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For Tom T. Hall, the Grass Is Bluer on the Other Side of Retirement


Tom T. Hall

Tom T. Hall

Used with permission of CMA Closeup News Service
By Wendy Newcomer

Eight years ago, after 34 years of entertaining, legendary singer/songwriter Tom T. Hall retired. Yet each day he's still up at 5:30 AM, writing songs, listening to bluegrass music, painting, drawing and sometimes recording bands in the studio at his Fox Hollow farm 20 miles from Downtown Nashville. This is retirement? "I'm just retired from the big-time music business," clarified the man known worldwide as "The Storyteller." Hall has written Country classics including "Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine," "I Love," "Country Is," "I Care" and "Harper Valley P.T.A.," a three-week No. 1 hit and CMA Single of the Year for Jeannie C. Riley in 1968.

On a rainy afternoon, Hall, dressed casually in jeans and a forest green sweatshirt, drives his Ford Explorer Sport Trac around Fox Hollow. From his office - which he built to look like a barn, he said, to throw off nosy salespeople - he slowly winds up the hill to his acoustic recording studio, where his wife Miss Dixie waits. Hall truly has retired from the business. He rarely gives interviews, and wanted to make sure this one was for CMA Close Up and not for any newsstand magazine.

"People think because you're private, you have something you don't want them to know," Hall said, inching up the driveway. "If they want to come out and watch me paint or dig potatoes or mend fences, I don't care. I don't do interviews not because I have anything to hide, but when you retire, the word has a meaning to me. It's a place in life, a part of the journey. You just don't quit work. You develop an attitude where you can do what you please."

And what he pleases these days is writing bluegrass music with Miss Dixie. Hall opens the door to the studio. "This used to be Miss Dixie's kennels when she showed basset hounds," Hall explained of the remodeled building. "These are all of her awards," he said, pointing to walls lined with sketches of prize basset hounds and dog show awards. Stacked on a small table perpendicular to the recording console is a handful of CDs by various bluegrass artists. "We listen to the new stuff and see if there's anybody we think could do one of our songs," he said. "Sometimes we'll get hooked on someone and listen to them two or three days in a row."

Hall sings on Larry Sparks' new CD, 40 - a testament to his love for Sparks and bluegrass. He rarely records his own voice any more.

"I really appreciate Tom T. Hall," said Larry Sparks. "When I heard we were going to use his studio to record this project, I knew that I would like to have him sing with me. The song that he and Dixie wrote for me is 'I Want You to Meet My Friend.' It's a gospel-related song, with meaningful words in it. Of course, Tom T. has always been one of my favorites, as a singer and a writer. I was just thrilled to have him. I wanted him to sing the first half of the song. You know who it is [when he sings]. He has a universal voice. He's probably one of the few that's made it, that could come back and make it again. He's got that kind of a voice.

"Tom T.'s just a plain old Country person, just like the rest of us. It was an honor to use his studio. He loves bluegrass and acoustic music, and he appreciates where I'm coming from."

Country artists continue to record the 69-year-old's songs. Merle Haggard recorded two for an upcoming project on Capitol Records Nashville. Arista Nashville recording artist Alan Jackson took Hall's "Little Bitty" to the top of the charts in 1996.

"I was a little bit surprised - and pleased," said Hall of Jackson's cover, "because it's a lot of money, you know. It used to be that you'd have a song recorded by a major Country artist and if it was a hit, you could buy a car. Now you can buy a dealership. So there's a lot more money involved in it now than there was when I was in it. A good songwriter made about as much money as a good automatic transmission specialist. It's a different thing now. There's really tons of money involved in it.

"You know, I love these kids," said the elder statesman of today's Country artists. "I think they're better looking than we were. They sing better than we could. They're making tons of money. I think it's wonderful."

And he credits the CMA for Country Music's continuing and increasing success. "If you wonder what the CMA has done for the music business, for instance, if you're paying your dues and wondering, 'What do they do?' - the CMA changed the name of a music, just through public relations and dogged insistence.

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