Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Searching For Tom T. Hall

Yesterday at the coffee shop I was forced to endure about twenty minutes of mainstream country radio. It wasn't easy to keep my donut down. The songs were all hokey, unrealistic, and sung by a bunch of pseudo-cowboys sporting fake southern accents. The image brought to mind was a circle of full-size pickup trucks driven by beautiful people in tight jeans and cowboy hats pouring ice into massive buckets prepping for some kind of upscale hillbilly jamboree. Weird.

What has happened to my favorite musical genre?

I know times change, but I just don’t think Kenny Chesney is an acceptable replacement for Merle Haggard. Although the current situation looks bleak, I would rather light a candle than curse the darkness. So, like the intrepid ornithologist wading through the bottomland hoping for one last glimpse of the elusive Ivory-billed Woodpecker, I’ve decided to launch a full scale search for genuine country music in these modern times. My specific goal is to find the next Tom T. Hall. He or she could be out there right now, ready to save real country music from extinction. But I need your help finding this person. Where should I look?

Tom T. Hall best exemplifies what was once great about country music, but which is now sadly missing (or in hiding). He is the anti-Brad Paisley. His music is intelligent, warm, funny, and--most of all--authentically country. Tom T. Hall's songs describe regular folks in rich detail without the lyrical and musical clichés you hear in so much of today’s mainstream country (not to mention Americana, which isn't much better).

So I wonder: Is anybody in the current world of country music telling the story of real people in a genuine and smart way? Nature abhors a vacuum. If nobody's covering Tom T. Hall's territory right now, it shouldn't be long before somebody steps up to the challenge. Let's find that person! To enlist your help in my search I've boiled down the essence of Tom T. Hall’s music into to a few key traits (and example songs):

(1) Authentic: Homecoming. This song is nothing but dialogue between a father and son, but it tells the story of a family and a time and place.

(2) Humorous (and wise): The Little Lady Preacher. This one is just pure Tom T.--funny ending and all.

(3) Heartfelt (but not sappy): I Flew Over Our House Last Night. Here, Hall uses a poignant image to drive the feeling home.

(4) Storyteller: I Hope It Rains At My Funeral. An epic country song with another funny ending.

(5) Country: Country Is. Tom T. Hall’s attitude captured in song.

Please send in your nominations for artists capable of carrying on the Tom T. Hall tradition (with an explanation and an mp3 if possible). I'm looking forward to seeing your nominations. Worthy contenders will be featured in this space.

And please click here to buy Tom T. Hall albums!

Conduct further research: 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, Wikipedia, All Music Guide, CMT, Producer’s Notes for Tom T. Hall tribute album (part 1) (part 2).

Read an interview: Perfect Sound Forever

Watch a video: The Year Clayton Delaney Died

UPDATE: I'm looking for somebody under 40, if possible, but feel free to nominate older artists if you wish.


Anonymous said...

Yes, the likes of Kenny Chesney unfortunately represent a stereotypical blandness that only re-enforces ill-informed predjudice
against country music when people intepret these acts as representat-
ive of what country music is about.
But let's not forget that Nashville's Rhinestone cowboy act has been around for many decades now and was exactly the kind of blandness that Waylon, Wille, Merle
and Townes drew spirit and determination from. 'Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way' being the prime example.
I do understand where your coming from though and as a man that's always loved country music I know
how difficult it is to have to sit
through such over produced preening
sugary pap but there is still great
country music out there, though probably more in a form that's progressed through the influence of Merle and Gram to become an amalgamation of Country that comfortably takes in elements of blues, soul and rock. Dave Alvin is
a good example of this and I would
certainly rate him as a songwriter in the class of Merle Haggard. Lucinda Williams and Kasey Chambers
have released brilliant albums too
this year that Emmylou herself would be proud of. It's been a great year for music that could maybe be more comfortably classed as Americana than country, but nonetheless 'Rattlin Bones' is a brilliant country album in the classic sense and apart from great albums from Drive By Truckers, Felice Brothers and Alejandro Escovedo, Damien Jurado, Lambchop and Giant Sand there are still great new artists such as Chatham County Line and Ryan Bingham making country in a more traditional style.
I spend my fair share of time(probably just as much time) seeking out and listening to legendary artists such as Merle, Townes, Kristoffderson, Vern Gosdin
and Tom T Hall but I truly believe that Escovedo, Alvin, Buddy Miller and the like are every bit as good as the old guard, and given time, I'm sure there will be many others to follow in their footsteps too.
Failing that though, the old guard
are still making great records themselves. Merle and Emmylou have
released brilliant albums in recent years.

