There’s little preparation needed to approach a Tom T. Hall song. His work is the embodiment of country music, perhaps not in sound – his weapons of choice included warm acoustics, dobro, and, every now and then, strings; not moaning steel guitar or fiddle – but certainly in the unpretentious, straightforward spirit it was meant to stand for as music of the real, everyday forgotten people. Hall’s songs have a casual feel of a late-afternoon chat at a local diner, or an all-night conversation between two old friends catching up on old times and having a riot recounting those old stories. Simple stories framed by the everyday lives of characters Hall came across in his time, but also ones that hid those moments of extraordinary insight that could change how one perceived a line or two … or an entire story. Sometimes they’re lighthearted and funny, and sometimes they’re deeply sad; and they don’t sound like they could have come from any other songwriter’s point-of-view.
Suffice it to say, then, that one of Hall’s most well-known songs – about a simple conversation held in a bar between an older and younger man – comes with a surprisingly convoluted backstory.
As far as politics are concerned, 1968 was a notoriously disastrous year. Riots that occurred at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago meant that, come four years later, a music festival for the same convention was held at Miami Beach to help divert attention away from a heated era, featuring Hall, Ray Price, and, ironically enough for a platform designed not to fan any flames, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, still together. The musical activities occurred just across the street from the convention hall, and the music kept the young people in attendance more entertained than the politics did.
They were so entertained, in fact, that, come the end of Hall’s set, he gave away his P.A. system, which he claimed had given him trouble during the day. Hall carried his instruments to his bus and watched as the young people carried mikes, stands, speakers, and monitors to wherever they had pleased. And both parties disappeared into the night in Miami.
Well, actually, Hall went back to his hotel room, which was left deserted during the night, thanks to the convention. At around 9 p.m. he went to the bar to have a nightcap, where he observed a bartender cleaning one glass over and over again, hypnotically watching Ironsides on television while doing so and paying no attention to anything else around him. He also observed the only other person in the room besides him and the bartender – a black gentleman who was there cleaning up. With little to do and no one else to serve, the man came over to Hall’s table and asked if he could sit down, to which Hall replied he could.
The ensuing conversation was captured as “(Old Dogs, Children and) Watermelon Wine,” and the details shared within are nearly word-for-word and detail-for-detail as Hall remembers that night. “How old do you think I am?” is how the song begins, and it’s exactly how the conversation did as well. It’s also an example of how a simple story can hide a nugget of wisdom. That aforementioned question that begins the song answers itself: “I turned sixty-five about eleven months ago.” It took even Hall himself time to figure out what he meant by that – that the old man he talked with was old enough to not need the job he was working and simply wanted to enjoy a conversation with someone.
And that’s exactly what he did with Hall – he enjoyed a conversation about the three titular items that, in essence, are used as ways of preserving innocence and granting fulfillment in an often thankless world. Old dogs are there for you even when you stumble and make mistakes; children are too young to understand the concept of hate and are how we map the world’s future; and watermelon wine … well, that one isn’t explained directly with a line. But I’d like to think there’s a beauty in two road-weary adults taking the time to appreciate life’s simpler pleasures and remember the good in the world, or remember that it’s not all lost or faded, at least.
The technical conclusion to this story is that Hall wrote this story on an airplane napkin on his flight back to Nashville and it went on to become a No. 1 hit for him, but I think the real one is that, in essence, it’s always good to stop and appreciate the beauty of a Tom T. Hall song … and it’s also good to appreciate the deeper beauty within the world, be it through the charm of old dogs, the sweetness of watermelon wine, or the peaceful dream this song concludes with that can take us back to more innocent days.