TOM T. HALL INTERVIEW
The Storyteller tells his storyTom T. Hall is the kind of country artist who makes me hate country music. I listen to his voice and his songs and think 'why in the name of God isn't this the way all country music sounds?' Even though he's been in retirement since the early '80's, his songs continue to be heard and felt by each successive generation of musicians and fans- being a songwriter's songwriter, he's seen his material covered by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Jeannie C. Riley (who had a multi-million selling smash with his "Harper Valley P.T.A", helping to begin his career) and many others. What they keep coming back to and finding are simple, eloquently stated stories about real peoples' live- their loves, hates, fears, hopes, dreams, insanity, aspirations. His whole tone is so life-like and seemingly conventional that you'd think that an old friend is telling you about some folks that he knows. All the marketing geniuses in Nashville, all the urban cowboys, all the latest crop of pretty-boy stars couldn't touch the wonderful gift he has with a song.
by Jason Gross (September 1998)
It shouldn't be any surprise that Johnny Cash, Joe Henry, Whiskeytown, Mark Olson, Victoria Williams, Kelly Willis, Freedy Johnston, Ron Sexsmith, Iris Dement, Syd Straw and many others pay tribute to his work on the recent Real- The Tom T. Hall Project. Find out about this fine CD at The Tom T. Hall web site, which also includes a mailing list about Tom, a discrography, lyrics, articles and other great information about the man.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Tom while he was at his home outside of Nashville about his whole career, including his thoughts on such touchy matters as religion, politics, life on the road, James Joyce, Olivia Newton-John, Willie Nelson, having people dance when you're giving a lecture and his future plans.
A billion thanks to the inimitable Mr. Justin Bass, Miss Dixie, "Ravishin'" Robin Yates, Rod Aubertin and most certainly to Lise Bigl who transcribed this interview (thanks Lise!!!).
PSF: A number of things I wanted to ask you about actually come from a book you wrote about called THE STORYTELLER'S NASHVILLE. There's a quote near the beginning where you said, "I'm a philosopher." I was wondering if you'd talk about that, about how you saw yourself as a songwriter being that way.
TTH: Well, I think the nature of songwriters is that they are philosophers, and philosophers have a bent towards poetry and songwriting, so I think that the two run around together. The nature of a songwriter could be philosophical. Looking for universal ideas, a way to say things, get the story across as a means of entertaining, provoking thought.
PSF: In a quote in the beginning, somebody said to you, "Tom, nobody ever asked you to become a songwriter." And that seemed to kind of stick with you. I was wondering, what compelled you nevertheless to go ahead and do it?
TTH: Well, the first time with artistic endeavors is if it's working it was your idea and if it's not it's somebody else's idea. That's human nature in any type of endeavor, if I'm not being too philosophical here. But, I've used that a lot. The way you look for songs, in looking for songs, you also find yourself looking for little signals and clues about life and how things are. So I look for small incidents in my life that taught me a lesson. When I came in to my publisher one day and I said, "I think I'll go back into radio and just write radio copy and live a normal life. And he reminded me. He said, "What's your idea of being a songwriter is what's mine."
And that to me, while it was sort of off the cuff, it was still a monumental statement in my life because that's right. My publisher, it wasn't his idea that I write. It was his idea that he publish songwriting, but it wasn't his idea that I'd be one of them. I decided that on my own that I was going to write. And I never forgot that. Some of the things he said, you never forget it because it's so monumental.
PSF: Early on, I've heard that one thing you also aspired to, other than radio, was also being a novelist and I never really heard you discuss this a lot. Could you talk about some authors that you've read over the years, even before you started songwriting, that were a big inspiration on you?
TTH: Well, I sort of roamed around the country for a number of years. I went to work in a garment factory when I was fifteen years old and then I went into radio and I learned to write radio copy, you know the thirty-second commercials and one-minute commercials: "Bargains galore all over the store" and "free balloons for the kids." Maybe that's an exaggeration, but I wrote thousands and thousands of them. Of course when I learned to do that, my pay in the radio business went up a little bit. So, I was always fascinated about writers. And I was always a good reader from a very early age. And so for a while I was kind of a traveling disk jockey. Every time a radio station a few miles down the road would offer me ten more dollars a week I would naturally move to that radio station. We had a broadcast magazine, a sort of Billboard magazine with a little music, and what was Billboard in the music business was what the magazine used to broadcast. And they would advertise what people wanted. They had a "wanted help" section.
