Tom T Hall passed on Friday, He was a country songwriter who informed my work, telling stories about people. He observed every-day life, regular people, and made them real, with a large dollop of insight and sympathy and wit.
I read the lovely obituary in the Sunday NYT by Bill Friskics-Warren and I tried to remember when I first heard Tom T Hall.
I think it was after I had been one of the first reporters on the scene for the terrible mine explosion in Hyden, Ky., on Dec. 30, 1970. I came back many times, met a lot of survivors – “the widders,” as they say.
Turned out, Tom T. Hall was there soon after. He and a buddy drove a pickup from his home in Olive Hill, Ky., not far from the coal region, and he observed with a storyteller’s eye, including the sheriff and the undertaker whom I had met. Maybe he had read my stories, maybe not. Didn’t matter. He put it to music, got it perfect.
(The “pretty lady from the Grand Ole Opry” is Loretta Lynn, who had come off the road to play a charity concert in Louisville in 1971, for the survivors. That’s how I got to know Loretta, and later helped her write her book, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”)
In the next years, I collected cassettes of Tom T Hall’s best albums and songs and would play them as I drove around Appalachia. .
Some of his best songs were about lost or unrequited love:
“Tulsa Telephone Book” --
Readin' that Tulsa telephone book, can drive a guy insane
Especially if that girl you're lookin' for has no last name.
“The Little Lady Preacher” --
(A picker remembers the gospel singer he backed up every Sunday morning: “She’d punctuate the prophecies with movements of her hips.”)
We never met, but I took my young family to see him in New York in the mid-70s. I learned that he had settled in the lush outskirts of Nashville with his wife, Miss Dixie, herself a fixture in Music City, who passed a few years back.
I owe Tom T Hall a great debt because he helped me recognize the best parts of people, as flawed as we all are. Only he put it to music and he sang it.
In honor of Tom T Hall – a requiem for the older friend who taught him to pick, and other stuff.