TOM T. HALL stands as one of the best songwriting storytellers of our time. The writer of songs like “I Love,” “Harper Valley PTA,” and “Itty Bitty” for Alan Jackson among so many others talks about his songs and more in this face-to-face interview.
It’s a great pleasure to welcome Mr. Tom T. Hall on our program. Thank you so much for joining us. How do you do, Mr. Hall?
I’m in very good spirits today. Been working on the farm and things are going well. If you see a black cow with a white spot on it’s nose, bring it to me.
(Laughs) So, who is Tom T. Hall?
Well, let’s see. Who is Tom T. Hall? Boy, you hear that question a lot (laughs) more than some of the others. Tom T. Hall is six feet tall, weighs two-hundred and ten pounds, lives in Franklin, Tennessee…he’s an ex-country music superstar and, uh, he has a farm with chickens, cats, dogs, turkeys, and, uh, I hope I don’t leave any animals out…raccoons, squirrels, birds, and he takes care of all of them.
I think most stories are best from the beginning. What was life like growing up?
Well, I was born in, um, Olive Hill, Kentucky and Olive Hill, Kentucky is in a valley and there’s not an olive tree within probably 2,526 kilometers, but it’s, uh, a beautiful little town. The population was 1,300. Everybody knew everybody else and, uh, great town to grow up in and, uh, I feel like I’ve got a lot of friends there and I’ve written a lot of songs about people I’ve met….I grew up with and stories I heard from people I grew up with too. So I was very fortunate to be born in Kentucky and I’m very proud of it and doubly proud to be an American.
What kind of music did you enjoy the most?
Well I just mentioned that I grew up in Kentucky so you would imagine that the primary music that we all listened to was Bluegrass music. Bill Monroe…theory has it that he started the music there way back when he was a kid and, um, so, we were listening to Flatt and Scruggs and all the, um, theoretical spin-offs…the Stanley Brothers and Reno and Smiley, Jimmy Martin, and Flatt and Scruggs and on and on and on and I, uh, my first musical experience was playing, uh, playing the bass fiddle in a Bluegrass band. I remember as a kid, standing out under a tree….I don’t think the music…I’ve come a long way and done a lot of music but I think that’s the best music I ever heard, even though I was playing some of it. And I was the “Oh Lordy” guy….we did a lot of gospel songs and my voice was too low to sing High Lonesome so I was the guy who’d lean in once in a while and say, “Oh Lordy,” which always got a nice round of applause.
How did you feel the first time you got a song of yours recorded? What song was it and who recorded it?
Well, uh, the first song I ever had recorded was by Jimmy C Newman and was called ‘A DJ for a Day.’ And I was a disc jockey at the time and had sent the song to Nashville and I stayed up till about 2 o’clock in the morning to hear Grant Turner play it on WSM and it sounded wonderful and I thought they’d play it five or six more times but they didn’t that night.
What lyricist do you find the most impressive?
Uh, I think, uh….I hate to pick out favorites…there’re a lot of great songwriters in this town and they’ve come and they’ve gone but, uh, I think I liked Harley Allen’s writing about as well as anybodies because he, uh, he wrote the way I liked to write….a lot of imagery in his lyrics and everything. Harley, of course, passed away some time ago…a couple years ago…God rest his soul…but, uh, I always thought he was a remarkable wordsmith, if we may say that.
What composer do you like the most?
Well this may….this would be melodies, I think…I would say Chopin. He was a classic piano player and he wrote ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ and that may surprise some people, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
What inspired your song, ‘Harper Valley PTA’ and did you know it would be as successful as it was?
Well to answer the last part of the question, I don’t think anybody knows what’s going to happen to a song. They never have any way of knowing. If there was somebody in the world who knew that they would practically own the world but that’s what makes music, uh, the music business so interesting because, uh, you gotta get lucky and have a little talent and everything’s gottahappen just right at the right time. But, uh, the song was inspired by a true story about an incident that took place in my hometown when I was, uh, a kid and it always made a big impression on me and I wrote the song when I got to Nashville because I was thinking back on some interesting things that happened in my childhood.
Can you recall writing the song ‘Little Bitty’?
I can recall that very vividly because I was on tour in Australia at the time and I…when I toured these foreign countries, there’s not an easy way to get a lot of exercise and I’m a big exercise person, so I would get up every morning and walk for two or three miles. If I was in a city, you know, I’d walk six blocks this way, six blocks this way, six blocks this way and six blocks back and if my math worked out right, I’d wind up back at the hotel. Sometimes I didn’t and I’d have to find a phone and call a radio station and ask somebody where I was staying so I had some big adventures. But I got up one morning and I was dragging and I went for a walk and I was in a really small town so after about a mile, I was out in the country and I’m walking along and I pass this little white house with a little picket fence and a little dog in the yard and a car parked in the garage and a little flower bed and I thought, “You know this whole idea of having a house and a car and a dog and a family is a universal thing,” so I started singing “A little bitty house,” and however the song goes…I never sang it much. I just wrote it. But, uh, I went back to the little motel where we were staying and I walked in and the coffee shop was open now so, I didn’t know if ‘Little Bitty’ was something I picked up as a kid…an expression…I wanted to find if everyone knew what “Little Bitty” meant. I wasn’t sure. So a lady came over and brought me some coffee and I said, “I want to ask you a question,” and she said, “Yes sir,” and I said, “Does “little bitty” mean anything in Australia,” and she said, “Oh yes sir! It’s something very tiny.” I said, “Okay, I’m on my way,” so I finished up the song.