And so for a number of years, I guess three or four years, especially after I got out of the army, I kind of traveled around different towns, disk jockeyed in several of them, and I was a bachelor and I didn't have any ties and didn't own anything I couldn't get in the trunk of my car. And so I was a very mobile person for that number of years. So I would go into a small town and I'd go to work for the radio station and not knowing anybody and not really having a social life, I took up a sort of a hobby of just hanging around the local library and I would read. I'd pick out an author and I would read all their books. And after I finished reading their major works then I would read their biography or autobiography. And it's important to read their books first because then when you read the biography or autobiography, you know what they're about. So, I did that for a number of years and I guess I read mostly novels. I read Sinclair Lewis, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. It was a great exercise, not only in how words how put together and ideas strung together. How they told their stories. That was part of my early training in reading all the books.
Then I read quite a few autobiographies about some historical people. I read some Greek mythology, I read a lot of that-- Socrates and Plato, that sort of thing. So I was quite a reader before I became a writer. Then I had the notion later on that I wanted to write the great dirty American novel so I went to Roanoke College on the GI Bill and I was studying writing there and in the process of doing this I started writing more and more songs and I got some of them published and for economic reasons I wound up in Nashville.
PSF: One author in particular I was wondering about, I was wondering if there was any connection with James Joyce and I'm only asking because in his work and your work, I noticed there's a lot of attention to small details that mean a lot to people. I was wondering if you'd read a lot of his work or not.
TTH: Oh yeah, I read some of Joyce and I liked a lot of the early years....
PSF: His short stories?
TTH: I sort of leaned towards that... but I don't know... a lot of that was a little too much...I guess he was sort of Freudian. Faulkner did that too. He was almost oriental... The Irish and the South are fascinated with that. I never got into that. I never got into Faulkner. I liked his short stories.
PSF: Around 1966, you had a kind of a writer's block. You were listening to the radio and weren't finding much on it that you liked. And I was wondering if you could reflect on that era a little bit in the mid to late sixties.
TTH: I went through the full process. I've been through the whole process, in the sixties I changed my way. When I got to Nashville I was trying to write songs and I was looking around. I'd written 20,000 30-second and 1-minute commercials and that's great training for a songwriter because you have a very short time to say a lot. You gotta take a three-story department store and in one minute you gotta tell them everything that's in it.
PSF: Were these commercials with music?
TTH: No, I'd just write them up. In fact, after I got out of radio it took me several years to get back to where I could type in anything but upper case. We'd just lock that thing down and write these commercials. I got to where I couldn't find the shift button. That's an occupational hazard.
So I was writing songs and then about the mid-sixties, somewhere along in there, I'd written enough songs. I don't know, maybe I wanted to write something like a Tom T. Hall song. And the best compliment I ever had is one day I was in Nashville, somebody came out with a record and some disk jockey said, "Hey, that sounds like a Tom T. Hall song." Well, up until then there hadn't been any such thing and he didn't know. He was just saying. And it told me a great deal. Then I understood that there was such a thing as a Tom T. Hall song. So, there was something stylistic there and I knew what it was. It was writing from personal experience, writing about places I've been, things I've done, people I've met.
So, I sort of enlarged on that. I used to get into my car and drive out to an intersection and put my finger out the window and find out which way the wind was blowing. And I'd just take off in that direction. I'd just drive around for a couple of weeks stopping in small towns, beer joints, cafes, you know, road side motels. Nobody knew who I was. But, you know I had my guitar and I'd take notes. I had a tape recorder. So I did several albums. I did one great album. My best album is called In Search Of A Song.
PSF: Oh, absolutely. That's my favorite also.
TTH: I think that was my best shot right there. My finest hour as they say. I could listen to the whole thing all the way through and there's nothing really crammed into it or that is made up.
Then I went through a period. After I got to be a recording artist and I got hot and everything, I developed an ego. After a while I knew everything, after about three or four years. I thought I knew how this thing is done. I was doing some good stuff and writing some good songs. But I look back at that period and I must have been hard to be around, someone who knows everything. And I was well traveled. And I created this illusion of literacy through reading and writing. I wrote a book of short stories. So yeah, I've had a nice well-rounded life.
And now I'm taking violin lessons. When I was a kid, I learned to play most of the stringed instruments. I can play, I don't want to brag, but I've played piano, bass, dobro, banjo, five-stringed banjo, mandolin, but I could never play the fiddle, so when I reached 62 I wanted to play. So about six months ago I bought a fiddle and I'm taking violin lessons. But, it's working out pretty good. So I gave myself six months and I'm three months into it.
PSF: Miss Dixie (TTH's wife) said something interesting to me- she said that you were seeing instruments now as toys and not tools.
