A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 non-consecutive weeks of country (dated from the column’s introduction on March 3, 2009), Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
So far in this series I have wrestled with giants, towering, iconic figures blessed with prodigious talent and damned with ferocious demons. So it is strangely refreshing to write about an artist who’s less a tormented genius than a savvy professional with sharp commercial instincts.
As a kid I loved story songs just as I loved the stories my dad used to tell my older sister and I as he rested his head against the frame of our bunk bed every night. One of my favorites was Tom T. Hall’s “Old Dogs, Children, And Watermelon Wine.” In my pre-irony days I was attracted to its folksy wisdom and earnest celebration of life’s simple pleasures. In “Old Dogs, Children, And Watermelon” the worldly narrator meets an older black gentleman who tells him that there, “Ain’t but three things in this world worth a solitary dime”: old dogs and children and watermelon wine. Women and friends will let you down but dogs are bastions of unconditional love, children are too young to hate and watermelon wine: that shit will fuck you up but good. And it tastes like watermelons! Nothing wrong with that.
Like so much of Hall’s oeuvre, it’s a little hokey, a little sentimental and a little pandering. But it’s also strangely infectious. It sticks with you. Hall’s days as a songwriter-for-hire and song-plugger taught him the value of writing songs with stories, morals and hooks so big and infectious that even children can get them. Not so coincidentally, Hall also recording a lot of songs specifically for children.
While his artsier, more ambitious peers chased evasive muses Hall, in his early days as a Nashville songwriter, got up every morning, put on a suit and tie, went to the office of the publishing company where he worked and spent eight hours picking at a guitar and trying to write songs that would sell. Then he’d go out drinking and do speed with other struggling songwriters desperate to make it in the Darwinian ecosystem of Nashville.
Hall boasted the hardscrabble background of a country singer. He’d grown up poor and rural and done stints in the military and on the radio as a DJ. He paid his dues and honed his craft. Years of pitching his work to skeptical singers instilled in him a gift for writing songs with something extra, something that set them apart from the vast ocean of ditties begging to be sung by Nashville’s elite.
Then in 1968 Jeannie C. Riley recorded Hall’s “Harper Valley PTA” and his entire world changed. “Harper Valley PTA” tells the story of a sassy young mother whose minidress and wild ways scandalize local busybodies and earn her a scolding, disapproving note from the PTA. Oh, but the tables turn when the yummy mummy decides to confront the PTA about their raging hypocrisy, calling out the pillars of the community as a sordid assemblage of problem drinkers, philanderers and all-around no-goodniks.
“Harper Valley PTA” embodies Hall’s aesthetic. It’s a song rife with hooks. In a little over three minutes Hall dramatized the culture clash between people intent on enjoying the new freedoms of the ’60s and reactionaries eager to turn back the clock. It punished hypocrisy, rewarded iconoclasm and engineered a neat little switcheroo in which the judged becomes the judge and the arbiters of conventional morality are exposed as morally lacking.
“Harper Valley PTA” could be a movie or TV show. In fact it was a movie and a TV show, both starring Barbara Eden. It was also a historic hit. “Harper Valley PTA” marked the first time a female country singer had landed a number one song on both the country and pop charts.
The song’s blockbuster success paved the way for Hall to establish himself as a singer. He sounds a little like George Jones—Jones hyperbolically called Hall “by far the all-time greatest songwriter/storyteller that country music has ever had”—and has a conversational delivery that suits his unpretentious story songs. Hall takes conversational singing to a loopy extreme in “Day Drinkin’,” a semi-sung, semi-spoken duet with Dave Dudley about the transgressive joy of getting hammered while all the squares are off punching a clock somewhere that genuinely sounds like it was improvised by a pair of mildly hammered old buddies.
Hall comes across as a barroom poet-philosophizer, a guy with a drink in one hand, a pen and pad in the other and a story to tell. Hall had a genius for coming up with song titles so catchy and irresistible that the songs practically write themselves. How could a song called “I Like Beer” not be a hit?
At best, Hall’s songs boast the succinct literary power of a great short story. At worst they’re the musical equivalent of Reader’s Digest: quaint, precious and pandering. Hall songs don’t get much more saccharine than “100 Children,” a nauseating slab of schmaltz about children marching to promote their anti-nuclear holocaust, pro-Earth agenda. Actually, I take that back; “I Love,” a laundry list of the things Hall loves (here, as in “I Like Beer,” Hall is almost perversely literal) is arguably even more cloying.
On the other end of the spectrum lies songs like “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill A Chicken),” a bittersweet narrative that captures the powerful mixed emotions and pathos of a disabled veteran who has “forgotten everything but the pain” returning home to a world at once familiar and jarringly foreign.
In the songs compiled in Storyteller, Poet, Philosopher Hall finds comedy, drama and pathos in the riffraff at the local mall (“Down At The Mall”) an empty barroom (“Hello, We’re Lonely”), American folklore (“More About John Henry”) and current events. In “The Watergate Blues” Hall accomplishes the Mark Russell-like feat of writing about Watergate and Richard Nixon without saying anything that might offend anyone, ever.
As a songwriter/storyteller, Hall has a gift for looking at familiar subjects from intriguing angles. In “Pamela Brown” Hall thanks an early love for unintentionally inspiring his wandering lifestyle and love of adventure by not marrying him. It’s a lighthearted acknowledgment that our lives are often determined by the roads we don’t take and the people we leave behind.
Even in his autobiographical songs, Hall maintains a certain writerly detachment. He may be writing and singing about his past, his experiences and his hometown but he never loses a writer’s cold, analytical distance from the people they’re writing about. “That’s How I Got To Memphis” is probably the closest Hall gets to the soul-shaking, transformative personal pain that informs so much great country music. “Fox On The Run” has the same sense of loss but it was written by Tony Hazzard and was originally a hit for Manfred Mann.
“Me And Jesus” is one of Hall’s slyest, most subversive and irresistible concoctions, a rollicking celebration of faith and that awesome Jesus guy that ecstatically rejects the dogma and materialism of organized religion. Yet even as Hall celebrates his personal relationship with Jesus a communal vibe dominates; Hall has prankishly commandeered the old-time religious vibe of a church choir to denigrate the very concept of a church.
In The Storyteller’s Nashville, his entertaining 1977 memoir, Hall writes that he never aspired to be great; he merely set out to be good. He succeeded. Though I would never mention him in the same breath as Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson or Bob Wills he leaves behind a legacy of good stories and catchy songs as well as a whole mess o’ clamorous ditties. I am proud to put Hall high in my personal pantheon of good country artists.
Up Next on Nashville Or Bust:
The Louvin Brothers