As far back as I can remember, music has been a big part of my life. In our home, when I was growing up, my mom always had either the radio or the record player going, and we listened to a lot of music of all kinds. Gospel (especially Southern Gospel), Country, Big Band, Western Swing – Jim Reeves, Ray Price, The Florida Boys, The Blackwood Brothers, the Happy Goodman Family, The Glenn Miller Band, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Mom had been a trumpet player and high school drum major in her younger days, and she developed a love of many different kinds of music that she maintained her whole life. In addition, she had a strong alto voice and for many years sang in a ladies’ quartet at church. I can still remember sitting next to her in church and hearing her as she sang the harmony on hymns and the old-time camp meeting songs.
My dad’s musical tastes were somewhat simpler. As far as he was concerned, there were only two kinds of music – country, and western. George Jones was one of his favorites – the “Possum” was a native of our corner of SE Texas – but dad also loved Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Johnny Cash, Roy Clark, Jimmy Dean. Dad had picked a guitar in his younger days, and always greatly enjoyed times when my brothers would get out their acoustic guitars and other instruments and lead out in a jam session around the living room, or around a campfire.
Like mom, I also listened to a lot of various kinds of music. When I was riding with friends in their cars, we would listen to the Beatles and other famous bands. I had one friend who was really into this Blues-Rock garage band from the Houston area that was just getting started – their first paying gig was the Junior-Senior Prom at a neighboring high school. A little group known as “Z.Z. Top.” But I listened to a lot of Chicago and the Doobie Brothers. Also like mom, I also liked classical music, and listened to a lot of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. And like dad, I enjoyed several different country artists, especially Glen Campbell. But one of my favorites was Tom T. Hall.
Tom T. Hall was born in 1936 in a place called Tick Ridge, Kentucky, and grew up playing “hillbilly” music (as it was then known). He was worked as a part-time musician, served a tour in the Army in the late 50s and worked as a DJ and radio announcer before moving to Nashville in 1964, with a job as a songwriter. He wrote songs for many other artists before having a monster hit in 1968, with the song “Harper Valley PTA,” released by Jeannie C. Riley. Somewhere along the way, he picked up the nickname of “The Storyteller.”
My introduction to his music came through my Uncle Rusty, who sang Hall’s song, “The Ballad of Forty Dollars.” I thought it was a pretty good story, and I started paying more attention to Hall’s music when it would come on the radio. Another favorite from those days was “The Monkey Who Became President.” The coach who was my driver’s ed instructor was a country music fan, and I remember listening to that song when it was my turn behind the wheel.
Another favorite was the classic, “Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine.” It’s a true story about an actual conversation he had with a man in a hotel bar one night in Miami – honest storytelling at its best. His songs ranged from the funny (“Faster Horses”) to the sweet (“I Love”) to the bittersweet (“Homecoming”), with everything in between.
I stopped listening to his music at some point – I don’t know why. I was probably in college at the time and decided I was too “cool” to listen to country anymore, or something stupid like that. By that point in my life, I was really into The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt, and a picker from Kentucky who sang simple ballads just didn’t seem to fit. But then, as sometimes happens in our lives, something occurs that will re-expose us to things we used to enjoy, and we may find that we still like them.
Recently, I was watching the HBO series, The Newsroom by Aaron Sorkin, with Kathy and our friend, Loren, and one of the characters was listening to Hall’s song, “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” Honestly, I didn’t know the song, so I went on iTunes (something we didn’t have back in my younger days!) and found it. While I was there, I rediscovered and downloaded a bunch of his stuff, which I have been listening ever since. It’s still good, and I’ll give him the last word:
That night I dreamed in peaceful sleep of shady summertime,
Of old dogs and children and watermelon wine.