I love Tom T. Hall but I approach this album with some trepidation.
1985 was not a good aural year for the mainstream country music industry.
And, Tom T. Hall was a big seller and definitely mainstream.
Between 1969 and 1985 he had 7 country #1s, another 13 country top 10s, and another 17 Top 40s.
Like many others in country music (Willie Nelson, Billy Swan etc) Hall became a performer through the DJ-ing and song writing route
Hall(born May 25, 1936 in Olive Hill, Kentucky) is the son of a bricklaying minister, who gave his child a guitar at the age of eight. He had already begun to write poetry, so it was a natural progression for him to begin writing songs. Hall began learning music and performing techniques from a local musician, Clayton Delaney. At the age of 11, his mother died. Four years later, his father was shot in a hunting accident, which prevented him from working. In order to support himself and his father, Hall quit school and took a job in a local garment factory. While he was working in the factory, he formed his first band, the Kentucky Travelers. The group played bluegrass and gigged at local schools as well as a radio station in Morehead, Kentucky. The station was sponsored by the Polar Bear Flour Company; Hall wrote a jingle for the company. After the Kentucky Travelers broke up, Hall became a DJ at the radio station … In 1957, Hall enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Germany. While in Germany, he performed at local NCO clubs on the Armed Forces Radio Network, where he sang mostly original material, which usually had a comic bent to it. After four years of service, he was discharged in 1961. Once he returned to the States, he enrolled in Roanoke College as a journalism student; he supported himself by DJ'ing at a radio station in Salem, Virginia … One day a Nashville songwriter was visiting the Salem radio station and he heard Hall's songs. Impressed, the songwriter sent the songs to a publisher named Jimmy Key, who ran New Key Publishing. Key signed Hall as a songwriter, bringing the songs to a variety of recording artists. The first singer to have a hit with one of Hall's songs was Jimmy Newman, who brought "DJ for a Day" to number one on the country charts in 1963. In early 1964, Dave Dudley took "Mad" to the Top Ten. The back-to-back success convinced Hall to move to Nashville, where he planned to continue his career as a professional songwriter. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/tom-t-hall-mn0000515628/biography
With some song writing success he was encouraged to record and released a single (1967). And then he wrote "Harper Valley PTA" which was recorded by Jeannie C. Riley and went to #1 is the US Country and Pop charts. Hall's recording career took off after that and within a year he had one Top 10 Country single (Ballad of Forty Dollars #4, 1968) and a #1 "A Week in the Country Jail, 1969).
His golden period was the 1970s.
His songs were matter of fact, honest and filled with everyday detail. This conversational and casual emotional tone suited country music which loved musical hooks and succinct, complete narratives. And, that is what I loved about his music. The fact it sounds like you are in a pub down the road with some old (er) guy telling you about his day and his woes.
There are no grand statements or universal complaints but often there is some biting satire and observations that hold up a mirror.
By 1985 though still a chart presence Hall's prominence had dissipated.
Worse still mainstream country music had gone decidedly pop and bland.
The 80s were bad for mainstream rock and country was equally affected by the advancements in technologies (and possibly tastes) that required slick, well rounded sounds.
Country has a sense of history so the "old-timers" had a look-in but the sounds that had made their names were pretty clean. The 70s outlaw edges had been dissipated or worse adopted and formularised and the pop and the rock sounds of the city had been fully integrated. Everyone had a twang but authentic regional accents were dead. The Oak Ridge Boys, The Bellamy Brothers, Alabama, Eddie Rabbit Ronnie Milsap, Kenny Rogers were all over the charts.
The need to integrate external mainstream sounds into country has always been there from the days of Jim Reeves and the "countrypolitan" singers. But the trad pop brought in by Reeves and co fit. 80s pop didn't. Well, didn't, to my ears.
Worse was to come but the sawdust, old beer smells and BO of more familiar country music surely missed.
Hall didn't adopt the pop but did embrace the clean sounds aesthetic so dominant in the 80s. But,
Hall marched to the beat of his own drum lyric wise but he didn't seem to care much about the instrumentation … whatever was popular at the time worked well. It was the lyric he seemed more interested in, and, that worked well in the 70s when country music still had some sass.
Here, in 1985, it is tinkly fisher price music for backing … well fisher price music with a pedal steel guitar.
The collection is a strange mix of Hall country originals and old non-country trad pop songs … just like the type of thing Jim Reeves did.
Whether it was a shortage of material, a conscious decision or a bit of both but I suspect Hall was trying to emulate the success of Willie Nelson's trad pop albums (and singles), "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (1981, #1 Country #31 Pop) and "Without a Song " (1983, #3 Country, #54 Pop).
It didn't work.
Tracks (best in italics)
- That Lucky Old Sun – (Haven Gillespie/Beasley Smith) – a trad pop song done by everyone including country (Willie nelson, Johnny Cash), rock (Brian Wilson), and soul (Aretha Franklin) artists. Made popular with a #1 in 1949 by Frankie Laine. This is a great song and Hall's voice is good for it but nothing is added. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/That_Lucky_Old_Sun
- A Bar with No Beer – (Tom T. Hall) – This is not dissimilar (and not only in melody) to "A Pub With No Beer" by Australian country singer Slim Dusty (the song was a big hit, a #1 in Australia and a #3 in England in the pop charts). The song here is credited to Hall though it has lifted portions of a "Bar with no Beer" by Texas country singer Benny Barnes (writers credit to Don Williams) which was released in 1960. Barnes' song was the Americanized version of "A Pub With No Beer". Hall has changed the lyrics considerably but it is essentially the same song. And it's quite good. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Pub_with_No_Beer
- I Have Friends – (Tom T. Hall) – so-so though familiar country themes are covered
- A Song in a Seashell – (Tom T. Hall) – fluff but quite nice with nod to Jimmy Buffet and the lazy Florida keys
- Red Sails in the Sunset – (Jimmy Kennedy/Hugh Williams) – a trad pop song from the 1930s done by everyone though Nat King Cole had a #24 with it in 1951 and Tab Hunter had a #57 in 1957. Another great song and a decent version though the pitter patter of the drums and tinkly back make this sound like a cabaret act. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Sails_in_the_Sunset_(song)
- Down in the Florida Keys – (Tom T. Hall) – Another (big) nod to Jimmy Buffet who was popular at the time (Florida keys, margarita, sleepy, lazy days, escapism all feature in the song). Perhaps this is a song about Jimmy Buffet. Very catchy
- Love Letters in the Sand – (Fred Coots/Charles Kenny/Nick Kenny) – another trad pop dating back to the 30s though Pat Boone had a #1 with it in 1957. Done in by the backing. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Letters_in_the_Sand
- This Ain’t Exactly What I Had in Mind – (Tom T. Hall) – not too bad.
- Gone Fishin’ – (Nick Kenny/Charles Kenny) – a trad pop from the early 50s which didn't have much chart action but was popularised by Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong #19 US 1951). So-so though with some good updated lyrics.. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gone_Fishin%27_(song)
- We’re All Through Dancing – (Tom T. Hall) – a very familiar country themes summed up in the title. Very Good!
Not one of Hall's best but for completeness … I'm keeping it.
1985 A Bar with No Beer #40 Country
1985 Down in the Florida Keys #42 Country
1986 Love Letters in the Sand #79 Country
1985 #63 Country
That Lucky Old Sun
A Bar with No Beer
A Song in a Seashell
Down in the Florida Keys
- Arranged by Bergen White (tracks: Strings). Produced by Jerry Kennedy.