TTH: Yeah, you know, when I was in the music business--I don't know where I got this, it's really odd-- I had several musical instruments that I could get into the back of my car and the trunk and I never wanted to sell one. Somebody would call me, and the economy being what it was, I'd go out for work. Working at a radio station, I was going to school and I didn't have any money. I lived pretty economically. I just had a room and I still had my old army clothes. I was still wearing those. And I had these musical instruments, but they were tools because somebody would come and say, "we need a bass player tonight" and I would get ten dollars and free beer. You can't beat a deal like that. "Be there at nine o'clock."
It was country music so I knew the repertoire. It was Lefty and Hank. Then the next night, some guy would call and say, "Hey, we need a lead guitar player." And I always kept these musical instruments around because they were part of my economy. Then when I got to Nashville and I got into it professionally, and then I had a road manager, you know somebody to look after all my instruments. And I would pick one up and I would play it and I said no I didn't like it and get me something else. And they'd give me another one and I said this is great, this is great. So they would tune it and put the strings on it. So when I walked out on stage and take a bow, I'd pick one up and it was in tune and it was in good shape.
But still, musical instruments were just tools. They were tools of the trade and you'd bring them home after being on the road for two weeks and chuck the thing over in the corner and wouldn't look at it again for another week. But then, after I retired and came off the road, I gathered up all my musical instruments and I got to looking at them and the instruments I bought the guys in the band. And suddenly, I wanted them all to be perfect. Now that they're not tools and they're toys. I'm very peculiar about them. I gotta change strings every so often. I pick them up and adjust it so that they're a perfect pitch and tone. Now that they're toys, they're very precious to me. When they were tools, I said, "What the hell, give me something to pick". That amazed me a little bit, that for some sixty years I looked at them as tools.
PSF: You were talking before about just being a side man. You'd also worked as a song plugger. Obviously, you're a songwriter, a great one. Musician. Lead man. And I was just wondering if having all these different roles in the industry, does this kind of give you a good feel for the business?
TTH: Well, it does before you get to know a lot of the people, get a chance to know what everybody in the industry does. I have had hundreds of people work for me over the years and I don't think I ever fired anybody. They've come and gone for one reason or another, but I've never walked up to anybody and said, "You're fired!" And they all come back and see me. They all call me up and check on me. And that's kind of a nice feeling. To have all these people that you've worked with come back.
But I think the reason I'm a good side man is because I've done all that at one time or another. I think I've been a good guy to work for because I knew what it was like. I never liked to hurt anybody's feelings or make anybody uncomfortable or anything because they'd made a mistake, especially on stage. I'd say, " you know, we're only going to be out there for an hour and a half or and hour and fifteen minutes or whatever the show was, and if you make a mistake, you're only going to make it once because we're immediately going onto something else. So don't worry about it." So, that's the way I feel.
PSF: As a rule of thumb, you haven't recorded songs that you've written for other people. Is that right?
TTH: No, and I never performed them. I'd write a song and the guy who sang it said, "Why don't you sing this?" I have plenty of songs of my own. People ask me to sing songs that I've written for other people. They were hits and were on the charts. I think that's bragging a little bit. It's sort of like saying, "Here's a song I wrote for Bobby Bare or whoever, and here's the way it really ought to be done." Once the guy's made a record and had a hit with it, it's forever his song.
PSF: A number of times, you've said that "I never wanted to be great, just good." I was wondering what you meant by that.
TTH: Well, I am a fan of history. When you look back, you think Mozart, you think Chopin and you think Hank Williams. And I don't know that tragedy follows true greatness. A tragedy of life. And a lot of dire circumstances. I'm a very comfortable and happy-go-lucky old man. So, I never wanted to be great because I'd just get worried anyway. But I never wanted to get too good or too hot or too big. When I'd drive up to truck stop, I would get off the bus with the band and go in and sit down, eat my chili, and someone would recognize me and they'd say, "Hey, Tom T., how're you doing?" And I'd say, "Fine." So, I never hid out. I was never big enough a star to. And if you walk into a place with sunglasses and a body guard with you, you *really* get a lot of attention.
That's just asking for it. So, I'd just get off. The band would follow me around because they said, "This guy's a celebrity and everybody in here knows him." And I would get off the bus and say, "I want to go in this truck stop and see if I can find a license plate for my pickup--one that says "Stay Off My Tail", or something. I'd browse around the truck stop and some member of the band was fifteen or twenty feet behind me in another aisle. I just went where I pleased.
