The Unbroken Circle is a recurring feature where I discuss classic country songs.
In The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music, author Rick Marschall summarizes Tom T. Hall best when he says, “[Kris] Kristofferson wrote about love, [Merle] Haggard wrote about living, but Hall wrote about life.” In other words, Hall was an observer – a common poet, really – who earned his nickname of “The Storyteller” with songs like “Trip To Hyden” – a story of a mine disaster told through the normalcy of its aftermath – “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine,” and countless others.
Born in Olive Hill, Kentucky, Hall’s musical interests formed at a young age. He formed a small string band in his teenage years, mostly playing schoolhouses and small local fairs. He eventually took a job as a disc jockey and turned to writing songs, content with how popular his show was in the area, but also restless enough to want more out of life, especially at a young age. So, Hall joined the army, and his experiences there would provide the backbone for many of his later songs.
After the army, Hall returned to disc-jockeying but also began writing songs that he sent to Nashville, Tennessee. Publisher Jimmy Key offered Hall a $50-a-week position as a staff songwriter with his firm; with that, Hall moved to Nashville in 1963.
As everyone knows, though, “life” is a complicated subject to discuss, especially in a song lasting approximately three minutes. Hall’s material was initially deemed as too “different” for artists to record. Like fellow songwriter Roger Miller, the hits were off-the-wall and scattered, with a few of Hall’s earliest hits being Jimmy Newman’s “D.J. For A Day” and Johnny Wright’s “Hello Vietnam.”
Hall would catch his big break, albeit in a different way. When Jerry Kennedy, Hall’s friend and a session player, became Mercury Record’s A&R director, he approached Hall with an opportunity to sign to the record label as a performer. But “The Storytelle” was reluctant to sign, thinking of himself mainly as a writer more than an artist slugging it out on the road night after night. Regardless, Hall did accept Kennedy’s offer.
Hall’s material may have been considered too zany for other artists, but he managed to catch on at country radio regardless, with the top ten hit “Ballad Of Forty Dollars” and his first No. 1 hit “A Week In A Country Jail” fueling interest in him. His real big break would come from doing what he loved best, however – observing from afar and letting someone else have the spotlight. Jeannie C. Riley scored a huge country and pop hit with Hall’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” in 1968, a song filled with storytelling wit and unflinching honesty.
Of course, the success of that song, as well as Hall’s own material, put him in the same league as the aforementioned Kristofferson and Haggard, but success also took a mental toll on him. Hall began to feel the pressure, and for awhile indulged in it, proving he could always top his latest success. As he says in his autobiography, The Storyteller’s Nashville, other writers would go around Nashville saying, “Don’t take Tom T. Hall any songs. That sum-bitch writes five or six songs a day himself.” Hall burned himself out trying to prove it, and his initial fears of being a performer would come to haunt him.
Hall regained inspiration from another one of his crazy ideas – to drive around Kentucky and look for song ideas. Hall’s friend and fellow songwriter Bill Littleton loved the idea and agreed to film the entire event, and all Hall would take would be a couple bottles of good whiskey and his guitar. It’s the kind of story that sounds naturally fictitious or indulges too much in its own fantasy, but the thought of two mad artists searching the country for the true meaning of music also scans as one of the best stories in country music, and gave Hall his most meaningful hit (and album, too).
Hall’s first trip lasted three days, and from it, he and Littleton wrote nothing, but they had a lot of good notes and ideas. He built a barn not long after the trip, complete with a writing room built with a glass window. There, he’d use the notes to craft his 1971 In Search Of A Song album.
The album was fueled by its smash (and only) hit, “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died.” Clayton Delaney was actually Lonnie Easterling, the man who taught Hall how to play guitar and inspired him to become a musician and songwriter. Hall describes him as “a split-rail skinny man with eyes set in the back of his head, and thin lips, holding a hand-rolled cigarette most of the time.” Hall notes it was Easterling’s restlessness and lack of satisfaction with life that “drove Clayton Delaney’s manliness right into my emotional core … so much so that, just months after Mother’s death, I was left ragged by Dad’s announcement one night. ‘Clayton Delaney is dead.’ ”
During Hall’s aforementioned trip through Kentucky, he visited Easterling’s grave. He had died at age 19 from either lung cancer or tuberculosis, and he was on Hall’s mind as he was in search of a song. During that trip, Hall regained his passion for the art-making process, but also wondered if the stories he’d tell would have any impact, especially when the people and stories he cared about would likely seem insignificant to the world in general. He had a fear of writing about these people and using their real names, knowing some tales might either be embarrassing or dangerous. So, in his story, Hall renamed Easterling after a hill he climbed in his youth – Clayton Hill; and since some of the neighbors on that hill were named Delaney … the rest is history.
Ironically, In Search Of A Song and “The Year Clayton Delaney Died” didn’t do much to help Hall find commercial stability, seeing as how it became his best-selling album and most notable hit, respectively. It was, however, a prime example of Hall easing that pressure by tapping back into the core of what inspired his love for music in the first place. Whether it’s Delaney, Easterling or someone else, there’s always a good reason to stop and listen to one of Hall’s stories.
Next time, we’ll discuss another Kentuckian inspiration – Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”