This post is a contribution from Tom Bibey, one of our 2010 IBMA correspondents. You can see his profile here.
Miss Dixie and Tom T. Hall are legendary country music artists who have carved out yet another legacy with their work in bluegrass and Good Home Grown Music. They are not only creative, but understand how to help traditional artists establish commercial viability for their work without compromise of their artistic integrity. I’d loved Tom T. Hall’s work ever since Clayton Delany died. I wondered what in the world I could ask; this was a couple who had seen it all twice in the country music biz. I was nervous.
“Miss Dixie,” I asked. “Y’all have lived more country music biz than I’ll ever know. I guess I’ll just ask this: What is your dream?”
She smiled. “Our dream is for the music to live on.”
An artist at the table nodded in approval. “You wouldn’t believe what all they do to make that happen for us. They love this music.”
At a stage of life where many people become insular, Miss Dixie and Tom T. are still giving back. Tom T. said, “Our life is organized around two dogs, lots of real good friends, and philanthropy.”
They went on to say they also stayed busy organizing their music legacy. “We hope a hundred years from now it will still be around for people to enjoy,” Miss Dixie said. “Perhaps it’s a bit selfish, but that’s part of what we hope to do.” I didn’t find that selfish at all, but was glad they have decided to spend the time and energy archive it all. I want my grandchildren to be able find their work and enjoy it as much as I have. All artists dream their work might live on past their time; it is a least a touch of Earthly immortality. The Halls not only dream it, but put in the time to see it to reality.
We touched on the old “what is bluegrass” discussion. Tom T. kept it simple. “Music without an amp,” he said. He also quoted Kris Kristofferson, “If it sounds country it is.”
At the same time, he shows no signs of inflexibility. When he broke into the business, he knew he didn’t sound like anyone else. He recalled his break when Ernest Tubb recommended him for the Opry. “This is a nice boy who tells good stories,” Tubb said. Tom T. knew he was different, and appreciated the opportunity.
It set me to thinking. What makes an artist unique? In this day and age the Internet provides young people a universal access that allows them to mimic any musician in the world. Sometimes I wonder is it makes us all a bit too much alike. I recalled reading of Tom T. Hall’s youth. They spent their time with farm chores and rabbit hunting. The music they played was created in a somewhat of a vacuum. Years later when Tom T.’s records played on the radio we knew who is was in three or four notes.
“Mr. Hall,” I asked. “Man, these kids today are great. They play with a technical proficiency most of my generation never knew. Sometimes I can’t tell one artist from another, though.”
He recalled a story. “One time a singer finished a line in the studio and asked the producer, “Did I get it right?”
The producer said, “I don’t know,” and turned to the computer screen. “Let me look and see.” Tom T. smiled at the irony. “It’s music. He forgot to listen and hear if it was right or not.”
It struck me that Mr. Hall’s enduring success lies in the fact he didn’t forget to listen. His music resonates because he never forgot art and music are human endeavors.
“What do you think makes an artist unique?” I asked.
“Identity.” He went on to say he’d often go back and listen to old recordings. “Those records weren’t perfect, but you knew who it was.”
Like a good editor, Tom T. had a way of summarizing a big concept to a few words. Isn’t that it? As artists, we all are in the business of communication. What makes us unique as a human being? At the same time what is universal that binds us all together?
One time at a songwriter conference someone asked Paul Craft how he knew he had finished a song. Mr. Craft said, (paraphrased) “When you’ve dig deep down inside and know for sure you’ve given it the best you have, you know that song is finished.”
I think that’s the way Miss Dixie and Tom T. Hall approach their work. They aren’t even close to finished, but still dig deep every day to find their best. Bluegrass is fortunate they chose to direct their efforts our way. I can’t wait for the next Miss Dixie and Tom T. song. I’ve got a notion it’ll be the best one yet.