Tom T. Hall's 10 Greatest Songs
by Julian Spivey
One of the greatest songwriters in the history of modern music, but specifically country music, Tom T. Hall died at 85 on Friday, August 20. Hall was nicknamed “The Storyteller,” as he was known for his prowess at writing songs that told a complete story from start to finish and weren’t your typical verse, verse, chorus, verse format.
10. “America the Ugly” (1970)
This tenth spot on this list is interchangeable for me. It could change depending on the day, but today I’m feeling 1970’s “America the Ugly” because it still feels so relevant today. “America the Ugly” proves that Hall wasn’t against making a point in his songwriting as it tells the story of a photographer from a foreign land who comes to capture the realities of America, including poor people and hungry children, and elderly given up on by later generations. I just wish it wasn’t relevant today.
9. “I Love” (1973)
This one is just precious. “I Love,” which was Hall’s only crossover hit (as a performer) onto the Billboard Top 40 getting all the way to No. 12 in 1973, is just about loving the simple things in life. It’s so sweet it would be saccharine if most attempted it, but there’s enough sly humor in it to make it work for me – I’m talking about the squirrel line. There’s no rhyme there. I just love that he throws squirrels in randomly. It was a no. 1 on the country charts, one of seven in his career as a performer.
8. “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet)” (1975)
Sometimes in Hall’s best songs he puts a writer or performer in conversation with a regular Joe, in the case of “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet)” it’s an old cowboy, who departs wise wisdom on the writer/performer. In this song a young, idyllic poet encounters a hard-worn cowboy at a bar, who tells him there’s only four things in life worth a damn: faster horses, younger women, older whiskey and more money. The poet says he doesn’t have any interest in those things and is called out for being a liar. By the end of the song the poet has realized there’s an awful lot of truth in what the old cowboy has to say.
7. “A Week in a County Jail” (1969)
In perhaps Hall’s most humorous tune, “A Week in a County Jail,” his first no. 1 as a performer in 1969, the protagonist is pulled over in a small town for speeding and must spend time in a jail cell until a judge can lay down the law. It takes a full week, and our narrator is forced to spend his time eating hot bologna, eggs and gravy and making eyes at the jailer’s wife.
6. “Tulsa Telephone Book” (1971)
I probably heard “Tulsa Telephone Book” for the first time less than a year ago thanks to randomly hearing it on a local radio station that lets DJs play whatever they want. The song, off 1971’s In Search of a Song, was never released as a single – so it’s my favorite Hall deep cut. “Tulsa Telephone Book” tells of a man who’s had a one night stand and only knows the woman’s first name, but desperately wants to see her again so he’s read through the Tulsa telephone book 13 times without any luck. It’s such a great idea for a song, while being both catchy and having a wry sense of humor.
5. “The Year Clayton Delaney Died” (1971)
“The Year Clayton Delaney Died” is probably Hall’s most known hit as a performer – of course he wrote “Harper Valley P.T.A.” which Jeannie C. Riley topped both the country charts and the Billboard Hot 100 in 1968 – which tells the story of a guitar picker who liked his booze and wasn’t a parent’s idea of a good role model and how he taught the song’s narrator had to play guitar (and drink booze). The song was inspired by Hall’s boyhood hero Lonnie Easterly. “The Year Clayton Delaney Died” was a no. 1 country hit in 1971 and I have to wonder if it inspired the similarly themed “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” by Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1974.
4. “That’s How I Got to Memphis” (1968)
“That’s How I Got to Memphis” is the Tom T. Hall song that’s been in my head ever since the moment I learned of Hall’s passing on Friday. It’s just a perfect song. “That’s How I Got to Memphis” tells the story of a man’s search for his lost love, who’s doesn’t want to be found, and how he followed her trail to Memphis. Hall didn’t release the song as a single, but a version recorded by Bobby Bare in 1970 hit no. 3 on the country chart. The song was also memorably performed on the series finale of HBO’s “The Newsroom” in 2014 being played by the show’s lead character portrayed by Emmy-winner Jeff Daniels.
3. “Old Dogs, Children & Watermelon Wine” (1972)
Hall’s 1972 no. 1 country hit “Old Dogs, Children & Watermelon Wine” is one of those songs I mentioned earlier where the narrator, in this case Hall himself, is given wise advice from a regular Joe, in this case a janitor at a Miami bar. The song is a true account of Hall’s experience at the 1972 Democratic National Convention and a conversation he had with a janitor at a Miami Beach hotel. In the janitor’s mind there’s “only three things in this old world worth a solitary dime: old dogs, children and watermelon wine.” It’s one of the ultimate country story songs and Rolling Stone magazine listed it as one of country music’s 100 greatest songs of all-time in 2014.
2. “Homecoming” (1969)
“Homecoming,” a no. 5 hit for Hall in 1969, should be a movie. It basically is a movie in song form in just over three minutes. Hall was great at penning songs about writers and performers – proving the adage “write what you know” – and “Homecoming” is the best of these as it features a traveling musician passing through his hometown on the way from one performance to another who stops at home for a brief conversation with his dad. It’s perfection.
1. “Ballad of Forty Dollars” (1968)
“Ballad of Forty Dollars,” a no. 4 hit in 1968, has been my favorite Hall song from the moment I heard it – it’s a perfect story song and features the greatest punchline of any punchline that’s ever been written in a song. The narrator is a cemetery caretaker observing the funeral of a man he somewhat knew and essentially giving the play-by-play of it before ending the song with the all-time great: “the trouble is the fella owed me 40 bucks.” In an interview with CMT.com in 2005 Hall revealed that his first job as a young man was mowing the grass at a cemetery and how he’d have to shut down his mower during funerals and just observe them, including conversations being had by the gravediggers.
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