What inspired you to write ‘I Love’?
I live on a farm. We have sixty acres outside Nashville. It’s called ‘Fox Hollow’ and, uh, I had a friend who was a psychiatrist. I wasn’t a patient. I couldn’t afford it. I needed it but I couldn’t afford it. But, uh, he told me to get up in the morning and write down a list of everythingI didn’t like and you’d find out that the list was not as long as you would think it would be. Well, I’m not a very negative person so I did that a couple days and I said, “That’s no fun. I’m going to turn the whole thing around and just write down a list of things I love.” Well, I was about halfway through the list and I started humming it and singing it. Now, that’s the nature of a songwriter…and so it turned into a song instead of a list of things I love but they’re all in there and the song was two minutes long. I recorded it in one take and sold a million records and I think it’s a…or more maybe by now…but, uh, it makes a very good statement about brevity so it doesn’t take as long to write or record a hit song as you might think.
Can you say there’s a favorite version of one of your songs that someone else recorded?
I always liked anything Bobby Bare sung of mine because he could really, uh, do…he understood my songs and I traveled around with Bobby for a number of years. We were in the same agency. I liked the way Bob sang my songs. But, uh, I think one of my favorite versions of a song was by a young man named Buddy Miller who I think is an alternative country music guy and, uh, a great person. He did a version of a song I wrote called ‘How I Got to Memphis’ and I’m terribly fond of that and I hate to pick out favorites, but that’s it.
What is your favorite all-around song?
I think my all-time favorite song for some strange reason is ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ There’s something about that melody and those words that just stuck in my head when I was a kid and heard it for the first time and I go around humming that a lot. (Sings) “Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly.” Well, I’m not getting paid to sing here so…
(Laughs) Tell us about writing songs with Miss Dixie. What is she like to work with?
Miss Dixie and I write songs together all the time, but we write a little differently. I’m…I write very quickly and I’m kind of impatient and I don’t like to stay in one place too long, but we can get a song started and find out what it’s about and maybe get a verse and a chorus and then sometimes I go off to bed…I go to bed with the chickens and get up with the chickens. I don’t sleep with the chickens, but we have the same schedule. And she’ll spend sometimes a week or, you know, everything…she likes to go…she was trained as a newspaper reporter…a newspaper editor…so she goes through and edits all these songs and comes out with some great finished product, but some of them I don’t hear them until they’re finished and some, I’m too lazy to work that hard but she’s really great at that.
What is the best thing about being Tom T. Hall?
I think the best thing about being Tom T. Hall is not having to work. I’m retired and, uh, I don’t owe anybody anything. I don’t want anything from anybody and so, I can, if I take a notion some days, I can be a real butthole so that’s probably the best deal.
What is it you like about music?
Well that’s a question that is very difficult to answer because all human beings are wired up a little differently here and there. That’s what makes us individuals. But, uh, I love music so much as a little child…I was four years old and there were a lot of kids in our family, but I would have my mother wake me up…she would get up very early to fix my father’s breakfast so he could go off to work, but she would get me up even before my father and, uh, while she was cooking breakfast…and let me listen to the Grand Ole Opry from Nashville, Tennessee. They had some live bands back in those days. They had, uh, you name it back in those days…they had Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs and I think the Wilburn Brothers…I don’t know who all, but I was only four years old and I would get up and sit in the chair and listen to that music and that…I was one of the weird kids in the family in that regard.
What makes you happiest?
I think what makes me happiest is to see other people happy. I don’t, uh, I’m pretty…I’m kind of a loner and I’ve got my own take on life and I do my own thing and Miss Dixie lets me hang out at the barn and talkto the chickens and ducks and animals and so I think what makes me happiest is to see other people doing well and being happy and I try to contribute to that if I can. I do that by staying out of their way, I think.
What is your favorite sound?
I think, uh, I’m not certain now, but, uh, when I was a kid, the most beautiful sound in the world was a five-string banjo early in the morning. Go figure that out.
My last question: this interview will be heard by people in a lot of places. What would you like to say to all the people listening in?
I would like to thank, uh, all the people who are within earshot today for, uh, listening to my music, playing my music, giving me a break when I did something lousy or bad or wrong and, by doing that, giving me the great privilege to be an old man, sitting on a farm outside Nashville just having a hell of a good life and I wish you all the same.
TRANSCRIBED BY LORI DOMINGO