Well, this certainly isn’t how I expected to approach a legend for one of these features, but it only feels right to dedicate the next one to Tom T. Hall, who passed away last Friday. As “The Storyteller,” Hall’s greatest asset was his way of sketching real stories about real people – and often from his own experiences, at that. It’s been said that Hall rewrote the language of country music, and I have to largely agree with that. You won’t find many conventional cheating or drinking songs on the following lists; you’ll find offbeat stories told with precision, wit, and empathy – often all at the same time. In some ways, the fact that he was most active as a songwriter in the 1960s and ‘70s says more about his breakout period than anything else. Even then, he was writing about an America slowly becoming lost to mass-produced pop culture and people too self-obbsessed to just … look around and see the world. Maybe not directly, per se, but the subtext is there.
But enough of that. I’m here today to explore 15 of my favorite Hall songs, and I won’t be alone. I’ve teamed up with my good friend and frequent collaborator, Nathan Kanuch (of Shore2Shore Country), to write about songs that will make you laugh, cry, and reminisce. After hearing from him, we’re going to get started. Onward! – Zackary Kephart
Tom T. Hall has always been around. And he’ll live on forever through the songs, stories, and words of wisdom he leaves us. Understated. Warm. Realistic. A songwriter’s favorite songwriter. I doubt Tom T. would want much said for him. Rather, I think he’d point to the songs and tell us to listen. Think. Learn. That’s the kind of life Tom T. Hall lived. May he rest in peace. – Nathan Kanuch
All songs written by Tom T. Hall, unless otherwise noted.
No. 15, “Strawberry Farms”
My first submission is, ironically enough, unlike pretty much anything else in Tom T. Hall’s discography. For a writer who was most active at the height of both the Nashville Sound and the Outlaw movement, it’s amazing how much his material feels isolated and timeless while still capturing the pure essence of country music. But as something akin to the former sound, this is just damn-near captivating and alluring in the moody, dream-like string accompaniment and Hall’s equally minor, haunting delivery that occasionally gives way to a great little piano flourish. It’s also more metaphorical than Hall’s songs, based around a loss of innocence through tragic events that makes for his most overlooked gem. – Zackary Kephart
No. 15, “Little Bitty”
Alan Jackson took “Little Bitty” to number one on the Billboard charts in 1996. Tom T. Hall’s version doesn’t stand up to Alan Jackson’s, but it needs mentioning here due to the clever songwriting and its neotraditional sound. I like to imagine Alan singing these words after listening to Tom T. in a small bar give him some life wisdom of his own. – Nathan Kanuch
No. 14, “The Ballad of Forty Dollars”
One of Hall’s best known singles, and one where even if you know the main punchline, the appeal never fades. It’s a hilarious look at a gravedigger’s musings as he watches and overhears others discuss everything under the sun at a funeral … except for anything nice to say about the deceased, that is. Man, I guess that kind of turns this comedy into a tragedy, doesn’t it? – ZK
No. 14, “I Like Beer”
An admittedly light song, and yet, somehow, Tom T. Hall pulls the song off without making it ever seem like a novelty. Once again, we find Tom T. singing and telling stories in such a plain-spoken and real term that “I Like Beer” is simply a drunken story late at night after a couple of buddies have shared a twelve pack. – NK
No. 13, “I Want to See the Parade”
For as simple and straightforward as Hall’s stories were, he was a master of the twist and the punchline. Like Roger Miller, he knew how to frame heavy handed topics through the eyes of innocence, and he wasn’t afraid to touch on current events, either. Case in point, the story of a little girl at a Civil Rights march who befriends a narrator presumably filled not so much with hate, but confusion. The little girl is too, especially seeing as how she’s blind and can’t understand where the division stems from or how being different from someone else makes their worth any different. Powerful, and with a lot of truth behind it, at that. – ZK
No. 13, “Who’s Gonna Feed Them Hogs”
A story of pure dedication and devotion as a man survives a near fatal stay in the hospital to get home to take care of his farm, land, and animals. And to continue his hard-working way of life. “The doctors say they do not know what saved the man from death/But in a few days he put on his overalls and left.” That line stuck with me for a while for its understated delivery and open-ended interpretation. But we do know the man survived and returned to his farm. – NK
