Tom T. Hall: I Remember The Storyteller
August 27, 2021
His songs glorified fighting and loving, dying and beer drinking, cheating, and the good old days when gas was thirty cents a gallon and love was sixty cents away.
The trouble with growing old is that your friends start to leave you.
You wake up one morning, and another one’s gone.
I lost a good friend this week.
Tom T. Hall took his guitar and left us behind to sing a song to Clayton Delaney.
I met him back in 1970 when Gerald Crawford and I were assigned to write a story on the Nashville Sound. The British Invasion of music, led by the Beatles, had virtually erased country music in the 1960s. But now it was making a comeback.
Crawford and I wanted to find out why.
We ran across Tom T. in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Back corner. Dim light. Just Tom T., a beer, and a song. He would be walking across the alley in four minutes to sing at Ryman Auditorium’s Grand Ole Opry.
He had one thing on his mind.
Did he have time for another beer?
Old Tom T. walked the common ground, it was said. He was a loner, kept to himself, and wasted more time in his pea patch than at parties, which bored him. But he knew everybody who was somebody, and most who weren’t, and the rest he just conjured up out of an imagination gone wild. He was honest, they sid, just like his songs with the lyrics that gossip or preach or meddle, depending, of course, on whether old Tom T. was talking about a friend, an enemy, or you. He wouldn’t deceive you. He wouldn’t lie to you. He was real.
The T. in Tom T. Hall didn’t stand for anything. He just made it up.
He spent too much of his life on stage. He told us, “I play the piano and guitar and banjo, do a little dancing, get in as many tunes as possible without sounding like a jukebox, and talk about my songs.”
No one forgot his songs.
They glorified fighting and loving, dying and beer drinking, cheating, and the good old days when gas was thirty cents a gallon and love was sixty cents away. They were about jail and switchblades, gravediggers and P.T.A. meetings, Jesus, and homecomings. They knew what was important in life: old dogs, children, and watermelon wine. They knew the key to success: faster horses, younger women, older whiskey, and more money. They were as unfaithful as Margie out at the Lincoln Park Inn, as sneaky as the snake at Fox Hollow, and they preach about greed killing more people than whiskey. They were bluegrass and ballads. They were memories. They were real. They were imagination.
Tom T.’s life had been that of a wandering gypsy on a back road that led to nowhere and back home again, wherever home is and, mostly, it was on the back of a bus. He grew out of the grassroots of mid-America. He knew the blues before he knew how to sing them, and he’s spent years walking among the common people, never away from them, and sometimes they even hear about themselves in a song.
The characters who have crossed his pathway – the drifters and winos and cracker-barrel prophets, the lovers and loners and mile-weary liars – all keep elbowing their way out of his memory and into rhyme.
He doesn’t make them up. He merely steals from their troubles to help chase his own away.
Floyd Carter was Tom T. Hall’s inspiration. Floyd Carter died at the age of nineteen. He was a mountaineer, split-rail thin, a boyhood hero who would venture into Lawton, Kentucky, on Saturdays and sit on the sidewalk in front of the general store and sing for anybody who showed up to listen, or for himself if no one came.
Tom Hall was usually at his feet, sitting in the dust and sweat and tobacco smoke of a Kentucky summer. To Floyd Carter, guitar picking was near as good as cigarettes and corn whiskey, a whole lot cheaper, and most times just as sinful. Yet Floyd Carter never missed church. He didn’t hear many sermons, just stood in the shadows – out of reach of the hellfire and brimstone – just in case any young lady needed walking home, and one of them almost always did.
Carter had been singing and sinning in the summer of 1949, and Hall, being a boy of thirteen, wasn’t particularly concerned. Then he heard his father say, “Floyd finally got religion.” And he knew Floyd Carter was going to die. That’s the way it was in the mountains. Tom T. says, “It was really cruel, but they didn’t mind telling a man he was dying if it would make him get religion.”
As a man, Tom T. Hall went back to those Kentucky hollows in search of a song about Floyd Carter, but he couldn’t even find the boy’s tombstone amongst the weeds. Maybe he never had one. Maybe there was nothing to remember the best guitar picker in town. So Tom T. Hall wrote about him. He didn’t use Carter’s real name, of course. That would have been far too disrespectful.
But he reconstructed the heartbreak that was his during the summer of his thirteenth year, “The Year Clayton Delaney Died.” It was the least he could do. After all, Floyd Carter taught him the fine art of picking a guitar.
Tom T. wasn’t always rich and famous. He remembers the hard days. Sometimes he misses them. Like most of the now-legendary country music writers and singers, he was not an instant success.
He headed down the highway and carried his next songs to Nashville himself, rambling into town and down Music Row in a rose-colored Cadillac. He was broke. But he was riding in style.
Newkeys Music liked the songs he wrote and the honesty of the songs he sang and thought he had so much talent and promise that they paid him fifty bucks a week.
Tom T. was a hungry writer. He began writing a lot and found himself rocking along in the middle of a new day that was ripping out the old roots of Music City. Walking its streets were those who would drastically change, re-tool, and influence the Nashville Sound.
But at the moment, they were simply trying to stay alive. It wasn’t easy. Kris Kristofferson was tending bar and gaining notoriety as the slowest bartender in town. EmmyLou Harris was working in a beer joint as a short-order cook. Roger Miller was toting suitcases for tips in an old run-down hotel. Newkeys partners Jimmy C. Newman and Dave Dudley were singing just enough Tom T. Hall songs to keep them all off the streets.
They all haunted the front tables at Tootsie’s or the back tables at Limbaugh’s, an all-night café just down Broadway from the Grand Ole Opry, a midnight home for the wayward, the has-beens, the never-would-be’s.”
Got a napkin?
I got a song to write.
Got a guitar?
I’ll sing it for you if you want me to.
Others just gathered at somebody’s apartment – depending on who had received the latest royalty check – for a dish of rat’s ass stew.
“What’s in it?”
“Who gives a rat’s ass?”
It was free.
It was 1968 before Tom T. Hall had his first honest-to-goodness hits: “BALLAD OF FORTY DOLLARS” and “HARPER VALLEY P.T.A,” and “HOMECOMING” all on the same day.
“I guess all the muses in the world gathered in the same little kitchen that morning,” he said.
They whispered. He wrote down what they said. He was hungry. The muses said a lot. He wrote a lot. Tom T. Hall would go on to write eleven number one singles and twenty-two albums, and Tex Ritter began introducing him on stage as “The Storyteller.”
Tom T. grinned. He liked the name.
“Why?” I asked.
“Writers are hungry,” he said. “Writer’s eat rat’s ass stew.” He shrugged. “The Storyteller ate steak.”
May his songs roll on forever.
And his stories never end.