Tributes to Hall of Famer Tom T. Hall are pouring in, deservedly, from all corners of the music world after his death late last week, but among songwriters the loss is particularly stinging.
It seems nearly every bluegrass composer I know, from little known to those with trophy shelves sagging with honors, has weighed in on how The Storyteller helped them, made time for them or otherwise left a lasting mark on their lives and their craft.
My friend Cliff Abbott, from Alabama, is one of them. I introduced Cliff to his idol in a hallway during World of Bluegrass back in the Nashville days. Tom T., no doubt, had places to go and people to see, but he graciously took five minutes to talk songwriting. In that short conversation, he spoke volumes about how difficult it is to succeed, but how you can’t quit, without ever saying those words.
“See that guy,” he said, pointing to a 30-something man with a squeegee, washing outside windows at the Convention Center. “He’s probably a better songwriter than any of us.” The unspoken truth between the lines – the hallmark of Hall’s simple yet elegant songs – was that it’s a tough way to make a living. And that you can’t tell great writers by their day jobs.
When he got ready to leave, he shook hands and wished Cliff luck. “But not too much,” he said with a straight face, according to my no-notes recollection of the exchange a decade ago. “I’m still writing.”
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of songwriting success, but just as much in awe of Hall, is Larry Cordle. Once, nearly a decade ago, Cord realized that Tom T. would be at a party he was headed to, so he decided to take his much-worn copy of Hall’s How I Write Songs…Why You Can, Too, and have it signed. But he got cold feet and had to be talked into it by Miss Dixie.
Cord finally worked up the nerve while Hall was chatting with a group of folks. As Cordle tells the story, Hall said, “This may sound self-serving or whatever, but I heard this song a while back called Black Diamond Strings, and the longer I listened to it, I just kept thinking to myself, you know, I believe that SOB has been reading my book.” When the laughter died down, he wrote, “To Larry, the other best KY songwriter, Tom T.” Cordle still cherishes his prize.
There are hundreds of similar recollections floating around this week. If a writer didn’t have personal interactions with Tom T. – apparently there are some! – he or she talked in awe about what was learned just by studying his songs or reading his books about the craft.
“I learned how to turn a phrase through his songs,” said Darin Aldridge, who regularly climbs the bluegrass charts with his wife Brooke. “He said as much as you could want to say in a small amount of words. Nobody was better at it.”
“He had a way of telling a story that made you think it was your story,” Brook Aldridge added.
Simple truths. Universal appeal. “When you love somebody enough, you follow them wherever they go” (That’s How I Got To Memphis).
One of Darin and Brooke’s regrets is that they didn’t get a chance to write with Tom T. But they did have the honor of recording with him. Hall came to the studio and sang the last verse of Our Little World on one of their previous CDs. It’s a wonderful moment, worth tracking down and listening to.
But what Tom T. and his late wife and songwriting partner Dixie did went far beyond helpful advice or adding a guest vocal. They opened their home, Fox Hollow, to songwriters, artists, and others, sharing an impressive home cooked meal or, often, a guest room. At times, the comings and goings made it seem like an airport terminal. Darin and Brooke were introduced to their manager, Brian Smith, on one such occasion. One party was arriving, one was leaving, introductions were made and the rest is history.
The Halls had hundreds and hundreds of cuts over the years. But they didn’t take success for granted. They pitched relentlessly, and in their own style. Some writers pretty much throw songs at artists and hope something sticks. I and others try to target songs for specific artists. Why waste time, and come across as clueless, by pitching a drinking song when a little research would reveal the artist doesn’t do drinking songs?
But the Halls went even further. They narrowed down potential songs for a specific artist, then invited the artist to their estate for a pitching session. (You can do that when you’re songwriting royalty). The business meeting always included a meal.
“You’d sit around and feel like part of their family,” Brooke Aldridge said.
I’m not suggesting the Halls had so much success because of that approach. They were so successful because their songs were so good.
The proof is in the pudding.
“One year, it was Brooke’s birthday when we were there, and they made her a big banana pudding,” Darin Aldridge said when asked to share a favorite memory of time spent with Tom T. and Dixie.
“It was like seven layers,” Brooke said, the amazement still evident in her voice years later.
Last night, the first time I heard this particular story, I realized Tom T. Hall was still nudging songwriters to be better.
He was a master at layering, not just with banana pudding, but with the nuance and meaning in his lyrics.
I have so much more work to do.