No. 12, “The Monkey That Became President”
Man, don’t you hate how this could have been made at any point within the past decade or so? Unlike my last entry, this is a heavy handed topic framed with humor – a lot of it. It’s a blast, the story of a monkey who becomes president of the United States (later revealed to be a dream, naturally) and brings about world peace simply because he’s friendly and can’t lie or deceive people. It’s one of those songs you have to hear to truly appreciate, especially for that last line. – ZK
No. 12, “Don’t Forget the Coffee Billy Joe”
A decidedly un-nostalgic look back at growing up in rural America. We so often hear country songs, even from legends, describe their upbringings in a rose-colored way, ignoring the poverty and struggles many were saddled with. “Don’t Forget the Coffee Billy Joe” finds the narrator recounting the hardships of his father being out of work, snowstorms, and fighting to pay bills. It’s a rather unbiased account; we don’t hear the narrator complaining or providing a call to action. We also don’t hear the narrator idealizing his childhood. Like so many of Tom T.’s songs, “Don’t Forget the Coffee Billy Joe” is a straight-forward, realistic look at the human condition in a simple way. – NK
No. 11, “Who’s Gonna Feed Them Hogs”
Country music is kind of like Seinfeld: you never know just how a seemingly boring song topic is going to be as exciting or as riveting as it ends up being. Like this song. Simply put, it’s a story of determination that involves a near-death experience, a lot of money to be made, and a whole lot of hogs that need fed so they can feed others. One of those beautiful circle of life things, in a way, you know? Will say, a coffee and a hot ham sandwich does sound damn good right about now. – ZK
No. 11, “Homecoming”
One of Tom T. Hall’s best traits as an artist was his warmth. Even when playing the part of a rambling musician, as he does in “Homecoming,” we feel a connection to the narrator. The musician in “Homecoming” doesn’t seem like the best guy. He hasn’t stayed in touch with his father. He wasn’t able to make it home to be with his mom when she passed. And he left a woman sleeping in his car while he stopped in to say hello. And yet, somehow, we’re almost sympathetic to the narrator. He seems like someone who lost his way and is now beginning to make an effort to drop in and call more often. The story is delivered with warmth and sincerity. – NK
No. 10, “A Week in a Country Jail”
The true beauty’s of Hall work? It all stems from experience. His landmark 1971 release of In Search of a Song came from traversing the nation looking for stories, and this … stemmed from an unfortunate arrest and its even more unfortunate timing. Thankfully, music can heal, and it can exaggerate the details, like how an unfortunate event turns into a hot streak of luck and even something of a tale of revenge. Reminds me of an Andy Griffith Show episode that never was. – ZK
No. 10, “Fox on the Run” (written by Tony Hazzard)
“Fox on the Run” isn’t a Tom T. Hall original, but it pays tribute to the bluegrass influence in his career. Perhaps best known for its rendition by The Country Gentlemen, “Fox on the Run” is full of classic bluegrass themes like the temptation of a wandering woman and Appalachian imagery. The harmony during the chorus has stuck in my mind since my first listen years ago with my grandparents. – NK
No. 9, “Salute to a Switchblade”
Another true beauty of Hall’s work? He manages to establish a story with a conflict and a resolution in under three minutes – sometimes in under two. Anyway, this tale of a near-death experience is fairly lighthearted, but also slightly more tense at its climax than you’d expect. And instead of being the hapless yet witty observer this time around, Hall plays the role of the person in action. – ZK
No. 9, “Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine” (written by Alf Robertson and Tom T. Hall)
Perhaps “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine” is Tom T. Hall’s most memorable piece of music; it certainly contains his most well-known line. The setting is familiar, with Tom T. playing the part of a man in conversation with a figure giving out worthy advice and words of wisdom. Tom T. wrote the song after an encounter with a janitor at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. Hopefully tonight we can all experience a peaceful sleep with dreams of shady summertime. – NK
No. 8, “Trip to Hyden”
