Perfect Sound Forever


by Jason Gross

PSF: I know also that politics have figured very importantly in your life. You considered running for governor. You sang at the '72 democratic convention. You were good friends with President Carter. And one of your early albums, I Witness Life, had songs about Vietnam, civil rights, and leanings that were a little more liberal than usual in country music

TTH: Well, I'm obviously kind of a liberal. Most of the folks around here are Republican. I've always been a liberal. My father never preached against jewelry. He never preached against tobacco. He never preached against short skirts or haircuts. None of that stuff is in the Bible. He never preached against polish on nails or nothing. They just think it makes them look better. With that attitude, he was a real rebel because about 90% of all the sermons you heard back then were about haircuts, smoking tobacco, wearing short skirts. That's what they spent half the time preaching about. I just grew up with that. Politics with me is sort of like football. In the beginning, it's dangerous and vicious and mean game. Not for cowards.

PSF: That's kind of interesting because it kind of leads to the next thing I was going to ask you about. You'd said that in the music world, "If I could function in social circles more easily, I might have amounted to more. I was a loner and dyed-in-the-wool individual." Do you have any regrets about that or do you think that was that you just had to be true to yourself?

TTH: Well, I wanted to be a gentleman and a scholar. But, I don't know. It goes back to the church. You take a guy and you put him in a robe. Then you have a bunch of guys following him around with candles. All the ritual. Society demands that you submit yourself to ritual. You go, you get dressed and you drive down and you buy a $70,000 car to drive to this function even though nobody is ever going to see it. And you could ride around in the parking lot in a tank and you walk in and nobody knows. But people think that you have to have an expensive car to park somewhere out back, hoping somebody will see it, I guess. Then you walk in and they hand you a cocktail and you stand around for thirty or forty minutes not doing anything. Just talking and drinking and being nice to everyone, trying to remember names. Then you have this very bad deal. I never could get that. I never got it and people resented me for it. You gotta be in the right place and I never could. I kind of regret it. But, if you don't go, how can you insult anybody? You can't insult somebody by not being present. So I stayed away.

PSF: After you'd made it big, you returned to your home town, Olive Hill. You were saying that even though you did want to escape from your home town, at the same time you still longed for it's simplicity when you were away. And I was wondering, did that always kind of tug at you?

TTH: Unfortunately, after you were away it wasn't at all like you remembered it. But it was a very quiet, interesting, fascinating little town. Well, early on we lived out in the country on a farm.

PSF: I'd visited Nashville myself about year or two ago and I'd seen the Ryman Auditorium and I saw Opryland and I remembered that back in the early '70's when they changed the Opry to Opryland that you stopped working for them. (NOTE: the Ryman was the original Grand Ole Opry House)

TTH: I was working the Opry. Then they built this huge theater, very sterile. Industrial. I went out there once and I didn't want to be there. I work in places like this every night. The Opry just became another gig. You go backstage in an auditorium. You hear the speakers. And I thought, well this isn't like the Opry, it's just another gig. It struck me as being different. And that's another crazy notion. I don't know why but I just didn't want to go down there. Everything's been commercialized.

PSF: That's what I noticed myself when I was there. I thought the Ryman was this big, beautiful place for a show and I saw Opryland and it seemed like such a big contrast from it. You know, like just this big theme park kind of thing.

TTH: Well, they fixed the Ryman, too. Backstage at the old Opry (the Ryman), there was only one dressing room--Roy Acuff's. Everybody else got dressed in their cars or at home. Now they have dressing rooms.

PSF: It looks really nice now.

TTH: It's nice. The acoustics are still wonderful.

PSF: It was a church originally, right?

TTH: Yeah, it was originally. I think the Confederate legislature met there later, but it was originally built as a church. The story is that a fella went down--and you can check this out--but a fella went down to the river and was converted by a river boat evangelist. And he happened to have a lot of money so he came back and built that Ryman Auditorium, which was a church. It has a great history and I'm glad they fixed it.

PSF: Oh yeah. It was definitely a worthwhile project. You've talked about the '74-'75 CMA (Country Music Association) awards where John Denver and Olivia Newton-John were the winners. Your thoughts on this were that things were changed and it was painful for some people. I was wondering how you saw it at that time.

TTH: Well, we used to have a CMA awards show here and the comedy of the thing was that there wasn't anybody big enough in country music to enter in. So, every year they would go out to Los Angeles and get some movie star. You know, they would get Tennessee Ernie Ford or Olivia Newton-John or John Denver or Glen Campbell, somebody to host the thing. They would have gotten Dean Martin if they could have. A lot of it just felt like they were reaching outside of the business just to get somebody hot. So, they would bring somebody in from out of town because there was nobody in Nashville and nobody in the immediate Country music community who had the credentials, who was hot enough to carry it. You know, you understand the economy of that. So, we just kind of resented it. That one of us couldn't do it, which probably wasn't a bad idea.

PSF: Not long after that is when the outlaw movement--Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings-- kind of basic pure, simple, sincere music came around. I was wondering, did it have any effect on your work or your thinking about your work?

