One morning, when I was six or seven years old, my mother told me that she would be substituting for my regular teacher at school that day. My heart sank. Mom was alright, but I sure didn’t want her hanging around my school!
Later that day, my mood brightened when she produced a guitar from behind her desk and led a sing-along to a tune called “Sneaky Snake.” My classmates were delighted. I began to stick out my chest with pride. Perhaps my mom wasn’t quite as uncool as I had feared.
Besides my mother, I had Tom T. Hall to thank for this unexpected development. Hall, who died on August 20 at the age of eighty-five, was the author of “Sneaky Snake.” It first appeared on his 1974 album Songs of Fox Hollow, which featured songs he had written for his young nephews and ultimately became a cult classic.
The success of Songs of Fox Hollow notwithstanding, Tom T. Hall was not a children’s songwriter. He was simply a writer whose métier happened to be country music. (He also wrote a handful of short stories.) As musicians from Toby Keith to the Drive-By Truckers to Jason Isbell have attested, he was one of the best songwriters America has ever produced. While he may only be a household name among genuine country music fans, almost everyone has heard his “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” made famous in 1968 by Jeannie C. Riley, and his “Itty Bitty,” a 1996 hit for Alan Jackson.
Hall was born near Olive Hill, Kentucky, in a log cabin built by his grandfather. The primary theme in his songs was the conflict between traditional and modern American society (listen, for example, to his “A Million Miles to the City”). Hall and other country musicians of his generation felt that conflict in their bones. Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, and a host of other country singers were shaped in large part by the traditional folk culture that persisted in rural America, especially Appalachia, well into the twentieth century. By describing that world so well and so movingly, they would find themselves standing on brightly lit stages in gaudy, sequined costumes. Some dealt better with the irony than others.
Hall never became as famous as Cash or as rich as Parton. But almost without exception—Bob Dylan had some kind of beef with him, expressed with characteristic incoherence—they stood in awe of Hall’s ability to write powerful lyrics. Hall’s style, unlike Dylan's, was straightforward, linear, discursive. He was a master storyteller, and was just as good at slice-of-life description. His lyrics were precise, perfectly phrased, and splendidly attuned to rural dialect, idiom, tone, and feeling. The reality and authenticity of his songs’ protagonists is obvious. Every rural-born American knows, or knew, someone like them, and something of what they felt.
My favorite Hall song is “Homecoming,” in which a singer returns to the place he was raised after a long absence. We hear only the ambitious singer’s side of the conversation he has with his father, and he damns himself with every line. “I guess I should’ve written, dad, to let you know that I was coming home,” the song begins. “I’ve been gone so many years, I didn’t realize you had a phone.” The knife really twists in the fourth stanza: “I’m sorry that I couldn’t be there with you all when momma passed away. / I was on the road and when they came and told me it was just too late.”
Yet Hall was no brooding nostalgist. Many of his songs were comical—Hall was too cheerful for things to be otherwise. “Salute to a Switchblade,” “Ballad of Forty Dollars,” “A Week in a Country Jail,” and many other Hall tracks are both smart and wonderfully funny. It’s impossible not to smile while singing them. One sometimes smiles at the serious songs, too, out of delight in their ability to express some fundamental truth about the human condition—as with “(Old Dogs, Children, and) Watermelon Wine,” which would be unbearably sappy in the hands of a lesser craftsman.
In “I Love,” Hall weaves a kind of Whitmanian poetry around things like “little country streams, sleep without dreams, Sunday school in May, and hay.” Perhaps there is even a subtle nod to Whitman in Hall’s expression of appreciation for “coffee in a cup, little fuzzy pups, Bourbon in a glass, and grass.” Dylan hated “I Love.” But the simple things Hall says he loves in this song really are worthy of reflection. Who cares that “I Love” was written for kids? (Of Dylan’s criticisms, expressed in 2015, Hall simply said, “What the hell was all that about?”)
Hall’s appreciation of individuality and small-d democracy might also be said to have been Whitmanian. He was a moderately liberal Democrat troubled by Vietnam, Watergate, poverty, capital punishment, and similar concerns. The songs in which he touches on these issues—“Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken),” “Watergate Blues,” “One Hundred Children”—are not typically among his best, but they are still better written and more intelligent than what Nashville generally churned out in the seventies.
In religion, Hall was, according to the man himself, a believing Christian—and very much a Protestant. “Me and Jesus, got our own thing goin’,” he sang in a 1972 hit. “Me and Jesus, got it all worked out. / Me and Jesus, got our own thing goin’. We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about.” My mother loved that one, both because of its direct expression of faith and the non-ecclesial context in which that faith was held. When it came on in the car, she would sing along with gusto while pointedly turning her head toward her children in the back seat.
We often met her gaze with rolled eyes. But as far as having “it all worked out” with God goes, I hope and trust that both she and Hall were right.
Jeremy Beer is principal partner at American Philanthropic, LLC, and the author of Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball's Greatest Forgotten Player.
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