Richard Thompson contributes another in his ongoing series of reviews of recent projects that have caught his fancy – this time, Tom T Hall Sings Miss Dixie & Tom T (Blue Circle Records BCR 012), released in early 2007.
Since he ‘retired’ Tom T Hall has, arguably, been busier than ever. Along with his equally beloved wife Miss Dixie, he has continued to write songs in abundance. They are prolific writers of songs, bluegrass songs, their true vocation. As Miss Dixie has said in an interview, ” ‘Retirement’ in my book is giving up work to do what you love doing and we happen to love bluegrass music so we’re having a blast.”
Tom T Hall Sings Miss Dixie & Tom T comprises a dozen of the very best songs from the duo’s catalogue of songs written in recent years. The supreme quality of the lyrics and melodies is undisputed, in my view. Many of the songs have already been recorded by others; Chris Jones, Dave Evans, Junior Sisk, the group Nothin’ Fancy and Ryan Holliday among them, and their popularity is already well established in the bluegrass song catalogue. Tom T is still ‘the story teller’, admittedly aided and abetted by his producer and wife, Miss Dixie.
Perhaps the most well-known song in this collection is A Hero In Harlan. Hall draws every ounce of emotion from the song which relates the story of the passing of a man from a coal mining community, only in this instance he falls in battle, rather than in a coal pit. Pretty Green Hills relates the story of an elderly man who yearns to enjoy the vista only, poignantly, to be buried all too soon in those very hills.
The CD begins with I’m A Coal Mining Man an up-tempo tribute to coal miners and their contribution to the American economy. Other highlights are Leaving Baker County, which is about finding some meaningful status elsewhere; the tribute to one of the legends of bluegrass One Of Those Days (When I Miss Lester Flatt); and the nostalgia-filled Somewhere In Kentucky Tonight, a man’s reflection of life viewed from industrial Ohio.
However, the one song that captures a real slice of American life as much any is A Headstone For Harry, a wonderful vignette with the couplet, “Me and my pals at the Somerset poolroom, Ain’t famous for nothing but standing around broke.” You can’t beat it, can you?
The final track tells Jimmy Martin’s life story in 5 minutes. It’s synonymous with Martin’s action-packed life, complete with introduction, yodel and guitar from the man himself.
Accompanying Hall, who occasionally plays guitar, are Kristin Scott Benson, Earl Scruggs and Tim White (all on banjo), Wayne Benson (mandolin), Robert Bowlin (rhythm guitar, Dobro¬Æ), Mike Bub and Ben Isaacs (bass), Glen Duncan (fiddle), Terry Eldredge and Jimmy Martin (guitar), and Randy Kohrs (resonator guitar). Rebecca Isaacs Bowman, Sonya Isaacs, Don Rigsby and Josh Williams provide background vocals.
Vocally Tom T is a one-off. He has a rich, expressive baritone, retaining that expressive and wonderfully resonant delivery that is synonymous with the original storyteller in his heyday during the 1960s and 1970s.
“Having a blast” is a very good way to describe everything about this collection, the picking, the singing and the general ambience.