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The Peter Cooper and Eric Brace produced I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow seamlessly captures the legendary songwriter in peak form. We caught up with Cooper for his reflections on the recently late, always great Tom T. Hall.
“I discovered Tom T.’s music when I was a child when his Songs of Fox Hollow album came out,” Cooper says. “It was something I could listen to with my dad and my grandfather without any of us feeling anything less than entertained.
“Tom T. never talked down to children in song or speech. He didn’t speak to them in a silly voice. He talked to them like human beings because they were and they are.”
Alt-Country Specialty Chart: Explain what drew you to Tom T.’s songs.
Peter Cooper: As I got older, I grew to love his songs because of his way of using simple language to convey complex emotions and situations. Tom T. never used an expensive word, but his songs are priceless.
Talk about any favorite songs/albums.
My favorite Tom T. album is probably “In Search of a Song,” which was written while on a trip to … well, to find songs. He took that trip with a buddy named Bill Littleton. Listening to this album gave me a window into a songwriter’s life, but also a window into the dignity and nobility of people who were otherwise overlooked. As for a favorite song, there are so many.
The ones I have chosen to sing most nights onstage are “Mama, Bake a Pie” and “A Million Miles to the City,” but I also adore “I Couldn’t Live in Southern California” and “Ballad of Forty Dollars.” One of the most overlooked Tom T. songs is his version of brother Hillman Hall’s “Gimme Peace.” “The Man Who Shot Himself” makes me think and cry every time.
Describe his greatest strength as a songwriter.
Tom T.’s greatest strength as a songwriter was his greatest strength as a person: A respect and empathy for the inner and outer turmoil of every living soul. Listen to “The Fallen Woman” and you’ll understand immediately.
Explain how he’s regarded among songwriters in Nashville.
Tom T.’s legacy is singular. No one has ever written songs like him, though so many of us have tried. He invented the “Tom T. Hall” song.
Describe how he helped shape the city’s songwriting community.
In spite of what Bob Dylan asserted in a California speech, Tom T. was supportive of every songwriter who came to Nashville and offered something special and different. He was the first writer to lend a hand to Kris Kristofferson. Until his death, he sent hand-written letters to country and bluegrass writers who he deemed to be of soulful consequence. He was a master of intentional kindness.
Explain how you entered Tom’s world personally.
I met Tom T. at an Earl Scruggs birthday party and he told me he enjoyed the things I wrote for the Nashville Tennessean newspaper. He soon invited me to a picking party at his home, where I stayed far outside a music circle that included Scruggs, John Hartford, and other greats. He then asked if I would like a sip of the whiskey he had made with a great American, the “Bootleg Preacher” Will D. Campbell.
I nodded in the affirmative. After a couple of sips, he entered the music circle and said, “I’ve got an idea: Hand Peter Cooper that guitar and make him sing a song, and then we’ll all write in to the newspaper tomorrow and let them know what we think.” I had no option but to play a song, but I had the gumption to say, “If you don’t like this one, I didn’t write it.” I then played Tom T.’s “Mama, Bake a Pie.” When I finished, he said, “I haven’t even thought of that song in thirty years, but if I were you I wouldn’t play it in (notoriously conservative) Williamson County.”
Describe how the I Love tribute album took shape.
In 2010, my wife gave birth to our child, Baker. The first song I played in the delivery room was Tom T.’s “I Love.” A couple of months later, my dear friend Eric Brace and I gathered some of our favorite performers at Tom T.’s studio and remade his “Songs of Fox Hollow” album. My son came along to hear the recordings.
Explain the song and artist selection process.
We asked people who loved Tom T. – Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Bobby Bare, and others – to come and sing. It was one of the most magical weeks of my life. Tom T.’s songwriting wife, Dixie, catered the proceedings. Tom T. sat and listened and didn’t give advice except to say to Patty Griffin, “If you forget the words, just make them up: That’s what I did.” A purely joyful exercise in music-making. If I could go back to any point in time, it would be right there.
What do you think about the previous tribute album Real: The Tom T. Hall Project?
I think that Real: The Tom T. Hall Project was a major turning point in helping people in the alternative country/Americana world to understand the genius of this great man. Iris DeMent’s version of “I Miss a Lot of Trains” is breathtaking, as is R.B. Morris’s “Don’t Forget the Coffee, Billy Joe.” The only bummer is that Ryan Adams flubbed the last (and most important) line of “I Hope It Rains At My Funeral” on an otherwise fine Whiskeytown version of the song. It was a careless error, but the project stands as important and valuable.
Describe what he was like as a friend as you got to know him outside music.
I’ve not known a better friend than Tom T. Hall. He seemed to have experienced everything, and was always willing and able to help without ever being intrusive. When, as he wrote, “God was on vacation for awhile,” he would send flowers and well-wishes. He treasured his experiences with Will D. Campbell, Alex Haley, Miller Williams, Andy Kaufman, Jimmy Carter, and many more, and he shared those experiences in the form of grand advice and counsel.
I remember when the “Me Too” movement was getting going, and Tom T. said, “Well, they’re not gonna get me on that one.” I said, “Sure, T., you’re a gentleman.” He said, “Well, I was in the Army and I learned to follow rules. When I came to Nashville, I made some rules for myself, and I followed them. The first rule was, ‘Don’t ever stick your dick in the cash register. Boy, the world would be different if folks followed that rule.
You recently went back to his childhood home to bring him dirt.
A few weeks before he died, I went to his hometown of Olive Hill, Kentucky, and I visited his old homestead to dig some dirt for Tom T. to put in his garden. I didn’t get to bring it to him, but it will still go into his garden. It’s dirt that was in the ground right by the coldest, cleanest stream in Eastern Kentucky. He once sang, “Those clear Kentucky streams, they’re always in my dreams/ I think that is something you should know.” And I knew.
– Brian T. Atkinson
Here’s a little series for you Spotify Users called Bands You Should Know: 13 Songs. The premise being, these artists/bands are the core that make up Alt. Country. The catalog, no matter how large, was crunched down to 13 songs worth checking out. We hope this encourages you to explore these bands catalogs further, but for now, here is a sampler of the finest Alt. Country has to offer. We’ll be posting another set to go along with these next week. Enjoy. CLICK HERE
The Alt-Country Specialty Chart (ACSC) represents a collective of radio promoters, radio stations and fans who have an interest in charting more twang-based music, that has lost most of its voice on other similar radio formats. We need your help to make it happen!
Do you love alt-country music like we do? We’re talking everything from Uncle Tupelo and the Drive-By Truckers to Scott H. Biram, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, and Jesse Dayton. Alejandro Escovedo, Jason & the Scorchers, and Lucinda Williams to Tyler Childers, Jason James and Eilen Jewell. Do you remember the days when you would run to the mailbox to grab the new No Depression to find out about the latest releases? The latest releases are what we are all about
The last few years, AAA and indie rock (and even classic rock) have found their way into the Americana format, where such records used to flourish. Most of the more twang-based music has once again, found itself relegated to the lower ends of the charts.
The ACSC chart goal is to get back to our roots and start paying more attention to these incredibly important specialty shows. We feel that this will be a more accurate representation of the "twang" side of the coin. Of course, this would include the harder edge (Cowpunk/Southern Rock, Contemporary Blues) as well as the softer side (Folk/Bluegrass) and the balance between (Rockabilly/Western Swing). If you would like to continue to have a weekly source for the latest available music, we would greatly appreciate your support.
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