From the heart-and-belly wail of American country music comes Tom T. Hall, deep-voiced and slow, telling stories in his songs.
John, 4-F World War II, beats off the whispers of the town (people said John was a slacker/ if he wouldn't fight in their war/A man wasn't much, if he wouldn't fight in nineteen forty-four ) until the day he blows the dust off his old .44, shoots two holes into Milton Howard's head, kills seven more townspeople, and then locks himself up in a farmhouse until the sheriff kicks in the back door.
Jethro talks to monsters and little green men (they fixed up his lungs and his fever/but they could not fix up his mind ), but not to his wife (she gave her heart to Jethro/and her body to the whole damn world ).
A silent and simmering country man (his music was country/his faith was in Jesus/in fact he had pictures of Christ in his house/he never once questioned his daily existence/nor wondered aloud what his life was about ) gets a neat haircut one afternoon and then goes home and blows out his brains.
"If I had awakened to the polite rattle of silverware as a child, I wouldn't have been a storyteller," says Tom T. Hall. "Wouldn't have had anything to talk about." He smiles, smokes his cigarette. "Maybe write songs about the gardener hiding my football or something."
In Nashville the word for his music is "story-songs," and there are people down there who say nobody writes them like Tom T. Hall. Permanent member of the Songwriters' Hall of Fame, international performer, five-years-running winner of the Truck Drivers of America Country Music Award, the minister's boy from eastern Kentucky is the presiding poet laureate of the buffetted working man.
He collects for his songs the small, hard dramas of people he hears about, people he knows. He has found them by sitting in bars, riding on buses, hitchiking around the country in search of song material.
"I had to quit doing that," Hall says ruefully about the hitchhiking. "Because I'd do television shows, you know. You become just enough of a celebrity to be a pain in the a--. It doesn't get you through the 12 items or less' checkout line, but you're sitting somewhere in a truck-stop, and people say, 'That guy looks like somebody I know.' And they don't trust you. They don't know who you are, but they know thy've seen you somewhere. And they sit, and stare at you. They think they saw you on 'Petticoat Juction' or something. Hanging around in Mayberry, with Andy Griffith and those guys."
He will lapse into occasional nostalgia or schmaltz ("Over the Rainbow" is on one of his albums), but mostly Tom T. Hall writes pure country, about pain and betrayal and fury and pride. "That's just the way things are for the working people," says Tom T. Hall. "They don't want to hear about Moon Over Mankura. They want to hear songs about themselves. And you know, since day one of the Declaration of Independence, the American working man, wither through war, inflation, or depression -- I mean they've just been jerked around from one calamity to another. And so that's where the songs come from. It's not easy out there if you wonder where the next refrigerator payment is coming from, or if your kids are going to eat, or if they're going to close down the plant where you work. There's not a lot of security out there."
His hair is gray, cropped short and a little uneven. Everything about him seems solid -- the broad, full mouth, the thick eyebrows, the wide chunk of shoulders and chest. He wears loafers, and a tan sweater and slacks.He speaks softly, voice low music, an occasional "ma'am"; it is the warm Sunday before his 8:00 p.m. concert at the Smithsonian's Baird Auditorium, and below his open window at the Hay-Adams Hotel, Lafayette Park is golden in the afternoon light.
He has come, as usual, with his seven piece backup band -- "The Story-tellers," from the name cheerfully tacked to Hall by the country veteran Tex Ritter on a New Zealand tour some time ago -- and one of his dozen odd guitars. "Sometimes you can pick up a guitar and strum it -- I don't know. Maybe this is just silly superstition. But I can strum it and say, 'Hey, there's a song in this thing.' In fact a fella had a guitar for sale one night in a bar, and I said, 'Hey, let me see it.' And I strummed it a few times, and I bought it. Took it home and wrote, 'Harper Valley P.T.A.'"
Tom T. Hall comes from Olive Hill, Ky., 1,300 people in a valley town shackled for sustenance to the huge brick plant where Hall's father once worked. The home was outside town, but Olive Hill is what he says: "You can't go around telling people you're from Tick Ridge. There's no signs or anything. Olive Hill is where he went to the movies."
There were four girls and six boys in the white clapboard house on Tick Ridge, and one of them was crazy for country music by the time he was four years old. At four o'clock in the morning, the darkness still thick outside the house, Tom T. Hall used to sit in a little red rocking chair and listen to Earnest Tubb singing live for the early-morning farmers on WSM-Nashville.
"Sort of makes you believe in predestination," he says. "My father was not not a musician. My mother was not a musician. I wasn't around any musicians." But somebody left a guitar in the house one day, nothing fancy, just an old guitar. It was too big for Tom T. Hall to carry, so he put it in a chair and stood up in front of the chair and started to play.
"From that day on, all I ever thought about was music," he says.
Now, of course, the main street in Olive Hill is called Tom T. Hall Boulevard. There is a Tom T. Hall museum in town, which displays various memorabilia, like an old guitar, and the original lyrics to "Harper Valley P.T.A." and "Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine." Hall's home is a 57-acre, Nashville-area estate called Foxhall, which has two lakes stocked with catfish, and a grand antebellum style house copied after a Louisiana plantation home, and a collection of peacocks and exotic breeds of chicken.
It took him some time to reach Nashville -- some disc jockey work, a stint for the Army in Germany, odd jobs at a funeral home and a paper compressing plant. He walked into Nashville on Jan. 1, 1964 ("so I'd be able to remember the date if anybody asked me") and began trying to sell his songs. He had sold "A D.J. For A Day" to Jimmy C. Newman, Decca Records -- Hall first heard it played at 3:00 in the morning, after spendingg whole days and nights turning radio dials in search of his song -- but there was trouble with a lot of the others Hall could not get them recorded. They were too different, or something. Nobody knew what to do with a story-song. And so Hall, who says he believes to this day that he has a lousy voice, began recording his own music.
His wife is a blond and blue-eyed Englishwoman, known around Foxhall as "Miss Dixie," who raises basset hounds and is close to the family of Billy Carter. They met after she moved to Nashville to write for a music paper, and by now she has lived in the South so long that her voice has developed a sort of British drawl. Her most immediate delight is a present she has brought to Washington for the ambassador from the People's Republic of China, a bound album of photographs taken last week, when the ambassador visited Foxhill and apparently enjoyed himself immensely. He was greeted at Foxhall by Hall singing "The East is Red," country-style.
I'm getting hot, as they say in the business," says Tom T. Hall.
He is 43 years old, has recorded 21 albums, spends three-quarters of the year on tour from Indiana to Japan (he was mobbed at his last performances in Tokyo and Osaka), and is linked now in Nashville with the luminous names in country -- Hank Williams, Kris Krifstofferson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings. Does he like it?
"Yeah," says Tom T. Hall. There is not much enthusiasm in his voice "I'm -- I'm getting awfully popular . . . I didn't really want to be that hot. . . I'd rather just, you know, I make a good living. And I'm not into money. I don't want a lot. I guess there are things you can do with it, but I don't spend the money I've got. So going out of my way to get some more seems a little silly.
"I'm just not into the accumulation of money," he says.
"I am into the accumlation of created works," he says. "Books and songs. I really like to accumulate those." His first book was about writing songs; his second, called "The Storyteller's Nashville," was just released.
"I just hope I don't become a star, that's all," says Tom T. Hall.