldiers. Following his discharge in 1961, he enrolled in college with the aim of becoming a journalist. Again he worked as a disc jockey and dabbled in writing songs, some of which he sent to a Nashville publisher.
One of these songs, “D.J. for a Day,” was recorded in 1963 by Grand Ole Opry star Jimmy C. Newman and became a No. 9 hit. Hall moved to Nashville the following year to pursue songwriting full time and soon added the definitive “T.” to his stage name, as he doesn’t have a middle name.
Dave Dudley landed a Top 10 hit with “Mad” and went on to record many of Hall’s songs. In 1965, Hall scored his first No. 1 as a songwriter via Johnny Wright’s recording of “Hello Vietnam,” later appearing on the soundtrack to the 1987 , Full Metal Jacket.
Hall was turning out songs in such volume that in 1967 Mercury Records’ Jerry Kennedy signed him as an artist. For the next nine years, every song that Hall charted came from his own pen. In fact, of the 54 songs he charted between 1967 and his final one in 1986, only eight were by other writers. Twenty-one of those singles reached the Top 10.
The first three songs Hall released for Mercury made it only into the lower regions of the charts, but his fourth one, “Ballad of Forty Dollars,” went Top 5 and solidified his credentials as a homey storyteller. Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings recorded it for their 1986 album, Heroes. Hall’s equally narrative-based “A Week in a Country Jail,” released in 1969, became his first No. 1 as an artist.
In 1968, Jeannie C. Riley, also a new artist, took Hall’s “Harper Valley P. T. A.,” a sassy put-down of small-town morality to the top of both the country and pop charts. It would be Riley’s only chart-topper, but it won her a Grammy for best female country vocalist. The song was made into a movie in 1978 and into a TV series in 1981. Riley’s recording entered the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2019.
Speaking about that song, Hall told CMT.com in 2005, “It’s a true story. I was just a fly on the wall. I was only 8, 9 or 10 years old at the time. I was mowing grass around the neighborhood — it sounds like I should have turned into a landscaper. The lady was a really free spirit, modern way beyond the times in my hometown. They got really huffy about her lifestyle. She didn’t go to school, but they could get to her through her daughter. She took umbrage at that and went down and made a speech to them. I mean, here’s this ordinary woman taking on the aristocracy of Olive Hill, Kentucky, population 1,300. When I was a kid, you just didn’t take on the aristocracy. It was unheard of.”
Hall showed his literary side in 1969 with “Homecoming,” a textbook example of a dramatic monologue in which a smooth-talking, but down-and-out country singer tries halfheartedly to make amends to his father for missing his mother’s funeral and other moral lapses.
Bobby Bare earned two back-to-back Top 5 hits with Hall’s compositions: “(Margie’s At) The Lincoln Park Inn” in 1969 and “That’s How I Got to Memphis” in 1970. Dudley also secured his only No. 1 hit with Hall’s “The Pool Shark” in 1970. The Grand Ole Opry inducted Hall in 1971 and he received a CMA Entertainer of the Year nomination in 1973. George Jones released Hall’s plaintive “I’m Not Ready Yet” as a 1980 single, following “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and reaching No. 2.
Among the throng of memorable tunes that Hall wrote and took No. 1 or Top 10 were the moving “(Old Dogs, Children And) Watermelon Wine,” “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died,” “Me and Jesus,” “Ravishing Ruby,” “That Song Is Driving Me Crazy,” “Country Is,” “Deal,” “I Like Beer,” “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet),” and “I Care.”
Always a fan of bluegrass music, Hall devoted an entire album to it — The Magnificent Music Machine — in 1976. It featured guest artists Bill Monroe, J. D. Crowe and Jimmy Martin, among other notables. In 1982, he and another of his bluegrass heroes, Earl Scruggs, released the album The Storyteller and the Banjo Man. That same year, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson cut “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died” for their 1982 album, WWII.
Hall won his only Grammy for writing the liner notes to his 1972 album, Tom T. Hall’s Greatest Hits. Two years later he issued the charming album, Songs of Fox Hollow (For Children of All Ages). He turned author in 1976 when he published a book on songwriting. Eight more books followed, including novels, a memoir and a children’s book.
Hall hosted a syndicated music program, Pop! Goes the Country, in the early ‘80s before retreating from the stage. Mercury Records issued a two-disc box set titled Storyteller, Poet, Philosopher in 1995. In 1996, Alan Jackson cut one of Hall’s newer songs, “Little Bitty,” which went No. 1 at country radio for two weeks.
Brad Paisley cut “Me and Jesus” as a bonus track for his 2014 album, Moonshine in the Trunk. Meanwhile, “I Love” has been used for commercials ranging from Little Debbie snack cakes to Ford Trucks and Coors Light. Jon Pardi’s rendition of “I Like Beer” was placed in a Super Bowl commercial for Michelob Ultra in 2018.
In the years following his retirement from performing in the mid-1990s, Hall and his wife Dixie returned to bluegrass as songwriters and patrons of young bluegrass artists, many of whom recorded in the Halls’ home studio. Dozens of their songs were recorded by both up-and-coming and established bluegrass acts up through Dixie Hall’s death in 2015.
Hall received the ACM Poets Award, presented to legendary songwriters, in 2010, and he was named a BMI Icon in 2012. In addition he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1978, the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008, and, with Dixie, into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2018. The Songwriters Hall of Fame inducted him in 2019.
“It’s the last notch in my pistol,” Hall told Billboard about the latter honor. “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.”