Tom T. Hall, the singer-songwriter who composed Harper Valley PTA. and sang about life’s simple joys as American country music’s consummate blue collar bard, has died. He was 85.
His son, Dean Hall, confirmed the musician’s death on Friday at his home in Franklin, Tennessee.
Hall, known as “The Storyteller” for his unadorned yet incisive lyrics, composed hundreds of songs.
Along with such contemporaries as Kris Kristofferson, John Hartford and Mickey Newbury, Hall helped usher in a literary era of country music in the early ’70s, with songs that were political, like Watergate Blues and The Monkey That Became President, deeply personal like The Year Clayton Delaney Died, and philosophical like (Old Dogs, Children and) Watermelon Wine.
‘I’m a witness’
“In all my writing, I’ve never made judgements,” he said in 1986.
“I think that’s my secret. I’m a witness. I just watch everything and don’t decide if it’s good or bad.”
Hall, the fourth son of an ordained minister, was born near Olive Hill, Kentucky, in a log cabin built by his grandfather. He started playing guitar at age four and wrote his first song by the time he was nine.
Hall began playing in a bluegrass band, but when that didn’t work out he started working as a disc jockey in Morehead, Kentucky. He joined the US Army in 1957 for four years including an assignment in Germany. He turned to writing when he got back stateside and was discovered by Nashville publisher Jimmy Key.
His breakthrough was writing Harper Valley P.T.A., a 1968 international hit about small-town hypocrisy recorded by Jeannie C. Riley. The song about a mother telling a group of busybodies to mind their own business was witty and feisty and became a No. 1 country and pop hit.
It sold millions of copies and Riley won a Grammy for best female country vocal performance and an award for single of the year from the Country Music Association. The story was so popular it even spawned a movie of the same name and a television series.
‘The most awesome time of my life’
“Suddenly, it was the talk of the country,” Hall told The Associated Press in 1986.
“It became a catch phrase. You’d flip the radio dial and hear it four or five times in 10 minutes. It was the most awesome time of my life. I caused all this stir.”
His own career took off after that song and he had a string of hits with Ballad of Forty Dollars (which also was recorded by Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings); his first career No. 1 hit A Week In A Country Jail, and Homecoming, in the late 1960s.
Throughout the ’70s, Hall became one of Nashville’s biggest singer-songwriters. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1978, the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019.
“I think a song is just a song,” Hall said at the ceremony in 2012.
“They can do it with all kinds of different bands. It’s just a lyric and a melody. I was talking to Kris Kristofferson one time. They asked him what was country, and he said, ‘If it sounds country, it’s country.’ So that’s my philosophy.”
He married English-born songwriter Dixie Deen in 1968, and the two would go on to write hundreds of bluegrass songs after Hall retired from performing in the 1990s. Dixie Hall died in 2015.