Drinks With: Tom T. Hall, Part 1
Skip’s note: This is part one of a two-part “drinks with” interview with Tom T. Hall and his wife & songwriting partner Miss Dixie. For anyone who doesn’t know Tom T. Hall, I urge you to drop what you are doing, and go listen to the song “Homecoming.” If you’re looking for impressive numbers, Tom T. Hall has had 33 top 20 hits in Nashville and had his songs sung by (his friends) Johnny Cash, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare et al. Most recently his song “Itty Bitty” was a number 1 for Alan Jackson.
Miss Dixie, born Iris Lawrence, is from Warwickshire, England. She lived with Mother Maybelle Carter in the 1960’s and wrote a song called “Truck-Driving Son of a Gun” in 1965 which was a hit for a singer named Dave Dudley. At a BMI awards dinner following the success of that song, she met Tom T. Hall. The Hall’s put an album out recently, “Tom T. Hall Sings Miss Dixie & Tom T.” on their own Blue Circle record label.
This past December, we sat down at Fox Hollow, their home in Franklin, TN and talked about songwriting, filmmaking, and other things they do in their “retirement.”
At the end of this portion of the interview, they talk about how rare public performances are for them these days. At the time of this publication however, they are actually performing live at Lipscomb University (tonight 7pm) in Nashville at an event called “Music from the Mountain: An Evening Honoring Mother Maybelle Carter.”
You all have an amazing collection of crafted songs that have all been written (relatively) recently. This after you both had a long career as individual writers. Did you start co-writing together soon after you got married?
Hall: No, I just kept writing by myself. I don’t know what that was all about. Ms. Dixie was big into the humane society and showing her dogs. I was on the road picking and signing and she was showing her dogs. Then when she got out of the dog show business and went into the humane society business and I came off the road, we just said, “You know, let’s just write songs together.”
Dixie: He said “If you’ll get all of these people out of my house, we will write some songs.”
Hall: We were having these huge fundraisers for the humane society.
How long ago was that?
Hall: Ten or twelve years ago.
The record you put out last year together…
Dixie: That’s a good one, isn’t it?
Oh it is. On a couple of those songs, you all get pretty gritty. “Hero in Harlan” is one of the best war songs I’ve heard in years. Considering how over-the-top most politically charged songs can be, it’s wonderfully gruff and understated.
Hall: It’s a strange song and I knew it wouldn’t be widely listened to, because you’ll listen to it once and then you don’t want to hear it anymore.
It’s one where you all seem to show just how much subtle emotional ground and how much story can be covered in less than three minutes. By degrees, it gets more painful until the very end.
Dixie: You don’t want to think about war. People don’t. And all political views are different, but it’s not about this war in particular. It’s just about wars in general. Everyone takes on the guilty stand.
I think that’s what’s remarkable about it. It reads like an A.E. Housman’s war poem. With the repeated line in the chorus “He’s not the first, he won’t be the last,” You don’t get the sense that the story is about any conflict specifically. It’s specifically about an individual person – which it always is in a way, I suppose. It’s timeless. There is also that bone-chilling peripheral acceptance of the whole thing, Like the kind that you get in [the Tom T. Hall Song] “Mama Bake a Pie, Daddy Kill a Chicken.” Not that it needed any prompting, but was there something specific in you all’s life that sparked you to write “Hero in Harlan” now?
Hall: Well I lost a brother in the war and had another one all shot up. I had three brothers in the Korean War. One of them got killed and my other brother brought him home when I was a very young man – and I was struggling with that at the time. I think [the practice was] that if two brothers were in a theater and one got killed, the other one would bring his body home. It was a nice thing. You don’t want to lose them both. Kind of a Saving Private Ryan thing, if I remember that correctly. Ms. Dixie came up with the idea first because she loves Harlan Kentucky. [To: Mrs. Dixie]What happened when we went there?
Dixie: We went there for Michelle (Nixon)’s release for the song we wrote that goes, “Harlan, is the heart of Kentucky”. And it became the national anthem in Harlan – at last they had a song that made them proud. And it was not a downer about ‘losing everything when daddy died in the mine,’ or ‘the children are starving.’ It was about the pride of Kentucky. Michelle Nixon recorded it. We went up there for the premiere. Little itty bitty theater filled with coal miners and farmers alike. It was amazing.
Hall: We were surprised. We got there and you’d think that Prince Charles and Di showed up. A sweet hotel and anything we wanted. We owned the whole town for a few days.
Dixie: We met a gentlemen who used to be a miner but swore he wasn’t going down in the mines anymore. He was our driver around the town. He asked where we wanted to go. I said the mine. He said “Well there’s a tourist mine…” No, I said. No, the real mine. I wanted to go down and feel it. When Tom T. is talking about songs, most of the time he’ll say “it’s the feel.” I wanted to go down and get the “feel” of the mine.
Hall: It was scary. We had oxygen suits and beepers and GPS. This fellow was driving this little cart, we were three miles into the mountain. The guy said, “any of you ever been in the dark”.
We said, “sure.”
