Tom T Hall, country music star known as ‘the Storyteller’ – obituary

Tom T Hall - GAB Archive/Redferns
Tom T Hall - GAB Archive/Redferns

Tom T Hall, who has died aged 85, was one of country music’s most enduringly popular singer- songwriters, noted for a colourful narrative style that earned him the epithet “The Storyteller”.

He had a dozen No 1 hits in the country charts, ranging from the sentimental I Love to the reflective Watermelon Wine and the singalong I Like Beer; but it was Jeannie C.Riley, who brought him international fame with her recording of his graphic morality tale Harper Valley PTA in 1968.

Inspired by an incident he witnessed growing up in the small community of Olive Hill, Kentucky, his story of a young mother’s revenge on a school committee’s hypocritical criticisms of her morals went on to sell over six million copies and was covered by numerous other artists, including Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.

The song that made Tom T Hall's name
The song that made Tom T Hall's name

It was Riley’s first record – she was working as a secretary at a Nashville music publishers when she first heard Hall’s song – and went on to inspire a 1978 film of the same name and a 1981 television series. In later years Hall even wrote a follow-up Return To Harper Valley, updating the fortunes of the various characters, but this was less successful.

Early life in Olive Hill continued to fuel Hall’s music throughout his career. From a poor background, he was one of eight children, the son of Virgil Hall, an ordained minister, and was born in a log cabin built by his grandfather.

He started playing guitar at the age of four and wrote his first song Haven’t I Been Good To You at nine, in the style of the Grand Ole Opry radio shows, dropping out of school at 15 to work in a garment factory.

He attributed his greatest inspiration to a childhood neighbour, guitarist Lonnie Easterly, about whom he wrote one of his best-loved songs, The Night Clayton Delaney Died (also covered by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings) and played double bass with bluegrass band the Kentucky Travelers.

Service in the US Army in Germany helped him hone his amiable stage persona as he performed comedy songs on the Armed Services Radio Network. After discharge, he worked as a DJ on local radio stations, playing catchy promotional jingles, and went on to write DJ For A Day, framed firmly in the classic country tradition of unrequited love. Jimmy C. Newman, a big country star of the day, picked it up, made it a hit and Hall was on his way.

Tom T Hall, circa 1970 - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Tom T Hall, circa 1970 - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

He moved to Nashville, earning $50 a week writing half a dozen songs each day for the Newkeys Music Publishing Company, owned by Newman and Jimmy Key. Johnny Cash, George Jones, Bobby Bare and Alan Jackson were among those who recorded his material, which included the patriotic Hello Vietnam, a major hit for Johnny Wright, later featured in the 1987 movie Full Metal Jacket.

Signed to Mercury Records and adding the letter T to his name for added intrigue (it does not stand for anything), he had a minor hit with his first single I Washed My Face In the Morning Dew, and his 1971 album In Search Of A Song – rooted in stories of rural, working class Kentucky – made him a star in his own right and he became a regular at the Grand Ole Opry, focal point of the Nashville scene.

Tom T Hall's I Like Beer
Tom T Hall's I Like Beer

Yet unlike many fellow Nashville musicians, he did not often wear a cowboy hat, was a liberal who supported the Democratic Party and at one point contemplated entering politics; and, despite being the son of a preacher, had misgivings about organised religion, opinions that occasionally surfaced as he became more closely associated with the “outlaw” images of Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.

He also disliked the glitziness that seeped into country music, and when the Grand Old Opry moved its weekly shows from the old Ryman Auditorium to a grander new out-of-town complex opened in 1974 by Richard Nixon, he said it was “soulless” and refused to play there.

Thereafter he retreated to Fox Hollow, a 67-acre farm south of Nashville, and effectively retired during the 1980s. However, he continued to write with his wife Iris “Miss Dixie” Lawrence (whom he married in 1968) and released an acoustic album Home Grown in 1998.

Building a home recording studio, he also formed his own company Blue Circle, dedicated to bluegrass music, and even produced a bluegrass comedy movie Who Shot Lester Monroe?.

He published a number of books, including The Storyteller’s Nashville, The Songwriter’s Handbook and The Acts Of Life.

He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (2008) and the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame (2019).

His wife Iris died in 2015. He is survived by a son from an earlier marriage to Opal McKinney.

Thomas Hall, born May 25 1936, died August 20 2021