by Caleb Pirtle III)
Writing is writing
Some set their words to music.
Some stick their words in books.
Tom T. Hall’s writing has a melody.
We just arrange them differently.
And his has sold better, a lot better.
Tom T. Hall had this theory about writing.
“Hungry writers write better,” he said.
“Well,” he said, “at least hungry writers write a lot more.”
They have to.
Tom T. wasn’t always rich and famous at the time.
He remembers the hard days.
Sometimes he misses them.
Tom T. Hall, like most of the now-legendary country music writers and singers, was not an instant success in Nashville.
In fact, if he hadn’t been slicked by a couple of con artists, he never would have gone to the back streets of Music City.
Back in 1964, Tom T. was rocking along as a disc jockey for a radio station in Roanoke, Virginia. A pair of promotion men for a record publishing company dropped in, had a couple of beers with Hall, and listened to a few of the songs he had written.
“Those are great,” they said.
They told stories.
Tom T. did know how to tell a good story.
He even made it rhyme.
“Get us some tapes,” they said.
“We can sell them,” they said.
And , sure enough, they did.
Here came the problem. The promotion men listed themselves as the writers. Somewhere along the line they forgot all about the disc jockey up in Roanoke.
They earned the royalties.
They pocketed the money.
Tom T. Hall was still an unknown.
What the hell, he told himself. I got a thousand more where those came from.
He headed south and carried his next songs to Nashville himself, rambling into town and down Music Row in a rose-colored Cadillac.
He was broke.
But he was riding in style.
Newkeys Music liked what he sang and thought he had so much talent and promise that they paid him fifty bucks a week.
Tom T. was a hungry writer.
He began writing a lot and found himself smack dab in the middle of transition as it shook the old roots of Music City. Walking its streets were those who would drastically influence the Nashville Sound.
But at the moment, they were simply trying to stay alive.
It wasn’t easy.
Kris Kristofferson was tending bar and gaining notoriety as the slowest bartender in town.
Emily Lou Harris was working in a beer joint as a short order cook.
Roger Miller was toting suitcases for tips in an old run-down hotel.
But Tom T. wasn’t worried. He was making fifty dollars a week.
Newkeys partners, Jimmy C. Newman and Dave Dudley, were singing just enough Tom T. Hall songs to keep them all of the streets.
They all haunted the back tables at Linebaughs, an all-night café just down Broadway from the Grand Old Opry, a midnight home for the wayward, the has-beens, the never-would-be’s.”
The hungry, the losers, would order a glass of water, wait for the waitress to leave, then pour in enough catsup to make a right thick batch of tomato soup. She felt so sorry for them that she began leaving crackers on the table.
Others just gathered at somebody’s apartment – depending on who had received the latest royalty check – for a dish of rat’s ass stew.
“What’s in it?”
“Who gives a rat’s ass?”
It was free.
It was 1968 before Tom T. Hall had his first honest-to-goodness hits: Ballad of Forty Dollars and Harper Valley P.T.A. He wrote them both, along with Homecoming, the same day.
“I guess all the muses in the world gathered in the same little kitchen that morning,” he said.
He wrote down what they said.
He was hungry.
The muses said a lot.
He wrote a lot.
Tom T. Hall would go on to write eleven number one singles, like Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine, and the Year Clayton Delaney Died, along with twenty-two albums. Tex Ritter began introducing him on stage as “The Storyteller.”
Tom T. grinned.
He liked the name.
“Why?” I asked.
“Writers are hungry,” he said. “Writers eat rat’s ass stew.”
“The Storyteller ate steak.”