There’s a beautiful thing that Peter Cooper notes in the introduction to Hall’s autobiography, A Storyteller’s Nashville. When discussing this song, he points out the first line, “tossed and turned the night in some old motel, subconsciously recalling some old sinful thing I’d done,” and how Hall never explains that sinful thing, but rather how he just uses it as a detail to establish a sense of realism and get another story going. It’s a fine reminder of how Hall could craft real stories simply through observation and an understanding of the human nature and experience. And it kind of says a lot about this song, too, where Hall calmly walks the audience through the aftermath of a mining disaster and describes the town and scene with a sad sense of normalcy. – ZK
No. 8, “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet)”
The closest Tom T. Hall came to the outlaw movement in which he so belonged spiritually. The song recalls 1970s Texas country-rock in both theme and sound. The narrator is a poet who encounters a weather-worn cowboy in a bar. The cowboy gives the poet some advice which our poet is quick to disregard and results in the cowboy calling the poet a liar. The poet instigates a fight before the cowboy pulls a weapon. Not only does the poet relent but he later finds himself thinking that he would give the very same advice to his own son. A lesson in both idealism and reality. And maybe a metaphor for the country music industry? – NK
No. 7, “Homecoming”
The simple country music saying is, “don’t get above your raisin’,” and this low-key revisit to a musician’s hometown shows just how he’s missed over the years – even his own mother’s funeral – and how his father doesn’t care about the big star his son is, but rather the person he’s turned into by isolating himself from his roots. The beauty of it to me is how startled the narrator seems to be by remembering everything he used to know about his hometown, as if it’s all stuff he forgot and is now recalling – an epiphany, if you will. Again, most of Hall’s stories are enjoyable at face value, but there’s an extra detail between the lines that elevates his best work. – ZK
No. 7, “Subdivision Blues”
I actually just heard this for the first time this past weekend after revisiting Tom T. Hall’s discography … and I found myself laughing out loud at the lyrics. In “Subdivision Blues,” we find the narrator stuck in a never-ending cycle of moving away from commotion and bustle only to find himself engulfed again and again with the “subdivision blues,” resulting in an ending to a song only Tom T. Hall could write. – NK
No. 6, “Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine” (written by Alf Robertson and Tom T. Hall)
“Older man gives advice to younger man” tracks are kind of played out by now, but leave it to the master to make the definitive one, and one reliant on pure simplicity. That’s all the old man ever sought in life, after all – a sense of peace and calm and to bask in some of life’s most basic pleasures. It’s a song about acknowledging one’s place in life and realizing that while the present belongs to those willing to slow things down, the future belongs to those who need to learn their own life lessons before they know who they are … and then repeat the cycle. – ZK
No. 6, “A Million Miles to the City”
One of Tom T. Hall’s most melancholy songs and similar in theme to Travis Tritt’s “Where Corn Don’t Grow.” Tom T. paints an image as the narrator of a mystical, far-away place called “the city.” A city isn’t a town, the narrators sings, “that’s something else.” The narrator’s Dad says, “the buildings are taller than oak trees” in the city, but the narrator and his siblings don’t believe their Dad. One day, living in the city at last, the narrator finds himself changed by the city and wishes for the simple days on the family farm.
Tom T. Hall was never preachy and certainly didn’t judge. He simply observed and passed on advice. “Million Miles to the City” is a classic example of Tom T. emphasizing the importance of one’s roots. – NK
No. 5, “Me and Jesus”
Hall was never one to lecture. He approached a lot of controversial, hard-bitten topics in war, race, and religion in ways that were conversational and allowed for his own perspective to shine without lecturing his audience about it. The best part about “Me and Jesus” is its “live and let live” philosophy, showing how no one needs to be perfect to forge a relationship with a higher power or follow a strict set of rules beyond the basics to properly walk the line. Sinners are welcome in Hall’s heaven, and that it’s just such a relentlessly catchy and upbeat look at it says that, at the very least, Hall is content with his own faith, and that’s what matters.
