Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Tom T. Hall

  • I Witness Life [Mercury, 1970] B+
  • In Search of a Song [Mercury, 1971] A
  • Tom T. Hall's Greatest Hits [Mercury, 1972] B
  • The Storyteller [Mercury, 1972] B
  • The Rhymer and Other Five and Dimers [Mercury, 1973] A-
  • Greatest Hits Volume 2 [Mercury, 1975] D+
  • Faster Horses [Mercury, 1976] B+
  • Greatest Hits--Volume III [Mercury, 1978] B+
  • Everything from Jesus to Jack Daniels [Mercury, 1983] B+
  • The Essential Tom T. Hall: The Story Songs [Mercury, 1988] A
  • Home Grown [Mercury, 1997] Neither

Consumer Guide Reviews:

I Witness Life [Mercury, 1970]
I'm a fan of this Nashville original's most famous song, "Harper Valley P.T.A.," because like all his best work it combines pithy narrative with pithy ethics. Its flaw is that its truth is metaphorical--it sounds made up. The two greatest songs here--"Salute to a Switchblade" and "The Ballad of Bill Crump," one an autobiographical tale of barroom violence (and discretion) abroad, the other a biographical tale about the death of a carpenter--are documentaries in rhyme. The method isn't original, foolproof, or the only one in his kit. But boy, is he good at it. B+

In Search of a Song [Mercury, 1971]
Forget arty pontificators like Kris Kristofferson and Mickey Newbury--wouldn't you rather have Woody Guthrie? Hall's politics are only liberal, his ironies sometimes pro forma, but like Guthrie's his observations and presentation are direct and unpretentious in a way that can't be faked or even imitated--he has a few things to say, he says them, and that's that. While in the past the dull sentimentality that is the downfall of so much country music has flawed his albums, here even the worst song, "Second Hand Flowers," qualifies as bright sentimentality (with a twist). The best is "Kentucky Feb. 27, '71," hidden away on the second side because it's too subtle to make its impact broadside. Simple as death, it recounts Hall's pilgrimage to see an old mountain man, who explains why kids move to the city--"They want to see the things they've heard about"--and apologizes for not providing Hall with a song. A

Tom T. Hall's Greatest Hits [Mercury, 1972]
Except for "Ballad of Forty Dollars," a dispassionate account of a day in the life as a gravedigger, and "Homecoming," a melodramatic account of a day in his life as a star, all the zingers here compiled are also available on better albums--albums that don't include songs of inspirational tolerance like "I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew" and "One Hundred Children," which Hall executes no more wisely than any other mortal. B

The Storyteller [Mercury, 1972]
Counting Greatest Hits this is the fourth LP from Hall in about a year, and while it's better than the last one the workload still shows. The title isn't quite a misnomer, but he does seem to be cranking out them yarns instead of looking for his own truth within them, and for the second straight album the most impressive cut is a straight love song--"Souvenirs" on We All Got Together, "When Nobody Wants Your Body Anymore" here. How about picking up some new material on a long vacation, T? B

The Rhymer and Other Five and Dimers [Mercury, 1973]
One reason Merle Haggard's thought of as the Poet of the Common Man is that he's also in the running for Voice of the Common Man; even with Jerry Kennedy's genius assembly line behind him, Hall's monotone isn't liable to shiver your short hairs unless he gets the words just right. Here he comes close. He honors Ravishing Ruby and remembers his own younger brother, hitching into town for medicine and coffee in the bad winter of 1949. He gets stuck in a motel in Spokane and comes back to Olive Hill with all his faults intact. And he yokes his best political song, about the man who hated freckles and Martin Luther Queen, with one of his worst slow ones, designed for those who find "candy in the windows of my mind" a poignant trope. A-

Greatest Hits Volume 2 [Mercury, 1975]
From the received novelty melodies of "That Song Is Driving Me Crazy" and "I Like Beer" to the prefab lyrics of "Country Is" and the odious "I Love"--a list of things people get sentimental about! and the list gets them sentimental all over again!--this should convince any doubters in Nashville that T is just another professional manipulator, with all that liberal stuff just another marketing ploy. It damn near convinces me. And that's not even counting the two kiddie songs. D+

Faster Horses [Mercury, 1976]
The first decent record by my former favorite country singer-songwriter in over three years. High point: "Big Motel on the Mountain." Rock stars are forever reviling motels, their readymade symbol of the impersonal rootlessness of life on the road; Hall obviously tore himself away from the soaps and game shows one day and deduced that the premises supported a life of their own. You think that says anything about the relationship between perceived impersonality and egocentricity? I do. B+

Greatest Hits--Volume III [Mercury, 1978]
In which Hall goes to work for RCA and Mercury mops together some final product. Three of the four great songs--"I Can't Dance," "She Gave Her Heart to Jethro," and the mind-boggling "Turn It On, Turn It On, Turn It On," about the electrocution of a mass-murdering 4-F in 1944--date from 1972 or before, when it seemed he'd never run out of stories. B+

Everything from Jesus to Jack Daniels [Mercury, 1983]
Returning from five misspent years at RCA, with his 1982 Earl Scruggs collaboration for CBS a halfway house, Hall delivers his strongest album in a decade and bitterest ever, chock full of death, decrepitude, and disillusion. In fact, T. sounds so down on himself you'd think he was an aging rock star--real truth-sayers rarely get this cynical. "The Adventures of Linda Bohannon," the only yarn in his classic mold, is also the only song here to end with his patented shrug-and-chuckle. Life does go on, just like he's always said, and now that he's decided to give honest music another try he should get out and talk to folks again. B+

The Essential Tom T. Hall: The Story Songs [Mercury, 1988]
He makes his stories seem easy, like he jots them down on coffee break, and nobody in music can touch them--damn few in fiction, either. I'd call him a cross between Chekhov and O. Henry, but that would date him, because next to what the lit crowd calls sentimentality, sometimes played as a capper and sometimes as an offhand theme, the self-conscious narrator is his most characteristic device--one he never seems self-conscious about, fancy that. He also sings and picks, of course; his sometimes pensive, sometimes rowdy monotone puts across variations on a tiny, well-polished store of classic melodies. Except maybe for "Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine," in which a janitor feeds Hall one of the sentimental truisms that are his nonnarrative downfall, there's not a clinker in this twenty-item carload. Nobody who owns fewer than eighteen of them should do without it. A

Home Grown [Mercury, 1997] Neither