TTH: No, what it had to do with, was right along in there was the anti-costume people. They grew their beards, let their hair grow, they tried to work in their blue jeans, they wore sneakers. The tradition was that you'd sort of clean up before you went up on stage. So that was a natural change that came along. But I think it was more costume than it was music. It had a different look to it. Willie and Waylon, the outlaws, they looked strange, like Elvis, who didn't wear blue jeans anyway. And he said, "I don't like antique furniture. I grew up with a bunch of old shit." So he went with the velour and styrofoam.

I don't know, I think it was the costume that bothered the music people. "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain." What are you going to do with that? Here's a guy in a pair of sneakers and a pair of jeans and a sweaty tee shirt and a bandana with a beard and it looked kind of weird then.

PSF: Yeah, I'll bet.

TTH: We were sheltered. Looks have a lot to do with it.

PSF: Amen. At the end of your STORYTELLER book, there was a great quote. You were saying "Country music changed the heart and face in America at the time which I have written"- you were talking about the '50/s and the '60's. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that a bit and how you saw that.

TTH: Well, it goes on to say that the music keeps changing, that one day there would be a giant coming out of the country from somewhere picking a guitar, singing through his nose. And he was Randy Travis. So, if you look at the very end of that book, I predicted the coming of Travis.

PSF: True, but also you were just talking about how it changed the whole heart and the face of America. Why or how did you see that impact happening on the whole country? What was it about?

TTH: Well, country music is sort of the voice of the working man. We were an ethnic music. We were white. We were proud of the country. We were Southern basically. The economy proved it. We didn't make a lot of money. We made a living, but we didn't work doing manual labor. But I once told someone that it's nice to be a star and all that sort of thing but I want an automatic transmission specialist to make more money than I do. Back in those days we didn't make a lot of money like they do now. So, a lot of us came along, like Kristofferson, and we sort of implied that you could really write poor and still write country music. A guy could write a country song and then you could drink a beer with the guy and talk about Faulkner and maybe politics and religion. So, we kind of changed a bit. We became heroes to a lot of country people. Jim Reeves did a lot for that, too. It was kind of a growing period. In my early days we had to travel a lot to be on TV, whether it be Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas or whoever was doing those talk show things. There wasn't even any TV in Nashville. Now there's Garth, Trisha Yearwood, or Reba or somebody that has a TV show. Barbara Mandrell had her own show. Cash had his own network television show. That era kind of warmed the whole country up to country music.

PSF: After you'd retired in the '80s, you were working on charities and writing workshops, doing one-man shows. Do you find that was as fulfilling or more fulfilling than the work that you'd done before then?

TTH: Well, I was traveling alone with just my guitar. I went to a lot of colleges and universities and I spoke. I had a speech that I did called "Myth of Motivation", which was the reverse of what everybody else was doing. So I came up with a new idea called "Myth of Motivation." There was a lot of humor in it, naturally.

But, I would tell these people, I'd say, "You know, tomorrow morning, you're at this convention and instead of getting up and jogging five miles, and coming back and checking out the web, and getting all your paperwork together, and running down to a seminar and all of that." And I said, " If you wake up and you really feel pretty good, just go back to sleep. Probably nothing will happen. It will all go on anyway." But I had a line. I came back from a gig in Kansas City or something like that, and realized that I was not going to get away with this because I told somebody that I gave up the public speaking circuit because every time I'd start speaking people would get up and start dancing. And that happened to me in Kansas City. I showed up and I was speaking in the cattle show. I had one microphone, you know one of these big things that they sell cattle with.

And there were 3,000 cowboys and cowgirls sitting around in these bleachers and I'm supposed to do a speech. I got away with that in some fashion or another. And when I got back I told my agent, I said, "Look, I'm out of this." So, that was the end of my career as a public speaker. But it was very lucrative. People were very polite. And if you treat them to dinner and give them a cocktail, for 45 minutes they'll listen to anybody talk about anything.

PSF: The last few years, you'd had hits from songs by Alan Jackson, Daryl Dodd, Charlie Sizemore and other people. I was wondering, how do you feel after being all this time in the business and still having your songs at the top of the charts?

TTH: Well, it's kind of amazing. These young guys got their own. I was very pleased by it because they made a lot of money for one thing. And then the disk jockeys kept saying, "Here's Alan Jackson with a Tom T. Hall song." It seemed that a lot of jocks really got a thrill out of throwing in my name. I got a little ride there, but, you know, it's a lever you can't use because I'm not out there working anymore.

PSF: I've heard that one of the projects you have coming up is a bluegrass record. Is that right?

TTH: Well, I've got my own studio here. I'm sitting in it at the moment. I got about $40,000 worth of digital audio equipment. I had a custom-made desk. But, you know, you can put a 24-track studio in the back seat of your station wagon now. So, I've got this studio set up and when Mercury asked me if I wanted to do a new album, I said if I do it, I'll do it at home in my studio. They called and offered me a budget. I said well, I'm going to play all the instruments and write all the songs and produce the album out of my house. So I guess the budget would be to come over and take me out to lunch. So, I don't know if I'll ever do it. That would be bluegrass and it would be acoustic. I have all the instruments sitting there.

