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Tom T.Hall keeps a rappin'

By Joel Bernstein, October 1997

Mercury Records has jumped into the "alternative country" field with Tom T. Hall's new album "Home Grown."

Yes, it's the same Tom T. Hall who's recorded 21 Top Ten records. It's the same Tom T. Hall who has written countless other Top Ten hits for other artists, from "D.J. For A Day" by Jimmy Newman in 1963 to Alan Jackson's recent Number One "Little Bitty."

Alternative? When someone makes an album, and both he and his label know full well that it has no chance of getting mainstream radio play, that's "alternative." So what if it sounds the same as all those hits he had? Times have changed.

It's a rare event in modern Nashville when a label head tells an artist to cut an album without worrying about radio play. Hall had actually "retired" a few years ago, but his wife wouldn't let him use that word. Mercury kept the door open for him to record whenever and whatever he wanted.

The radio format playing alternative country calls itself "Americana." You'd hope they would play music that embodies that word. Hall's latest album contains a song called "Watertown, Tennessee," and that's just the latest of many real American towns immortalized in his songs.

Hall's first Number One record, "A Week In A Country Jail," and his most famous song, "Harper Valley P.T.A.," are both set in small towns.

Tom T. Hall is not in the Country Music Hall Of Fame. He is one of several glaring absences from that institution. Not coincidentally, he is not very well-liked in Nashville. "I'm not an asshole," he says. "I've ticked a few people off by just staying at home." Hall has always liked to stay on his Tennessee farm to write and then bring his songs to town.

"Sometimes you're conspicuous by your absence. You offend someone by not being in the right place at the right time. There's a lot of shmoozing in Nashville."

Asked if he feels he belongs in the Hall of Fame, Tom T. says "I don't know. I don't think anybody went into the Hall thinking they deserve to be there. It's kind of an ego thing. It's like walking up to a stranger and saying 'I need a hug.'"

Hall has also offended some people in other ways. "I've been outspoken about a couple of things." Hall admits.

Some of this outspokenness was in his songs.

While his new album sticks pretty much to storytelling, he has dealt with some major social issues in past songs.

Take Vietnam. Hall wrote the first-ever Vietnam hit when Johnny Wright took "Hello Vietnam" to Number One in the summer of 1965. A few months later, Dave Dudley scored big with "What We're Fighting For."

In 1965, Hall still seemed to accept the government line about the need to save the world from Communism. But even in these early songs, Hall humanized the war. Both songs were sung from the soldier's perspective; it was "Good-bye sweetheart, hello Vietnam" and "Mama, please tell them what we're fighting for."

These were a far cry from the strident jingoistic stance of many other songwriters. In fact, Hall says even "Hello Vietnam" was written with a degree of irony. "I wrote it with the idea of 'Hello, another war.'"

A few years later, Hall wrote "Mama Bake A Pie." This too was sung from the soldier's perspective, but now he's returning home as a cripple. Hall never directly criticized the war effort in this song, but the horrible picture of war he painted spoke for itself.

"The Chicago Story," a minor hit for Jimmy Snyder, is about a soldier and his bride saying good-bye at the airport as he heads back to Vietnam. The story is moving enough even before Hall's dramatic twist ending "War Is Hell (On The Homefront Too)" was someone else's later hit. "The Chicago Story" made the same point much more eloquently, and while the Vietnam conflagration was still raging.

Hall undoubtedly ruffled a few feathers with "Watergate Blues," which reached the Top Twenty in 1973. Describing the 1972 election of Nixon as "America bought a new used car," Hall scorched others as well. "I'm not a fan of politicians. They don't listen a lot. They spend too much time dwelling on things set in concrete."

Social commentary also carries with it the danger of being misunderstood. One of Hall's most recent efforts, "Thoughts On The Flag" was a brilliant dissection of the emotional issue of flag-burning. "Some fellow came up to me and said 'You're right. If anyone burns my flag I'll shoot the son of a bitch.' And I thought 'Whoa! Was that in there?'""Fanatics I don't like. Rhetoric is their main weapon. There's got to be a middle. Wars are fought over this." But, Hall warns, "We're born with it. Everybody, in order to make their point, violates common sense truths."

Hall achieved success as a recording artist despite a major handicap. "I never thought I was much of a singer, and it's obvious if you listen some. I'm concentrating on the lyrics and story." Most of Hall's records are simply rhythmic recitation with musical accompaniment. In other words, Tom T. Hall was the first major rap artist.

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