Paul said...

Hey anon - Thanks for your great (and thoughtful) response.

I will start investigating! I confess that I'm not familiar with Chatham County Line or Ryan Bingham. I'm really stuck in the old days, which is one of the reasons I'm asking for help, so I appreciate it. Also, I haven't listended to Kasey Chambers. (I kind of gave up on Americana in the 1990s. Maybe I need to get back into it?)

I also need to re-evaluate Buddy Miller. Others who I respect like him a lot.

I'm not sure I would include Lucinda, Escovedo, Giant Sand, or Alvin within the "country" designation. And Drive-by Truckers are, to me, southern rock. Good stuff, but not the next Tom T. Hall.

Keep the suggestions coming. And remember that I am still stuck in the 1930's-1970's.

S.M.Vidaurri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff at AM, Then FM said...

A guy from Texas named Kevin Fowler.

Among his tunes from the early '00s:

100 Per Cent Texan
She Ain't Bad But She Ain't You
Ol' What's Her Name
Beer, Bait and Ammo
All the Tequila in Tijuana (nice Eagles vibe to this one)
The Lord Loves the Drinking Man

Nelson said...

For my money, the next best thing to Tom T. who is out there right now is Mr. Scott Miller. I may be biased since he his the patron saint of my humble blog... but I think he hits all of your criteria.

1.Authentic: We'll revisit your example of a father and son song. Daddy Raised a Boy

2.Humorous (but maybe not so much wise): Miller has smart funny songs, but this is just an early chestnut that refuses to go away. Drunk All Around This Town

3.Heartfelt (but not sappy): Miller has professed his hatred of babies on many occasions... but he wrote this song for a friend on the occasion of the birth of his son. For Jack Tymon

4.Storyteller: Miller studied History at William & Mary University. As a result, some of his best story songs tell tales from America's past. The Rain

5.Country: Take a train ride from New Orleans to New York with Miller and Tim O'Brien on this one. Amtrak Crescent

You cand find out more about Scott Miller and purchase his music here.

Paul said...

Guys, great comments! Thanks.

s.m. - I agree there will never be an exact replica of Tom T. Hall. He was a true individual. My concern, which may be alleviated as a result of this post and the follow up comments, is that current country music is devoid of voices that combine the intelligent, humorous, and realistic aspects of Tom's voice. It's a big hole that could be filled a lot of different ways, and probably has been without my knowledge.

Jeff - I'm not in the know on Kevin Fowler, so I'll have to check him out. Thanks!

Nelson - I've heard some Scott Miller, but not much. I'm definitely intrigued and will undertake a thorough examination of his work. Thanks for the awesome comment with mp3s. It should be a post in and of itself.

Vaughn said...

If you like your Country a little on the Waylon side of things then check out the new album by Jamey Johnson, "That Lonesome Song".
He sort of looks a little like Rob Zombie (and that's a good thing in these days of the blow-dried boys) he's got a great deep baritone and a killer band. I keep going back to it and it keeps getting better with every listen. It kinda dark (but that's another good thing) and it actually sounds like a Country record almost all of the way through.

Vaughn said...

If anyone wants to check out a promo video for Jamey Johnson copy and paste the link below. You'll find he has his head in the right place.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for responding to my earlier response Paul. Excellent post from which I've found plenty of artists to check out myself. Scott Miller is an artist I will look into (thanks nelson), and being a big Waylon fan will certainly track down 'That Lonesome Song'(thanks Vaughn).
Thanks also Paul for introducing me to Tom T Hall, an artist I only seriously looked into after regularly reading your posts here.
While we're on the subject of Waylon though another fellow outlaw by the name of Larry Jon Wilson(who appeared for one track on Heartworn Highways alongside Guy Clark, Townes etc..) has just released his first album in 30 years. The self-titled record is a stripped back affair very much in the vein of the aforementioned Townes Van Zandt and American Recordings era Cash. I only received the album today but already it feels like a powerful addition to his acclaimed 70's work
and comes reccommended to fans of Townes and Rick Rubin era Cash.

Anonymous said...

Dale Watson

LD said...

While there's a quantum leap between the country music you're likely to hear on the radio and the real deal honky tonk stuff, I guarantee that if you came to Austin for a week, you'd probably see 3 country acts that would blow your mind, including the just-mentioned Dale Watson and Heybale, featuring Redd Volkaert's freaktastic Fender Telemastery.

I agree with Nelson on the Scott Miller rec. I'm fortunate enough to call Scott a friend and his greatness goes all the way back to his days in the mighty V-Roys. They were like a badass and slightly country-flavored Replacements.

I'll toss my hat in the ring for a pair of Tom T-esque singer/songwriters, neither of whom are exclusively country, but tap into the soul of country music for much of their work: Brent Best and Mike Nicolai. Brent used to front Slobberbone, who were like a country-flavored Soul Asylum, albeit drunker and with more killing in their songs. Brent is one of the rare songwriters who can be literate, funny, and blow your mind with pathos. Nicolai is my favorite songwriter and I honestly think he's one of the best songwriters ever I've heard. He almost has a Townes Van Zandt quality about him, in that he'll turn a phrase and it'll hang in the air, pregnant. Just when you've got your head around that sucker, along comes another phrase to slap you silly. Like both Townes and Tom, he doesn't have a great vocal range, but his voice is a perfect fit for his songs and just slays me. Here's a couple samples from both guys.

Brent Best - Robert Cole
Slobberbone - Pinball Song
Mike Nicolai - Slowly Dying [Ray Price]
Mike Nicolai - The Green Lantern Needs Your Vote

Paul said...

LD, thanks for the great comment and the mp3s. The funny thing is that Tom T. Hall WAS played on the radio. He was a big star in the 1970's with several no. 1 hits on the country charts.

Hank, George, Patsy, Loretta, Johnny, Merle, Willie, and Waylon were all hugely popular too.

Shame you now have to live in Austin to catch the best country has to offer.

Thanks for the stuff! (It's now painfully obvious that my musical knowledge, such as it is, got stuck in time about three decades ago!)

Anonymous said...

Top of the list has to be Todd Snider. Best songwriter going right now- maybe a little more in the vein of Prine but he can write a song about a train... ("Play A Train Song" one of the best songs in the last 10 years.)

Anonymous said...

I have never been a big C&W fan, probably more due to the fact that I live in Australia and have a lack of options than anything else.

Locally Troy Cassar-Daly, and Kasey Chambers are good, but for mind it runs a bit short after that.

I have always liked the alt Country of Gram Parson's, Townes van Zandt, Steve Earle the Jayhawks etc, but from what I've heard of "mainstream" country I have to agree with the most of the comments above.

I have been a fan more recently of Jim White, Lambchop, and I'm not sure whether bluegrass is part of country, but I love The Avett Brothers, and The Steeldrivers.

Listen to the Tom T Hall stuff and will listen again, but I will need convincing. Cheers for the Slobberbone (I had only previously heard Give Me Back My Dog) and Brent best tracks they are excellent, as were a couple of those Scott Miller ones.



godoggo said...

I have nothing to say regarding the question, but it just got me thinking about Ronnie Mac's Barn Dance at the old Palomino in North Hollywood that I used to go to in the late '80s-early '90s. Somebody mentioned Dale Watson, and he was a regular there. I haven't heard his records, though. Also used to have a lot of Bakersfield vets whose names I don't know...

One time they had one of those "outlaw" types show up, with a black leather vest and a beard, puffing out his chest and rocking his guitar back and forth as he drawled out his dirge-y macho anthems, and I reacted the way I usually do to that stuff: this has nothing to do with the kind of country music I love (any more than that Chesney video).

Vaughn said...

What about America's favorite smart-ass, Robbie Fulks?
Here we have a modern Country artist that writes, sings, plays guitar like an ace and...oh but wait a minute, he thinks God is a joke. That'll never play in the Bible Belt.
Still, he's awesome.

Paul said...


It doesn't matter to me whether it will play in the Bible Belt. If we're making confessions here, I'm a bit of a skeptic when it comes to the good book.

Maybe I need to get back into Fulks. I was a really big fan of his in the mid-1990s. He's great live and definitely an ace guitarist, but I thought his songs were kind of gimmicky. I haven't given the more recent stuff a fair shake, though.

Paul said...

Anon re: Todd Snider.

If you act fast, you can get his new album for free at ToddSnider.net

Dave D. said...

Robbie Fulks is an excellent choice, as he can certainly turn a phrase with the best of them. I can see where Paul's "gimmicky" comment comes from, though, as occasionally he may be too clever for his own good.

On the whole, though, he would be near the top of my list, second only to Paul Burch.

squirrel brain said...

It's tough. I hold Tom T. up pretty high myself. I first thought of Todd Snider and Daryl Scott which both might score a little low on authenticity and country but are pretty solid nonetheless. Steeldrivers score high in those categories but might drop off a little on the songwriting categories.

This is a great post. It has challenged me to hold some of my favorites up to the Tom T. test.

fagans said...

If I hadn't read the beginning of your post, I would have been convinced that you were describing Robert Earl Keen. He is one of the most thoughtful and entertaining singer/songwriters alive. Truly a Texas legend. Check him out.


Anonymous said...

(Just want to say at the outset: thanks for your blogging here, I've really enjoyed it!)

I'm fairly sure he's not the next Tom T. Hall, but my enthusiasm for Caleb Klauder (and Foghorn Duo) hasn't waned since I saw him in September. He certainly hits the authentic, heartfelt, storyteller requirements (he's more "old-time" than country). I love the burr in his voice. I wish I could get fancy with the MP3s: "New Shoes," "Greenback Dollar," and the cover of the Carter Family's "Lonesome Song" are all standouts.

Vaughn said...

I almost forget another modern favorite, Shawn Camp. He is an excellent singer/songwriter and can play Country as well as Bluegrass. Check out his "Live at The Station Inn" release on John Prine's Oh Boy label for a great Bluegrass treat or his Fireball album for a bit more rockin' Honky Tonk.
Then of course there's Jim Lauderdale...

Anonymous said...

I think I would class things as "country" that you might not given what I've read in the comments. But a few people I thought I'd throw into the discussion:

Steve Earle
Fred Eaglesmith
Tom Russell
Darden Smith - although he seems to be moving away from country a bit.

Thanks for your blog. I actually don't download. For some reason box.net gets flagged by my firewall LOL, but I love coming in and reading the posts, and getting ideas for music to buy - like Caitlin Rose.

godoggo said...

Well, I am pleased that youtube has one video of Dale as I remember him. Seems he's gotten pretty outlawish over the years, though. Oh, well.

The Riverboat Captain said...

Very much impressed by Hayes Carll - definitely ticks your boxes.

Anonymous said...

If you are looking for a young Country trubador I suggest Amos Morris. He has a nice voice to listen to and sings a good ballad. Perhaps our lack of Tom T. Hall class country singers is our vanishing Country in this country. Amos Morris appears to be from Australia. I will send you a sample via e-mail.
Thanks for introducing me to Tom T. Hall, his music is now on my Christmas list.

Världsmusik-kaféet said...

Well - I have the name for you all!!! He has got the capacity to replace BOTH Tom T. Hall AND Bob Dylan if you like - AND he should be in his 40:s. CHUCK BRODSKY! With a warm heart and sharp tongue he delivers every-day-observations - check him out on Youtube for example - THIS CLIP
--Stefan, admin for the swedish "World Music Café" blog.

Robb M. said...

I have been a HUGE fan of Tom T. and despite the fact I am only 22, have been for years. When it comes to songwriters, I only have two that I put in the same category as T, and neither are exactly country.
Jimmy Webb - Humour is one area that Webb doesn't deal in, but his ability to use just a few words to paint an extremely vivid picture reminds me of Tom. Glen Campbell's version of "Highwayman" would be close to a Tom T. Hall song (IMO)
Loudon Wainwright III - LWIII fits nearly every category, but not really country. he definetely can't fit in a genre, but if you want personal, humour-filled lyrics, his songs are as close to Tom's as I can find. "OGM" & "Cook That Dinner, Dora" remind me of his comedic side. There are too many to mention here. the main similarity I see, is how they both would just write about themselves, there own lives, their own experiences, and know that people will be able to relate to them, rather than trying to create some generic piece of.......
but.... oh, and LWIII also just released a tribute album about Charlie Poole named 'High Wide & Handsome." a lot of old bluegrass songs are covered, as well as a lot of new songs done in the old style. I highly recommend it!!

December Carson said...

You can check out Caleb Klauder at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTf6K4NpgAs