Dixie Hall was a masterful songwriter, a bluegrass evangelist, and a godsend to many of American roots music’s most influential performers.
Raised in Great Britain, she was drawn to bluegrass music and bluegrass people. She crossed an ocean in order to find her tribe, and she was taken in by heroes of American roots music including Tex Ritter and Maybelle Carter. Later, she became an organizer of the bluegrass community, offering kindness, comfort, and opportunity to those who would further the music she so dearly loved.
“I’m trying to ease their way, in the same way that the Carters and so many others have eased mine,” she said in 2013. “If a few dollars worth of studio time, or groceries, or conversation can make someone feel a part of the bluegrass family, then that’s what I want to do. It’s a family, and it’s important that it stays that way, so that tradition continues.”
Dixie was born in 1934 in Birmingham, England. In her youth she developed an interest in music of the American landscape through a parade of cowboy and western films that appeared at her local theater. This, in turn, led to her teenage infatuation with horseback riding; by age eighteen she was an accomplished trick rodeo rider.
While traveling to one riding engagement, a chance encounter with visiting country music celebrity Tex Ritter led to Dixie’s brokering the release of his music in England. Before long, as Dixie Deen, she was a columnist for England’s Country Western Express magazine. Her can-do spirit caught the attention of Starday Records owner Don Pierce, who engaged her to promote one of his artists, Bill Clifton. A short time later, she accepted full-time employment with Pierce.
Upon her arrival in the United States, she visited with Clifton, who subsequently introduced her to country music pioneer Maybelle Carter. The meeting led to Dixie’s taking a room for the next several years in Maybelle’s Madison, Tennessee, home.
At Starday, starting in 1961, Dixie had the opportunity to promote a number of bluegrass and traditional country music artists, including the Stanley Brothers, the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Lonzo and Oscar, Carl Story, Bill Clifton, and the Lewis Family.
In July of 1963, country music star Faron Young launched a monthly publication, Music City News. Dixie was among the original staffers. She became a columnist and eventually took over editorial duties. She is noted for having written some of the first long-form journalism about country music. Among the mainstream artists she profiled were Loretta Lynn, Jeannie Seely, Porter Wagoner, Conway Twitty, Faron Young, and Tammy Wynette.
Through her friendship with Maybelle Carter and her work at Starday and Music City News, Dixie developed a number of contacts in Nashville, among them Louise Scruggs, wife of Earl Scruggs and manager/booking agent for Flatt and Scruggs. In 1964, Dixie helped set up Flatt and Scruggs’s Publishing Company. The new firm published several songs written or arranged by Maybelle Carter, Maybelle’s husband Ezra, and Dixie. Johnny Cash recorded their “Troublesome Waters,” as did Flatt and Scruggs, who recorded “Loafer’s Glory” as well. Cash also recorded Maybelle and Dixie’s “A Letter From Home.”
By 1965, Dixie had acquired another songwriting partner, Ray King. Together they wrote for Buck Owens (“It’s Christmas for Everyone but Me”) and Dave Dudley (“Truck Driving Son of a Gun” went to #3 on the country charts and earned the duo a BMI award). During the BMI banquet at which “Truck Driving Son of a Gun” was honored, Dixie met another rising songwriter, Tom T. Hall. A courtship soon followed and the couple was married on March 16, 1968.
With the rise of her husband’s career, Dixie shifted her energies to activism for animal welfare, which included support of the Humane Society, the couple’s own regional animal shelter, and their own efforts to look after strays which, at one time, included as many as fifty dogs on their sixty-seven-acre estate, Fox Hollow. Dixie raised over one million dollars for the Nashville Humane Association. Fundraising took many forms, including charity dinners at their home and selling homemade pickles and preserves.
In the middle 1990s, Tom T. retired from full-time traveling on the road. It was at this time that Dixie rekindled her interest in songwriting, often co-writing with Tom T. One of the first beneficiaries of Dixie’s recent songwriting was bluegrass singer Nancy Moore. Her debut album, released in June 1999, was called Local Flowers. Dixie produced the album at the Fox Hollow studio, and all twelve songs were written by Dixie and/or Tom T. Hall.
From the time of Tom T.’s retirement, Dixie worked on some 3,000 songs. Dixie set up a publishing firm: Good Home Grown Music. The Halls were generous with their studio: artists were charged no fee. Dixie and Tom T. became regular attendees at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass trade show, SPBGMA, and the Bean Blossom bluegrass festival.
A songwriting highlight came in 2001 when “Follow Me Back to the Fold,” the title track to a Mark Newton album featuring a host of female bluegrass artists, was voted the IBMA Recorded Event of the Year. Other honors include a ten-year streak as SPBGMA Songwriter of the Year; ten-time winners are retired from competition and are awarded Grand Masters Gold status. Of all the songs she wrote, Dixie said her favorite was “Let Me Fly Low.” Memorable recordings of that composition were made by the duo of Dudley Connell and Don Rigsby, as well as bluegrass legend Charlie Waller.
In 2005, the Halls launched Blue Circle Records. Over a ten-year period, forty-five CDs were released. The label garnered two awards from IBMA, both featuring the Daughters of Bluegrass, highlighting the accomplishments of women in the genre. Both projects won IBMA Recorded Event of the Year: Back to the Well in 2006 and Proud to be a Daughter of Bluegrass in 2009. A third Daughters of Bluegrass undertaking was the 2013 release, Pickin’ Like a Girl, a four-CD set with sixty-nine songs—all of them written or co-written by Dixie—and a cast of 134 female pickers and singers.
In 2014, Dixie was diagnosed with a brain tumor, yet she remained active. She released her first single as a solo artist, “Sunny Flower One.” “This song is my gift to you,” she wrote. “Running out of time here, but it’s your earth, and your music. Please save it and give generously. God bless you forevermore.”
– Gary Reid is a bluegrass music historian, journalist, producer, and actor based in Roanoke, Virginia.