He said, “no you haven’t, wait a minute”- and he turned out the lights. (pauses)
If you had any hair it would stand up on your head and you’d say, “boy it’s really dark in here.” Total absence of any light. But we got out and made it ok.
Dixie: But the fellow that took us down into the mine stayed a friend, and told a story that the sad thing about Harlan was the young people moving away and not coming back. They move to the big cities and get an education and go to college and then they find other pursuits. His daughter had just called him and told him, “Daddy, I don’t believe I’m coming back to Harlan.” And that led into another song, which is one of the best songs either one of us has ever written.
Hall: It’s called “I Don’t Think I’m Going Back to Harlan” and this girl sings it and does a great job on it.
Your songs seem to come out of a deep awareness of literature, or tradition in literature. Do either of you do much reading alongside your writing?
Hall: I was an English major and Ms. Dixie was a journalist too. When I first got to Nashville, somebody said Tom T Hall and Kris Kristofferson at the time were the only two people who could describe Dolly Parton without using their hands. Kris and I came into town and created this illusion of literacy, somehow. I’d came straight out of college and Kris came from -
Dixie: Kris landed his helicopter in John’s (Cash) yard to pitch him songs.
Did it work?
Hall: Yeah, “Sunday Morning coming Down”.
Well if I’d written that one I might borrow a helicopter too.
Hall: (laughs) yeah.
Dixie: Kris was a pilot.
Hall: He was a helicopter pilot. He hung out at the National Guard.
Dixie: and a janitor…
Hall: I wouldn’t have let him drive my tractor. I knew him better than those guys at the National Guard. We love Kris though.
Having both been writers before you met each other, have you had to change any writing habits working together? Has your writing (together) changed over the years?
Hall: Well, we write this way: I’m a fast writer. I write real fast. And she’ll come up with an idea for a song like “Hero in Harlan”, and we’ll sketch it out and get it places where I think it ought to go. But she was a newspaper editor so she’ll take the song and stay up all night and fix it. So I’ll get up and it rhymes and it meters. I have to watch her and make sure it gets to the end though. I accuse her of writing these old bluegrass songs where a lot of people get killed. If I go to bed with a guy walking quietly down a path, when I wake up the next morning, he’ll be hanging in a tree. But we kinda write that way. Of course, we also write some by ourselves.
Dixie: Usually we have to figure who’s name goes on there first. Who’s first writer and who’s second? People tend to put Tom T. and Dixie because he’s the star. Yet it could be a song that I’ve done most of the work on and likewise – you know sometimes I just feel like I’m along for the ride — when he won’t let me get a word in. What we’ve ended up doing is if it’s my idea, I’m first writer because chances are I’ll do most of the decision making and take it where I want it to go and if Tom T. comes up with it, he gets it even if he doesn’t do any work…just kidding. Whoever makes the coffee gets to be the star. But it’s certainly a lot of fun when you do have somebody on a song with you. It becomes a team thing. It’s good to bounce ideas. You aren’t left indecisive with “Is that line as good as I think it is?” He’ll say [deepens voice]“Yeah, good stuff. Good stuff”. That’s most of what he says, “Good stuff.” [to Tom T.} Right?
Dixie: That’s the highest compliment you can get. “Good stuff.” We don’t beat each other up over it. We have a good time doing it. Now that we aren’t doing it commercially, we can do it honestly and say what we think. That’s the best part.
I’m fascinated by the movie you made recently “Who Shot Lester Monroe?” I don’t know too many people who decide to take up filmmaking in retirement – at least the way it seems like you two did. What was the genesis of that project?
Hall: Well, I was looking for something to keep me off the streets. I’m a big movie fan; love movies. My favorite movie is probably “Tombstone”. You know where the guy slaps the horse, and then -- whoever is in the movie -- slaps the guy, and says “How does that feel?” So that’s probably my favorite scene in a movie. I just like the idea of it. And those little incidents get in songs, too. So you pay attention to those sorts of things, or I do—we do.
Miss Dixie: Well it’s creative too, you can have a scene doing whatever you wish it to do. Just like in a song when you make up a song—it’s subject to your direction.
Hall: By the way that movie is a big success, we’ve sold almost a hundred dvd’s.
(Laughs) That’s incredible.
Hall: And we’ve got almost a thousand dollars invested in it, too. No, I started at Barnes & Noble. I go there sometimes and look around ‘till I find some weird books. And I found a book on movie making, so I read that. Then I read a couple other books. Then I ordered this huge DVD set—35 DVD’s in this set on how to make movies, and I watched them all and took notes. This was in the winter time, you know. I learned how to direct, and write, and lighting and everything. Now, when I finished all my reading that winter, the next spring I knew what type of equipment I wanted, now I was up to that stage— I knew one thing from another. So I ordered two hi-definition cameras out of Los Angeles, I ordered a set of lights, lighting. I got Canon cameras, and – then this big learning curve -- now I get the big (camera) manuals. So six months later I know how to get a picture on it, and found out how to work the cameras—of course they’re all computerized, very involved and there’s a lot going on.
Miss Dixie: Well you still have to turn them on, though.
