The first time Charlie Louvin discovered the young, Merle Travis-style guitarist Ben Hall playing he asked, “When can you go to work with me?” When Hall replied that he couldn’t just yet, as he was studying music at Belmont University, the elder statesman was none too pleased to be turned down, huffing, “You don’t need to be in school, you are meant to be playing that guitar.”
Fortunately, Hall reconnected with Louvin at his 80th birthday on July 7, 2007 and was invited to play with him that night, and then on the Grand Ole Opry, and later on tour. Now, Hall is releasing his debut, Ben Hall! March 29, 2011 on Tompkins Square. Produced by Eric “Roscoe” Ambel and recorded in New York City, the album showcases his extraordinary guitar skills on classic songs by Merle Travis, The Louvin Brothers, Roger Miller, and Woody Guthrie, as well as jazz standards, and one original melody.
Hall, who picked up instruments at age 6 and learned from his dad’s reel-to-reel collection of old country albums, never expected to be professionally mentored by Charlie Louvin. He says that he casually stopped by The Louvin Brothers Museum in Nashville. “There was a little stage there and the lady at the counter heard me play and told me to come back, she thought Charlie would love to see me play. So when I did, he comes in and pretty much ignores me, not looking at the stage. The woman told me, ‘Keep playing – he’s loving it,’ but still Charlie didn’t respond until I stopped. He said ‘Do you sing tenor?’ and I said ‘A little bit.’ Then Charlie said, ‘Well that ain’t enough.’ So then I sang ‘When I Stop Dreaming’ with him, and I strained with every gut I had -- and almost broke a vocal chord.’ Charlie said, ‘Did it hurt? Good, now we are getting somewhere.’”
Hall discovered thumb picking on his dad’s collection of recordings that included The Louvin Brothers albums featuring Chet Atkins as the guitarist, who interpreted his technique from Merle Travis. It’s the only style of guitar playing named after the man who popularized the use of the thumb to maintain rhythm, while the other fingers pick out melody and fill-in notes on the high strings. Atkins credits Travis with his reason for playing the guitar. Doc Watson and Glen Campbell named their sons after Merle. And now, there’s Ben Hall, who at age 22 says he’s “proud to say I’m a Travis-style player.”
Hall learned his basic chords at age 7 and got really serious at age 12 when he saw an expert picker by the name of Comer Moon Mullins playing live. That cemented where he was going with his own guitar playing. “Chet’s version was a contemporary version of Merle, and Tommy Emmanuel was a version of what Chet did, and Moon had his own style.”
In 2005, he won the National and International Thumbstyle Guitar Contests, as well as the Horizon Award from the National Thumbpicker’s Hall of Fame. But Hall wasn’t strongly pursuing a professional career when Louvin found him and eventually led him to Tompkins Square label, which had released Louvin’s last few albums.
Hall got to spend a lot of time with his mentor, spending a week with him right after his diagnosis for pancreatic cancer, teaching a workshop together in Asheville, NC and touring. Ben says, “I wouldn’t trade that time for anything.” The album release takes on a new poignancy in the wake of the country legend’s passing January 26th.
With the release of his debut, Hall brings forth a style that very few young guitarists pursue. Songs include “Cannonball Rag,” “Windy and Warm,” “Lover Come Back to Me,” “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” “Every Time You Leave,” and more. Hall has also been working professionally as an in-demand studio guitarist, playing on recent albums by Louvin, Kurt Wagner (Lambchop) & Cortney Tidwell, among others.
He plays a Gretsch Archtop Hollowbody, custom Wallace acoustic guitars, and a Telecaster. On the album, he played through a 1984 Fender Deluxe, run thru a 62 Fender bassman cabinet with a 15” JBL E-130 speaker that was miked with RCA 74b Ribbon Mic and VOX ac-15 with a little slap on it that was miked by a Royer 121 ribbon microphone. His guitar microphones went to Telefunken V-72 mic preamps and Manley ELOP compressors and were recorded to Pro Tools at 96k. Skip Ward played bass with Sammy Marendino on drums.
(press release copyright 2011/ courtesy Tompkins Square Records)