In Search of a Song

Tom T. Hall

album cover

By the time Tom T. Hall began making records, in the late '60s, most of the basic themes of country songs—cheating hearts and brawls and sad girls left alone at the bar—had been well explored. This did not deter the sharp-eyed singer, songwriter, and guitarist, who grew up in Olive Hill, Kentucky. First he wrote about morality and manners—his best-known song is the Jeannie C. Riley hit about hypocrites, "Harper Valley PTA." Then, after a few years of mid-level success, Hall set out on long solo drives, searching for the truths known only to residents of small-town America. He found characters and song ideas by the bushel, and these he harvested for several years, earning the moniker "The Storyteller." This album, Hall's fifth, plays like a rambler's road diary, or a novel filled with larger-than-life characters. It begins with "The year that Clayton Delaney Died," a portrait of Hall's childhood hero Floyd Carter, a hard-drinking musician. Then come tales of love in vain ("Tulsa Telephone Book" is a great one) and journalistic accounts of tragedies ("Trip to Hyden" visits the scene of a mining accident).

Every now and then Hall, whose straightforward singing style is bolstered by equally unaffected arrangements, shares his own experiences. "Kentucky, February 27, 1971," is his account of a pilgrimage he made to a wise and weary farmer. He was, as the album title implies, in search of a song. Instead he gets an earful about why kids don't hang around the unforgiving hills, and then an apology from the farmer: "Guess there ain't no song here after all."

Another gem, "The Little Lady Preacher," sounds as if it might be autobiographical; it finds the narrator, a drifter who fits Hall's general profile, playing bass for a weekly religious radio show. Hall describes the guitarist next to him as a good musician with a penchant for drink and reckless living, and over several verses describes how the guitarist and the pious lady preacher become friendly. One week Hall shows up for work and they've vanished. Together. Stunned because he's unemployed, and because he will miss that attractive preacher, he can't help but wonder "who it was converted whom." They just don't write songs like that anymore.

Genre: Country
Released: 1971, Mercury
Key Tracks: "The Year That Clayton Delaney Died," "Tulsa Telephone Book," "Trip to Hyden," "The Little Lady Preacher"
Collector's Note: The most recent CD release combines this album with Hall's 1973 The Rhymer and Other Five and Dimers.
Next Stop: Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison
After That: Bobby Bare: Sleep Wherever I Fall
Book Pages: 336–337

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