A Songwriter’s Songwriter

Tom T. Hall is not a household name. Even in haunts where the country jukebox constantly spins, his songs are not on heavy rotation.

This is not to his discredit. Hall had chart success in his heyday, but he’s a songwriter’s songwriter, first and foremost, and his influence looms large in the world of any country songwriter versed in the canon. Or it should anyway.

As Peter Cooper writes in our cover story, Tom T. was one of a handful of writers in the ’60s who “elevated and altered the language and narrative form of country music, and blazed a path down which Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and John Prine would later meander.”

The small-town Kentucky boy showed up in Nashville as a writer for hire, attempting to mimic the radio trends of the time, as his publisher would have it. Hall found his own voice serendipitously with a little help from his wife, continued to believe in the merit of that voice, and never looked back.

I first discovered Hall via a tribute album in the late ’90s that featured versions of his tunes by artists like Ron Sexsmith, Calexico, and Iris Dement. The songwriting prowess wowed. Years later, I heard Drive-By Truckers cover “Mama Bake A Pie (Daddy Kill A Chicken),” a song about a disabled war veteran, and was reminded of his wordsmithing brilliance. “Since I won’t be walking I suppose I’ll save some money buying shoes,” the paraplegic narrator deadpans. This is vintage Hall lyricism — walking the razor’s edge between despair and humor like some trailer-park version of Oscar Wilde.

Tens of thousands of songwriters have called Nashville home in the last half-century. There have been too many good ones to count, but only a handful who can truly be called great, who have busted open new worlds and changed the evolutionary arc of the art-form. For writers like Tom T., it’s no so much three chords and the truth as it is three chords and the all the new truths that he will discover.

This year’s Legends issue, often referred to within the office as the annual O.W.D. (“old white dude”) edition, salutes a group of writers and musicians — most of them not super well-known — that have created a body of work that continues to inspire and influence.

The late Blaze Foley, an Austin-based songwriter and professional hell-raiser, is one of these unsung heroes. Foley is perhaps best known as the writer of “If I Could Only Fly,” a tune covered by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. Lucinda Williams immortalized Blaze in the song “Drunken Angel” off her Car Wheels album. For our story, James Williamson traveled to Georgia and New Orleans and tracked down some of Blaze’s old acquaintances, piecing together a nomadic and tragic life that was punctuated with brief periods of songwriting brilliance. A number of young songwriters in Nashville know Blaze’s small catalog chapter and verse. Newcomer Aaron Lee Tasjan, whose album In The Blazes made our Top 50 of 2105 List, pays tribute to him on on the song “Lucinda’s room,” for instance.

Elsewhere, we check in with Spooner Oldham, the organist from The Swampers in Muscle Shoals and one of the all-time great session men in the history of rock and roll. Spooner, ever content to be the sideman, also released a solo album in the early ‘70s that was reissued earlier this year. Here, he looks back on his life as a session man.

We also catch up with Tony Rice, a master flat picker who is cited by many a bluegrass guitarist as their reason for picking up the instrument. My first introduction to Tony came in the form of The Pizza Tapes, the bootlegged recording of an impromptu jam session between Rice, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman in the early ‘90s that featured a number of traditional folk numbers. It is worth checking out. Also, Rand Bishop pays tribute to fellow Oregon native Mickey Newbury, who decided to give songwriting a shot after a tenure in the Navy. Like Tom T., Newbury is a true master craftsmen, and though he never attained mega-stardom, his songs continue to amaze today.

Author: Caine O'Rear

Caine O'Rear is a writer and editor based in Mobile, Alabama. He is the former editor in chief of American Songwriter Magazine. Follow him at www.instagram.com/caineorear.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: