If there was ever a singer who knew how to weave a good tale, it was country artist Tom T. Hall. His sharp observations and ability to find the extraordinary in the mundane won him the nickname of “the storyteller,” not to mention 12 No. 1 hit singles, a series of awards, and a place on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Songwriters. Here’s our pick of the 10 best Tom. T Hall songs of all time.
10. Tulsa Telephone Book
Tulsa Telephone Book was never released as a single, so unless you’ve taken a deep dive into the 1971 album In Search of a Song, you might not have heard of it. But it’s worth seeking out. It’s about a man who’s had a one-night stand with a woman but can only remember her first name. He’s desperate to see her again, so reads through the Tulsa telephone book 13 times to try and find her. He doesn’t have any luck, but he does manage to give Hall one of his catchiest, funniest songs of all time.
9. I Love
If you’ve ever caught yourself wondering what kind of things a country artist loves, just give Hall’s 1973 classic I Love a listen. A quaintly charming list of all the things that Hall holds dear (tomatoes on the vine, bourbon in a glass and grass, old TV shows and snow), it became Hall’s most successful single on its release in October 1973, peaking at No. 1 on the US country singles chart (his fourth single to do so) and No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100.
8. A Week in a County Jail
Hall always had a keen funny bone, and in 1969, he pulled a comedy classic out of the bag with A Week in a Country Jail. A tale about a guy getting locked up for speeding might not seem particularly droll, but in Hall’s hands, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. After the guy mistakenly calls his boss instead of someone who can get him out on bail, he winds up spending a week in jail eating “hot bologna, eggs, and gravy” and making moon eyes at the jailer’s wife. Released in November 1969 as the third single from the album Homecoming, the song became the first of Hall’s seven number-one singles on the country charts.
7. The Year Clayton Delaney Died
Clayton Delaney was a guitar picker who liked his booze and suffered miserably in the weeks leading up to his death. Still, he wasn’t all bad, and even taught the song’s narrator everything he knew about playing the guitar (and drinking). Delaney was based on a real-life, small-town character named Lonnie Easterly. Hall met him in the same way he met most of the people who inspired his songs: “I’d get in my car and drive through small-town America and stop off at little cafes and pool halls, to look and listen. I got a lot of songs that way,” he’s said. Released in July 1971 as the only single from the album, In Search of a Song, it spent two weeks atop the country charts.
6. I Like Beer
As Rolling Stone notes, I Like Beer is the type of tune you sing arm-in-arm with friends… preferably at the bar. A simple tribute to the powers of beer (which makes Hall a “jolly good fellow”), it’s sly, wry, and, as country singer Jon Pardi proved a few decades later when he cut a version for Michelob, a very good song for a beer commercial.
5. Me and Jesus
Tom T. Hall may have had a friend in Jesus, but he never preached. He didn’t need to, not when he had songs like Me and Jesus in his cannon. In Hall’s hands, Jesus comes off like one of his legendary small-town characters – a nice, regular guy who’s always willing to listen to your problems. “Me and Jesus got our own thing going/We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about,” Hall sings. Accompanied by a lively piano and some energetic handclaps, Hall and Jesus climbed all the way to No. 8 on the country charts.
4. That’s How I Got to Memphis
How did the narrator of That’s How I Got to Memphis arrive at his destination? Simple – undying love. “If you tell me she’s not here, I’ll follow the trail of her tears,” Hall sings in this classic 1969 love song. He arrives hungry, exhausted (“I haven’t eaten a bite or slept for three days and nights”) but still committed to tracking down his lost love, even if his love seems equally committed to not being found. The song first appeared on Hall’s 1969 album Ballad of Forty Dollars & His Other Great Songs, but enjoyed a renaissance the following year when Bobby Bare took it to No. 3 on the Hot Country Songs chart.
3. Ballad of Forty Dollars
Hall’s first job was mowing the grass at a cemetery. During funerals, he’d shut down his mower and listen to the conversations being had by the gravediggers. Several years later, he drew on those overheard conversations for Ballad of Forty Dollars, a story-song narrated by a cemetery caretaker at the funeral of an acquaintance. As with most of Hall’s songs, there’s a ton of humor mixed in, not least in the ending punchline: “The trouble is the fella owed me 40 bucks.” Released in October 1968 as the final single from the album of the same name, the song became Halls’s first Top Ten hit, peaking at No. 4 in both the US and Canada.
2. (Old Dogs, Children And) Watermelon Wine
As countrymusic411.com notes, Hall overheard, wrote, recorded, and released (Old Dogs, Children And) Watermelon Wine all in the same year. Recorded for the 1972 album The Storyteller, it’s one of Hall’s most enduringly popular songs – even the great John Prine liked it enough to record a version. It was inspired by a meeting Hall had with a 65-year-old janitor who was only too willing to spill the beans on the secret to a happy life – or, as he put it, the only three things “worth a solitary dime”: dogs, kids, and homebrew wine. One of the all-time great country songs, it took Hall to the top of the country songs.
As thewordwebzine.com says, Homecoming is basically a movie in song form. It’s written from the perspective of a struggling musician who pays a visit to his hometown. Only his father is still alive, but feeling the need for approval, he stops by for a conversation. “It’s about a son who comes home and tries to explain himself to his father,” Hall explained. “When you come home, it’s hard to explain what you’re doing.” His fans seemed to understand well enough though – released in November 1963, it soared to No. 5 in the country charts.