Thomas “Tom T.” Hall
Country music legend Tom T. Hall’s work was inspired and informed by the bluegrass music he internalized in his Kentucky youth.
Hailing from the eastern Kentucky community of Olive Hill, Hall composed his first song at age nine. As a teen, he joined a bluegrass band called the Kentucky Travelers, and the group per-formed on local radio and stages. Hall worked as a disc jockey in Morehead, Kentucky before joining the army in 1957.
Discharged in 1961, Hall studied journalism at Roanoke College in Virginia, and took jobs at ra-dio stations writing advertisements and working on the air. He said, “You’ve got to take a three-story department store and in one minute you’ve got to tell them everything that’s in it.” That exercise helped Hall find a way to compose songs that conveyed layers of meaning in an economical and insightful manner.
Hall moved to Nashville on January 1, 1964, taking work writing songs for Newkeys Music. In 1965, Johnnie Wright scored a #1 hit with Hall’s “Hello Vietnam,” which became the opening theme for the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. In 1966, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs released Hall’s “It Was Only the Wind” as a single. Flatt and Scruggs went on to record numerous Hall songs, six of them on a concept album, The Story of Bonnie and Clyde.
Hall signed to Mercury Records as a recording artist in 1967, changing his stage name from Tom Hall to Tom T. Hall. His first single, “I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew,” was a Bill-board Top 30 hit. In 1968—the year that Hall married songwriter and journalist Dixie Deen—Jeannie C. Riley recorded Hall’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” which topped country charts, crossed over to pop radio, and sold millions of copies. A year later, he enjoyed his first #1 country hit, “A Week on a Country Jail.”
Hall joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1971, the same year his “The Year Clayton Delaney Died” rose to the top of the country charts. The following year, he won a Grammy for Best Album Notes for the album Tom T. Hall’s Greatest Hits.
In 1974, Hall released Songs of Fox Hollow, an album of country music songs for children. That album featured chart-topping hits “I Love” and “I Care,” along with the ubiquitous “Sneaky Snake,” about a root-beer-drinking serpent.
Hall’s The Magnificent Music Machine (1976) was a bluegrass manifesto, aimed at the broader country market. It included Hall’s version of “Fox On the Run,” already a bluegrass standard, and musical assistance from Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Kenny Baker, Donna Stoneman, J.D. Crowe, Bobby Thompson, J.T. Gray, and others.
Hall was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1978, and in 1979 he published the masterful memoir, The Storyteller’s Nashville. In the early 1980s, he hosted the syndicated television program Pop! Goes the Country, and in 1982 he teamed with Earl Scruggs to record The Storyteller and the Banjo Man, featuring Byron Berline, Randy Scruggs, Rodney Crowell, Jerry Douglas, and Rosanne Cash.
Beginning in the 1990s, Hall worked with wife Dixie Hall to write hundreds of bluegrass songs, and the couple opened a recording studio that catered to bluegrass artists, many of whom recorded their songs. Tom T. and Dixie became regular fixtures at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass trade show, at the annual SPBGMA convention in Nashville, and at the Bean Blossom blue-grass festival at Bill Monroe’s music park in Indiana.
– Gary Reid is a bluegrass music historian, journalist, producer, and actor based in Roanoke, Virginia.