PSF: You could use your violin then.

TTH: Oh yeah, in about six months or a year, I'll be able to play it.

PSF: Of course, you know about the tribute project and the CD that's coming out. I was wondering what you thought about that. You've heard it, right?

TTH: Yeah, I was fascinated.

PSF: Why is that?

TTH: Well, you know to see the young kids pick the songs and do their own interpretations....the only person I know on that whole album, well I know Johnny Cash and Ralph Stanley. But R.B. Morris was one of the young guys that I met. I like R.B. He does "Don't Forget The Coffee".

I was fascinated at all the youngsters. I think Joe Henry started that- he did "I Flew Over Our House Last Night" (on 1993's Kindness of the World). Iris DeMent did "I Miss A Lot Of Trains." I'm fascinated by that. Young folks coming along and doing my songs in strange, wonderful renditions. I love to hear Mary Cutrufello sing "Candy In The Window." Man, she gets after that. I always loved that song. It was never a hit.

PSF: With regard to some of the plans that you have for now and the future, one of them was a singer that you're working with in Florida. Could you talk about that?

TTH: My wife is more or less producing. Her name is Nancy Moore She sings like a bird. We met her down in Florida. We've been laying down tracks. She was here yesterday. We're kind of building the album with guitar tracks up. It's going to be kind of acoustic, bluegrass. My wife, Miss Dixie and I wrote the songs. She's a sweet little girl and she sings great. So, that's one of the liberties you have. When you retire you can do as you please. She was looking for a label, so I guess I'll put her on my own label.

PSF: What other kind of plans do you have coming up?

TTH: Well, I don't know. I got a novel at the back of my brain somewhere.

PSF: Anything concrete or are you just kind of planning now?

TTH: I've been kicking around about two years now on some things... I gotta learn to play the fiddle first. That's taking all my time right now. When I went to take my first lesson, they said you gotta play an hour a day. Well, no problem. So what I do, I get in my studio and I make all these tracks, I put down, mandolin, dobro, banjo, bass, guitar. I put down all the tracks except the fiddle. When I practice, I just hit the button and I got a whole band to play with.

PSF: Do you find that it's kind of hard to be subjective and really weed out all your prejudice and ideas when you've written songs?

TTH: Well, yeah. That goes back to the whole thing about... can you really be that objective? It goes back to everything you think you know, which is unfortunate. There should be some things that are so strange, wonderful, weird... that you don't understand them. We'd like to say this is what it is and then we hang it on a peg or put it in a cubbyhole and that's what it is. And I hate to think that everything has a name. Another thing that alarms me is that everybody is on such a great mission to be sane. Sanity is over-rated. You don't want to be too sane, you know what I mean? I have always thought the best life would be a manageable mad thing. If you could somehow, you know, be weird and wonderful and strange and still kind of not get in anybody's way, hurt anybody's feelings, or cause anybody any economic disadvantage. But if you could get through life like that, that's your best shot. Don't try to be too sane. And if you could get there, then you could be honest. That's the first virtue. Humility is a good virtue.

PSF: Well, it's good to have both.

TTH: If you have truth, you're fully aware of what an asshole you are.

PSF: That always helps! One more great quote from you. You were saying "if you write about yourself as a person, then you're writing about everybody. We're all basically the same with a few minor differences. But it's those little differences that enable one man to become president and another a bum. Those differences are what I write about." I was wondering, what were your thoughts about that? Was that just like a huge area that you kind of delved into then?

TTH: Well, it has to do with talent. What most people don't pursue their true talent. If their father's a doctor, they become a doctor. Then they go out and they kill a lot of people. What they really wanted to be was a mechanic. That's where they'd really be happy. Spending their life under the hood of a car. There are people who actually love that sort of thing.

And they don't do it. And then they're unhappy and they don't know why they're unhappy--because they're not doing what they were called, what they were supposed to do. I've thought about people who could wiggle their ears. And I think, you know, that guy has got a talent. That's what he does. If I can write songs, he can wiggle his ears. Which one of us does God like best? You don't know. It's a pretty good trick, wiggling your ears.

PSF: Right now, with your retirement, do you feel satisfied with what you've done and where you are now?

TTH: Yeah. I wake up every morning and I say wow, look at this. I'm not in a hospital somewhere with a tube up my ass. This is the difference. And I get up in the morning and the first thing you do is you think something positive. But, I don't know. Every man for himself. And woman, too.

PSF: Are there any songs of yours that are personal favorites?

TTH: Well, you know, the first thing you do, you sit down and write and maybe I'm not sure of this, because I've never written anything to look forward, looking to what was going to happen. You just take the thing at hand and just write. You write to communicate. So, the more you communicate, the better you've written. That stands to reason. That's logic. So you like the songs that succeeded because you were writing to communicate an idea and it worked. You like "Harper Valley P.T.A.", "Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine", "I Love", "I Like Beer". Those kinds of songs. I said the things I wanted to say.... You look at the most successful songs that I've written and they're my favorites because I was writing to communicate.

See some of Tom's favorite music

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