Tom T. Hall, the Country Music Hall of Fame member known as “The Storyteller” for his detailed narrative songs like “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” “I Love,” and “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” died Friday at his home in Franklin, Tennessee. He was 85. Hall’s son Dean confirmed his father’s death. (In January 2022, the Williamson County Medical Examiner’s office confirmed to Rolling Stone the manner of death was suicide.)
Born Thomas T. Hall on May 25th, 1936, in Olive Hill, Kentucky, Hall began playing music at a young age and performed with a bluegrass band, the Kentucky Travelers, while he was a teenager. He joined the Army in 1957 and sometimes performed on the Armed Services Radio Network while stationed in Germany. After returning to civilian life, Hall was working as a radio DJ in Virginia when a publisher heard his song “D.J. for a Day” and brought it to Jimmy C. Newman, who took it to the Top Ten. Hall’s first Number One came in 1965 with Johnnie Wright’s version of “Hello Vietnam.”
Hall began to record his own compositions as well, signing with Mercury Records in 1967 and joining the Grand Ole Opry in 1971 as he was beginning to pile up hits under his own name. Among his Number Ones from the era are the barroom memory “(Old Dogs, Children and) Watermelon Wine,” “I Love,” “Country Is,” and “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet).” His plainspoken delivery and slice-of-life tableaus were easily approachable, ranging in tone from humorous to hefty on Seventies albums like Rhymers and Other Five and Dimers, The Storyteller, and Country Is.
“Tom T. Hall’s masterworks vary in plot, tone and tempo, but they are bound by his ceaseless and unyielding empathy for the triumphs and losses of others,” said Kyle Young, CEO, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “He wrote without judgment or anger, offering a rhyming journalism of the heart that sets his compositions apart from any other writer.”
Still, one of Hall’s best-known songs was “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” which Jeannie C. Riley turned into a CMA award-winning crossover smash in 1968. Its narrative about a miniskirt-wearing single mother who righteously admonishes the hypocritical busybodies at her daughter’s school also spawned a movie and television series. Hall’s hits for other artists included Dave Dudley’s “The Pool Shark,” Bobby Bare’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis” and, in 1996, Alan Jackson’s “Little Bitty.”
The multi-talented Hall also branched out into writing books, releasing The Storyteller’s Nashville in 1979, then The Laughing Man of Woodmont Cove in 1982, The Acts of Life in 1986, and Spring Hill, Tennessee in 1990. He shared some of his pointers for aspiring tunesmiths in the 1976 book How I Write Songs, Why You Can.
#RipTomTHall Damn. The greatest storyteller songwriter of all time. A writer’s writer.
There’s at least a dozen categories of song that he wrote arguably the best ever example of.
— Drive-By Truckers (@drivebytruckers) August 21, 2021
Hall’s work was often intertwined with that of his late wife Dixie, a songwriter and musician who became his collaborator until her death in 2015. From their Nashville-area home known as Fox Hollow (which inspired Hall’s beloved 1974 children’s album Songs of Fox Hollow), the pair wrote and recorded bluegrass music, championing the careers of other bluegrass musicians as well. His last studio album, 2007’s Tom T. Hall Sings Miss Dixie and Tom T., was a collaborative effort between the two.
Hall was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008.