Also worth noting, Brad Paisley performed a killer rendition of the song at George Jones’ funeral in 2013, which, sadly, doesn’t have a video to show for it. – ZK
No. 5, “I’m Not Ready Yet”
Look, the reality is most people who are only casual country music fans probably remember Tom T. Hall as a songwriter with one or two hits. I understand that most people aren’t like Zack and me and dig deeper and deeper into the history of country music. But if most people only know Tom. T as a songwriter for some massive songs recorded by other artists, I’m actually okay with that. George Jones took “I’m Not Ready Yet” to number two on the Billboard charts in 1980 after recording the song on his legendary album I Am What I Am. Another reality? If George Jones records a song, it’s most likely the definitive version; George is the greatest singer in country history. George takes “I’m Not Ready Yet” to an entirely different level thanks to his ability to get every last drop of barroom desperation and loneliness out of the lyrics. But it all started with the storyteller. – NK
No. 4, “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet)”
I haven’t really touched upon much beyond the stories told with these discussions thus far, mostly because when it comes to production, Hall kept it simple. His folk-like approach to country music was never meant to be flashy; just tuneful, and with a healthy amount of dobro. But man, I’ve always loved the squonking electric guitar groove and pure stomp to this song’s flow. It’s the less serious take on “Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine” framed through an outlaw’s musings that’s meant to be more adventurous than literal. – ZK
No. 4, “I Want to See the Parade”
It would be a disservice to the song for me to try to describe the narrative and its meaning. Please, just listen to “I Want to See the Parade.” You’ll get goosebumps on your arm when the time comes. – NK
No. 3, “Turn It On, Turn It On, Turn It On” (both lists)
Simply put, this is the best Tom T. Hall song you likely haven’t heard before, and one that, sadly, is more relevant now that it was when it was released. It’s a look at a deranged killer’s mindset, from the bullying that spurred him into isolation and fueled his revenge to the mass shooting that brought him that strange sense of satisfaction, enough to where he’s content enough facing his own demise. From the faster tempo to the tense stakes involved, it’s certainly a wild time, but also one that makes several evergreen statements. – ZK
A poignant piece of social commentary and a brutal yet realistic look at the journey of a man driven to kill. The main character, Johnny, is a man who avoided fighting in World War II because a doctor declared him unfit to serve. The community saw Johnny as a coward, and Johnny eventually purchased a gun, went on a serial-killing rampage, and when it came his time, it’s revealed that Johnny’s thinking was that the community would no longer see him as a coward. It’s a twisted, cruel narrative, and not for one second are we made to feel sorry for Johnny. Rather, we question society and think of the inherent ugliness of mankind. Johnny serves as a symbol of the monster society can turn someone into. We shouldn’t feel sorry for Johnny; instead, we should think about the ways we can prevent Johnny from acting the way he did. – NK
No. 2, “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died” / “Son of Clayton Delaney”
It’s cheating, and I don’t necessarily need to do this, but I want to bundle these two together: an iconic prequel track and a sequel that’s vastly different yet still has a lot of heart to it. Hall wrote more for you and me than he ever did himself. He made quiet statements of both heavier and lighter varieties, but rarely ones that revealed a lot about himself on a personal level. It’s what makes “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died” a gutting song, a sendoff to a friend – a mentor – told from experience that shows how much of an impression we can have on people in such a short amount of time – ones that last a lifetime. Hall’s heavy songs may make sad statements every now and then, but there’s rarely one purposefully meant to be sad. This doesn’t really, either; the pluckier dobro and trumpet give this a fairly jolly, rollicking feel. But it’s one moment where the sadness and regret can’t help but slip its way in anyway.
