Tom T. Hall & Friends – Country Music Hall Of Fame Ford Theater (Nashville, TN)
Tom T. Hall told us in passing during the first of these three highly anticipated, sold-out “Artist in Residence” performances, “I’ve asked a lot of people why we are doing this, intelligent people — and they didn’t seem to know!…Miss Dixie said, ‘Shut up and just pick.'”
Fortunately, the “retired” Mr. Hall did not follow his wife and co-writer’s advice and simply pick his way through these rare shows. And as everybody probably should have foreseen, despite his general absence from the stage for the past decade, he proved to be as hilarious and pointed and impeccably paced a standup monologist and emcee as he always has been a singing storyteller.
The setup of the series allowed Tom T. to work up the format for the trio of shows, as his friends Cowboy Jack Clement and Earl Scruggs had in previous years. He chose to make the first night his “Bio in Song,” the one where he did most of the performing himself — with an ace band behind him for the series which included Pat Flynn on guitar, Mike Bub on bass, and Charlie McCoy on harmonica. Nashville Tennessean journalist and sometime singer-songwriter Peter Cooper, an unabashed Tom T. Hall advocate and admirer, provided linking narration between the memories and autobiographical songs, and even a bit of singing.
So here was Tom T. in fine form, performing “A Million Miles To The City”, “Clayton Delaney”, “Ballad Of Forty Dollars” and “I Washed My Face In The Morning Dew” with tales of their original context — his farmboy childhood in Olive Hill, Kentucky (“home of the world’s largest brick plant”), his time in the army (“songs I wrote about all the times I almost got killed”) and on to his marriage, his writing, and his unexpected performing career. He marveled, thinking aloud about his song “Little Bitty”: “Alan Jackson remade that. I was fascinated by the royalty checks — how far over they’ve moved the decimal point lately.”
Veteran Nashville DJ Ralph Emery, on hand for the occasion, called Tom’s first massive hit composition, “Harper Valley P.T.A.”, “a song unlike any I’d ever heard, a song about social justice and hypocrisy. The Jeannie C. Riley record knocked ‘Mama Tried’ out of first place and went on to sell 10 million copies.” Hall noted that “Harper” was basically a true story about events in his hometown; it took three years to get recorded after it was written. Country hitmaker Martina McBride showed up to deliver a surprise rendition of the song (which shows up on the new “Desperate Housewives” soundtrack).
Tom T.’s nonjudgmental empathy for the characters he portrays in song and his sense of justice have always been twin beacons for those who know there’s more to county music than any single locked political or social point of view. His stories of shows at sparsely-attended Mississippi ACLU rallies with his preacher-activist buddy Will D. Campbell reminded us once again that different southerners have varied ideas about which “lost causes” to fight for, and where.
The combination of immense talent and sufficiently acerbic sweetness has brought Hall a lot of friends, and a lot of those were on hand for the second session, dubbed “Songs I Wish I’d Written And The Writers Who Wrote Them.”
If the first half of this set threatened to be a sort of not-necessarily-performing-songwriter Bluebird Cafe-style deal, things picked up, and in a big way, from the moment Tom T. offered up Harlan Howard’s “Busted” as a tribute to that extraordinary absent friend (Howard died in 2002). The connection of that song’s approach to Hall’s own work was clearly made: “It’s a sad song,” Tom T. told the crowd, “but everybody sings it funny.”
The second half of this show brought an abundance of riches. Todd Snider won many new friends with terrific and fresh turns on Kris Kristofferson songs; Grand Ole Opry country Cajun star Jimmy C. Newman recounted memories of Tom T. from early on and offered renditions of the early Hall songs he recorded; Carlene Carter and cousin Lorrie Bennett (Anita Carter’s daughter) played “Keep On The Sunny Side”; and, most of all — a remarkable highlight for the whole series — back-to-back roaring Tom T. and Billy Joe Shaver duets on “Me And Jesus” and “Old Five And Dimers Like Me”. This pair in action together was a still-lively testament to the invigoration that a generation of maverick songwriters brought to Nashville in the 1960s and early ’70s. One more icon of that time, Bobby Bare Sr., paid a surprise visit in week three, delivering the indelible “Margie’s At The Lincoln Park Inn”.
John Prine made it onstage for the third show, too, to sing “Paradise” — just right for a Kentucky boy — and the Prine song most fitting for this last show, which focused on the bluegrass music that was Hall’s first love and his principal devotion in recent years as a fan, songwriter and recording studio chief. Since bluegrass is even more of an obsession for Miss Dixie, Tom T. semi-retired again for this one, and let her do the hosting. Leading lights from the genre both veteran (Bobby Osborne, Larry Sparks, the Isaacs, Larry Stephenson) and more recent (Alecia Nugent, Chris & Sally Jones, Larry McPeak) were on hand, with a focus on songs written by the Halls as a team.
Tom T. wrapped up the proceedings with an accurate assessment of the three weeks — “This has been a marvelous experience!” — and a plan — “And now I want to get back to my golf game.”