Legendary singer-songwriter Tom T. Hall, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the IBMA Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry, died last Friday at his home in Franklin. He was 85.
Hall, who spent many hours of his free time in his cabin and on his 200-acre farm on Poplar Hill Road near Watertown, hit it big with “Harper Valley P.T.A.” in 1968 when Jeannie C. Riley recorded that song about small-town hypocrisy. It was a No. 1 country and No. 1 pop hit and sold six million copies.
Dubbed “The Storyteller” by country-western singer Tex Ritter, Hall had songs recorded by George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Dave Dudley, Johnnie Wright and Alan Jackson, not to mention the ones he sang himself. He was also appreciated overseas as Rolling Stone magazine placed him on their “100 Greatest Songwriters” list.
With close to a dozen No. 1 country hits, fan favorites include “The Year Clayton Delaney Died,” “(Old Dogs, Children and) Watermelon Wine,” “Homecoming,” “A Week in a County Jail” “I Love,” “Country Is,” “I Like Beer,” and “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and The Poet)” and “Me and Jesus.”
Among his lesser-known songs was his ode, “Watertown Tennessee,” about one of his favorite places on earth. The final verse goes, “When I get to heaven if I ever do die, I’m a gonna cut me a hole in the sky, sittin’ in a mansion, and all I’ll see is Watertown Tennessee.”
I was fortunate to meet Mr. Hall for a short time one night backstage of The Nashville Network’s “Nashville Now” TV show and he was friendly and effervescent. Several years later I had the opportunity to interview him and let him know we both hung out in the same neck of the woods near Watertown.
He told me he enjoyed moving dirt with his bulldozer and also loved his garden. “I got about a half an acre and a greenhouse. I grow potatoes, corn, cabbage, beans, radish and onions,” he said.
Among his Watertown neighbors was dairy farmer Larry Eastes, who visited Hall on several occasions.
“He let me drive his Jeep one day to look for my lost bird dog He was a gracious man,” Eastes said. “He stayed up on that farm a lot. That was his getaway. We bird hunted over there on his farm. We’d always stop by and talk to him. He sat down by the pond a lot and always had a campfire fire going. He had old clothes on and his hat. You wouldn’t know it was him. Joe Malone was his best friend in Watertown, the one he squirrel hunted with.”
Eastes was familiar with the tune Hall wrote about the community and recalled, “First Baptist Church in Watertown has a Little Lights Pre-School, and they always play that song at graduation and have done it for years and years.”
Longtime Watertown schoolteacher Paulette Dorris became acquainted with Hall while working at the concession stand in the Grand Ole Opry House, which was where she first heard his tribute song to Watertown.
“I worked the concession stand at the Opry for 15 years and could see the show from where I worked, and one Friday night I heard Tom T. singing, ‘Watertown, Tennessee, oh, Watertown, Tennessee,’” she recollected. “When the show was over, I went backstage and found him and said, ‘That’s my hometown,’ and he told how he had a getaway there, and he said, ‘The words to that song are true. Watertown’s a little piece of heaven.’ He had not put the song out yet, but the next night he brought me demos of that song on a cassette tape.
“After I retired from teaching I was director of Little Lights Christian Preschool at Watertown First Baptist Church for about 15 years. I asked him if it would be OK if I used it, and he said he’d be happy for me to, and so when we had graduation, instead of ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’ the children walked in to ‘Watertown Tennessee.’ ”
In 1995, Hall released an 18-song album, “Tom T Hall’s Country Songs for Children,” that included such tunes as “Sneaky Snake” and “I Love.”
Watertown’s Lynn Malone met Hall on a number of occasions as his father, Joe, and the music man bonded in the Wilson County countryside.
“Him and my dad were big buddies. Daddy got to know him when he bought the farm outside of Watertown in the early ’90s. He called it Red Hawk Farm,” said Malone. “When Tom T. moved there, he put a little camping trailer on it, maybe 15 or 20 foot long. It wasn’t nothing fancy, right on the creek, and it had a cot in it and would only hold one person. And that’s where he stayed. It was quiet and peaceful out there, and he loved it, and he wrote a lot out there.