On a happier note, “Son of Clayton Delaney” is probably the one Hall song next to “Faster Horses” one could describe as a legitimate jam – another look at what our mentors pass on to us, but also what we pick up on our own. Hall’s acceptance does wonders for approaching generational divides in ways that, sure, he may never personally connect with, but also won’t try and stop or complain about. Clayton Delaney’s approach to southern-rock isn’t necessarily better or worse, just different. And that’s OK. – ZK
No. 2, “That’s How I Got to Memphis”
“If you love you somebody enough, you’ll follow wherever they go.” And thus went one of the greatest opening lines to a song a music fan can hope to hear. Tom T. Hall wasn’t a master of sorrow like George Jones or a devotee of rural desperation like Hank Sr. or Porter Wagoner. Rather, Tom T. Hall simply laid it all in simple, plain-spoken terms. It’s about as emotional as we find a Tom T. song reaching with him singing at the end, “Thank you for your precious time/Forgive me if I start to cryin’.” – NK
Before we get to our respective No. 1 picks, let’s take a look at some honorable mentions from both lists.
- “Ballad of Forty Dollars”
- “The Day That Clayton Delaney Died”
- “Me and Jesus”
- “I Hope It Rains at My Funeral”
- “I Love”
- “The Hitchhiker”
- “Hello We’re Lonely” (feat. Patti Page)
- “The Old Side of Town”
- “Down at the Mall” (written by John Schweers and Roger Murrah)
- “I Love”
- “L.A. Blues”
- “I Like Beer”
- “Country Is”
No. 1, “That’s How I Got to Memphis”
If this was Hall’s only contribution to country music, he’d still be a legend. Heck, if all he left behind was that opening line, “If you love somebody enough, you’ll follow wherever they go / That’s how I got to Memphis,” I’d still argue in favor of his status. Unlike Hall’s later work, it doesn’t quite have the unique conversational tone that his other songs did. It’s a true country song with multiple great hooks that’s more downbeat in tone and execution. Conventional to a fault, I suppose, but no less masterful in the statement it makes or the unique spin placed upon it in searching for a lover and never coming to any conclusive answers of where she is or if the trip is even worth it. The longing is the point, and as a search left to rewind itself for eternity, it’s arguably Hall’s crowning moment as a songwriter. – ZK
No. 1, “Levi Jones” (written by Billy Edd Wheeler
I struggled for a while with the selection of my favorite Tom T. Hall song. “Levi Jones” just kept coming back into my mind. It’s got all the elements of an essential Tom T. Hall song. The narrator talking to a stranger in a casual manner. An upbeat, string-driven sound. Key life advice. “Levi Jones” is a simple song. And, yet, it contains, in my opinion, some of Tom T.’s best writing because of the development of the narrative. The narrator learns more and more as the song continues until the stranger becomes a friend who gave the narrator unintended life lessons he would remember forever. – NK
4 thoughts on “Fifteen Favorites: The Tom T. Hall Edition (w/ Shore2Shore Country)”
Good read! I always enjoy it when the two of you collaborate.
I must say that while I recognize Tom T. Hall’s legendary status and talent, I can’t say that I’m overly familiar with much of his catalogue. That said, my favourite is a toss-up between That’s How I Got to Memphis (the first version of this that I remember hearing is Deryl Dodd’s) and The Year That Clayton Delaney Died. I’ll have to check out some of these suggestions.
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Sorry I’m just now seeing this, Frank! But thanks – I always feel inspired when collaborating with Nathan.
And honestly? With Tom T. Hall, a lot of his stuff is unfortunately out of print, so really just any greatest hits you can find or hear will likely include his best stuff (I mostly pulled my selections from three different GH selections).
No problem! I never thought about the out of print situation – I just tend to assume that most albums are available on streaming services now, but that’s clearly not the case for a lot of the older stuff.
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