PSF: You've talked about upcoming stars when you were starting off- you found that they were kind of bitter to you. You were saying that with the celebrities, the people that made the big time were causing havoc. So between those two types, who do you think were the people you bonded with?
TTH: Well, you know, that's a good question. And I think of an answer that you would not expect. It's not the personal bonding, it's an artistic bonding with people of your kind. Now, I wouldn't see Bobby Bare for a year, but when I did see him, I didn't say, "Oh, Bobby Bare, wow." I'd normally walk up to him and say, "Hey, Bare, how're you doing?" "Pretty good." We kept track of one another and always knew what the other guy was doing or how well he was doing because we looked in the charts and watch the newspapers. We sort of kept track of one another by listening to the radio, watching the television, reading the trade magazines. And we felt there was a sense of family. So that's the way we stayed in touch. It's not that we saw one another every day, but we understood that we were both in the same business, we knew what each other did and there was a sort of a bond there that we didn't have to visit all the time or remember somebody's birthday or call them up every two or three days, that sort of thing. There was a bond, a kind of unspoken community thing in the music business.
PSF: In every song that I've heard you sing, everything that you've written, every interview, I don't see a trace at all of bitterness. You've been through a lot of great things and a lot of not-great things. How do you keep such a level head about yourself with all this and not retain any bitterness or anger?
TTH: Well, I'm usually interviewed by people, and they start off the interview by saying, "Well, I guess you're right in there with all these others guys that think that country music is going to hell and all these young kids are ruining it." And, you know, they're telling me what I'm thinking. And I hate to embarrass them because I don't have that kind of story. I said, "This generation should entertain this generation. It's only fair. When I was a kid, I mowed the lawn. Now, somebody else's kid can mow the lawn. This generation should entertain this generation."
I told somebody the other day, I said, "You know, if you see a seventeen-year-old kid riding around in a pickup listening to Tom T. Hall tapes, there's something wrong with that kid. He should be listening to Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson and Martina McBride. This kid's gotta be weird if he's riding around listening to my stuff." But it's another generation. It's not that he shouldn't listen to Tom T. Hall stuff and say that's the way they used to do it and it's weird and strange. Young kids are doing the same thing I did, but they're doing it differently. They don't do brain surgery the way they used to do it either. They used to drill a hole in your head and let the bad air out. So, no, I'm not into that at all. In fact, I told some of those old guys, I said, "You know, some of us ought to go home and let these kids have it. I think I'll go first." I retired.
PSF: That's very noble of you.
TTH: Well, I couldn't compete with them.
PSF: You have an interesting tie to religion. Your father was a preacher and in a number of your songs like "Me And Jesus", "Work It Out" and "Morning Dew" deal with religion as well as the book that you've written, "Christmas And The Old House". A lot of religious thought comes in there. I was wondering if that had a great bearing on your life and your work.
TTH: Well, I grew up in a church and I studied--I'm not a theologian or anything of that sort--but I studied some of the origins and history of religion. Books were out there. And religion is a strange, wonderful thing. You know, more crimes have been committed in the name of righteousness than any other notion.
TTH: If you look back, it's a horrendous feeling. And I never did get that. You know, we were talking today about....Will Campbell, who is a philosopher, preacher.....they were baptizing a baby and the grandmother said, "Oh, I'm glad we got that baby baptized." And somebody said, "Well, why?" And they said, "Well, what if it had died without being baptized?" And the notion was that Jesus was going to send this kid straight to hell. I mean, this kid was like eight months old and if it died without sprinkling water on it, wow. Jesus would say, "well, that won't do, straight to hell."
So, you have all this going on out there and I'm sure these people actually believe that. But, my theory is if you have a religion, it's a good one. Because some people don't have any at all. And religion is a wonderful thing. And I have my own religion. I'm sort of a one quarter Baptist, I'm one quarter Catholic, one quarter Jewish. The first guy who came up with the concept of religion was sitting out under a tree. I'm sure of that. After we had learned to kill one another and throw rocks, like that opening scene in "2001: A Space Odyssey". Once we had learned to eat and keep ourselves warm, then we got a fire going, religion came along real late in that whole process. Then we got to where we were a little too comfortable and we said, "Now we have to have a God too." And so the first guy who came up with a religion was sitting out under a tree by himself. So, I thought the best way to get a real good religion is to go out and sit under a tree by yourself and let it all happen. That's how I got my religion. I love the Jesus song. Great story. Great idea. So, I have a weird kind of religion. But I guess it's a good one. I'm gonna find out some day.
See Part Two of the Tom T. Hall interview
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