“Whenever Tom T. was coming up, he would call my Daddy and Daddy would make sure the gate was open, and Tom T. loved Kentucky Fried Chicken. Daddy always had him a bucket of it.
“Daddy got to know Tom T. know pretty good, and one time he and Mama got invited to Tom T.’s mansion in Nashville for a fundraiser for President Jimmy Carter. Daddy and Carter got to going into conversation and both had been in the Navy and had served on the same ship, The Fulton, and they were trading stories and they had to pull Carter away. Daddy always laughed about it.
“One of my favorite stories that Daddy told me. Somebody had dug an acre pond out there. One day Tom T. called my Daddy and said, ‘Joe Henry, I got some people that want to fish in my lake. You go unlock the gate for him.’ So Daddy went out and here comes a guy in a big 20-foot bass boat with about a 200-horsepower motor, and Daddy said, ‘You Tom T. Hall’s friend?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, you’re gonna be mighty disappointed.’ Daddy waited a few minutes and this guy came back out shaking his head.”
When Mr. Malone died in 1995, Hall served as an honorary pallbearer.
“I Love” songwriting
The songsmith’s songwriter was born in a log cabin near Olive Hill, Ky., and began playing guitar when he was 4. At 9, he wrote the first of hundreds of songs. After dropping out of high school, he picked in a bluegrass band and then became a deejay before joining the Army in 1957.
He came to Nashville in 1964 with his guitar and $46 and went to songwriting. Four years later he married Dixie Deen, whom he called “Miss Dixie,” and the duo would co-write a myriad of bluegrass tunes after the singer-songwriter retired from performing in the 1990s. “Miss Dixie” passed away in 2015.
When I spoke with Hall in 1996, it was three years after he had “retired.” At the time he was hotter than a firecracker because he had just released his sixth book, a new album and had a new hit song, “Little Bitty,” that Alan Jackson took to the top of charts. Simultaneously, his song, “How I Got to Memphis,” a Top-10 hit for Bobby Bare in 1970, had been recorded by Charlie Sizemore and notched first place on the bluegrass charts.
“I kind of struck a blow for senior citizens,” the then-60-year-old told me. He did have a sense of humor, you know.
About writing songs and writing books, he didn’t see a whole lot of difference in how he tackled his craft.
“I have a word processor and a guitar and a tape recorder. I get up in the morning and work on one thing or the other, but I never separate the two that much.”
He shared with me that he still enjoyed dropping in little roadside cafes, beer joints and pool halls, and said, “I used to get out, but I’m too recognizable now. I open my mouth and the say, ‘Hey, you sound like Tom T. Hall!’ ”
And he shared a poignant memory from one of his book signings, saying, “One lady came up to me and told me, ‘My husband, Arthur, passed away a few months ago. He just loved your music. He used to ride in his pickup and always had all of his Tom T. Hall tapes.’ The lady bought a book and when I asked her who to autograph it for, she thought a minute and said, ‘Sign it to Arthur.’”
When I quizzed him to name his own favorite song, he said, “I kind of like ‘I Love’ because it’s a list of values, and it’s the shortest song I ever wrote, two minutes and two seconds. I made a list of all the things that make my life worthwhile and while I’m writing it, I’m humming it. I think that my best album was ‘In Search of a Song’ (1971). It had ‘Clayton Delaney,’ a dandy album.”
Hall told me that practically all of his dreams had come true but one: “They’ve never made a movie of one of my books. That’s about the only thing they haven’t done. Maybe they’re waiting on me.”
Let me close this tribute to one of America’s greatest songwriter-poets with the words of another Bluegrass State and country-bluegrass great, Country Music Hall of Famer Ricky Skaggs.
Via a press release, Skaggs said, “I was saddened to hear of Tom T. Hall’s passing. I loved him. He was a great Kentuckian with a heart of gold. He was a kind and gentle man. Lots of people come to Nashville to write songs, but Tom T. came to tell stories. These stories are everyone’s story. They are America’s story. Now he can truly say, ‘Me and Jesus have our own thing going.’ ”
I reckon now Tom T. and Miss Dixie have cut that hole in the sky and are sitting on the front porch of their heavenly mansion and looking down on Watertown, Tennessee.