Storytelling country musician Tom T. Hall dies at 85

One of the most memorable songs by Kentucky native Hall was "Harper Valley PTA," a ballad recorded by Jeannie C. Riley in 1968.

Tom T, Hall, who chronicled the everyday experiences of rural America in plain language that was always understood, died Friday at his home in Franklin, Tennessee. He was 85.

Hall practiced “a rhyming journalism of the heart that sets his compositions apart from any other writer,” Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young said. “They are bound by his ceaseless and unyielding empathy for the triumphs and losses of others.”

Hall was dubbed “The storyteller.” He “joined Kris Kristofferson and Billy Joe Shaver in bringing a class of storytelling to country music unlike those before them,” writes Matthew Leimkuehler of the Nashville Tennessean. “Hall timelessly and empathetically chronicled the human spirit — from barstool stories to cemetery caretakers — with words that would influence generations of wordsmiths to follow.”

Hall was born in Olive Hill, Kentucky. He was a performer while in the Army and wrote humorous songs about Army life. His big break was “Harper Valley PTA” in 1968. “The record skyrocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and County Music singles charts, an impressive feat in a rich music era,” writes Bruce Haring of Deadline.

“It freed Hall to record his own work, which included songs about burying a man who owed him 40 dollars [which you don’t learn until the song‘s last line], mourning the death of the local hero who taught him how to drink and play guitar, and ‘Trip to Hyden,’ a journalistic tale of a drive to the scene of a mining disaster that was part Woody Guthrie, part Studs Terkel,” says Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Songwriters, which ranks him No. 99. [“I guess the old man thought we were reporters,” one line goes.] “Hall was an English major who said he learned to write songs by osmosis, soaking up everything from Dickens to Hemingway. His best work was charged with literary irony but unfolded with the ease of spoken language,” as he wrote for Jeannie C. Riley in “Harper Valley PTA.” Here’s the next-to-last stanza:

Well, Mr. Harper couldn’t be here ’cause he stayed too long at Kelly’s Bar again.

And if you smell Shirley Thompson’s breath you’ll find she’s had a little nip of gin.

And then you have the nerve to tell me you think that as a mother I’m not fit!

Well, this is just a little Peyton Place, and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites.

Storytelling country musician Tom T. Hall dies at 85

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The Rural Blog is a publication of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues based at the University of Kentucky.

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