Hall: Yeah --we learned how to do that. And I’m working with Buddy Carter, a buddy of mine, who is of President Jimmy Carter’s family. He is Jimmy Carter’s nephew and he lives here now. Buddy used to come and visit with us, and then one time he came to visit, met a girl at the ice cream shop -- which sounds like something out of a song -- and they got married, and then he got a job here. So we worked together on this movie and tried to figure out a plot. The movie’s called “Who Shot Lester Monroe.” So, naturally, we had him killed on the property, so we wouldn’t have to travel out to location. And we had two points of interest: we had where the murder took place, and we had Nashville-- where the music business goes on. And this fellow who got killed was in the bluegrass music business.
I’ve got a little place down at the barn, a room where I just hang out in, make movies, do a little woodworking and painting and all that sort of stuff in. So we turned that place into a movie studio. I also built a movie set to have an office for the detective to live in, and I’m the detective. So now we’ve got three locations, and we can move around Nashville, to the different bluegrass locations, Station In and IBMA.
So once we had a plot, we started shooting improv. What amazed me about making this movie is how great people are. You tell them the plot, and say, “here is where the scene ends.” You say “It must have been the butler,” or something—“that’s the end of the scene.” So you kind of stand there and if they get going too far you say [whispers] “hey… it must of been the butler… okay, cut.”
We had to wait until the cast of characters came around to the studio, so we would sit around and wait and say “Oh, a certain band is coming in next Wednesday”—“Oh, good!” Then we would write them up a scene, and when the band got here we would say “Hey, you’re going to be in our movie.” And so we would put them in the movie, write them in the plot, and they would all do improv. It was amazing how good they were; I was fascinated, like, “wow these people are great actors.” Of course if you give them lines they can’t remember them, so you would have to do it just one time. When they can remember their lines, well some of them, then they start acting and they can’t act. It wasn’t always good, but usually the first time we’d do it people would just be naturally talking and it was amazing. So whatever we got we’d have to use. Eventually we got up to an hour and twenty minutes or something. And most of this stuff was in focus, you know. Then we did all our editing—oh, then we went to editing, and mixing sound. Wow, what a learning curve, in that Vegas editing program.
You did all that yourself?
Hall: Yeah, Buddy Carter and I did it. It was amazing.
Dixie: But you know I kinda gave him a rough time because after they’d gone way overtime editing, I’d come up and say, “Oh but you can’t leave so and so out”.
Hall: So we’re finished with the movie, and Ms. Dixie says “Oh you forgot to put so-and-so in. You need to put them in the movie.” One guy got here so late that after the movie was over, we cut him a scene. He drives up to the barn and comes up to the murder scene and staples a big sign on the barn. And when he walks away, the sign says “This Movie is over” That’s all we had for him to do.
It’s funny on two counts. It’s funny because some people have some weird talents. One fellow was watching a guy who could wiggle his ears and juggle at the same time, and he said “It’s not remarkable that he does it well — it’s remarkable he does it at all.” This movie is funny on that count. It’s funny too because the people in the movie (are funny), it looks like a movie you’d probably make yourself.
I suppose a lot of television looks that way today.
Hall: I’ve seen worse movies. I’ve paid money to see worse movies. I was telling Buddy [Carter] while we were finishing it, “You know I’ve had a little epiphany here, do you remember we used to see those movies advertised that said “TEN YEARS IN THE MAKING?” He said “yeah” I said “There were two guys making those movies.”
When’s the last time you heard a song on the more recent country charts where you thought – if it was possible – “Boy I bet those people get out of bed and listen to Harlan Howard every morning?”
Hall: I like a lot of Alan Jackson’s stuff and a lot of Harley Allen. Anything he writes I will listen to. I think he’s a street writer, as I call them. I’m off the streets now, literally and financially. I used to walk those streets peddling songs.
Dixie: We don’t have to peddle anymore.
Hall: I like Brad Paisley.
Hall: Yeah, we stay out of Nashville all together. But I never want to leave the impression that I’m one of these old farts that’s saying “They’re not doing it right, now.” I entertained my generation and this generation can amuse itself anyway it wants. As long as they don’t scare the horses. You know what I mean?
Dixie: Or slap them (laughs).
Hall: I’m not opposed to anything anybody’s doing. We don’t send our songs to Nashville. We don’t fool around with it. I am amused though when I see a song or some songs I hear and it took five people to write it or six people to publish it. And I think “Boy, for that song, that’s a lot of work, in my estimation” though I’m not buying a lot of CDs. People send me CDs.
Dixie: I think the most exciting thing to hit Nashville was last Saturday night at the Grand Ol’ Opry when Dale Jett, who is the grandson of A.P. Carter, came to town and encored after the show.. Marty Stewart brought him in, and Dale Jett and his group — his friend and his wife call themselves “Hello Stranger” – they did some Carter family songs. And we’ve got him coming here, to our studio, too. You’ve got to come over and meet. There’s the essence of the whole doggone business.
Hall: He does his grandaddy’s music just – [nods his head]. He’s a construction worker but he’s always kept his guitar and done the old thing. We have a house actually near the old Carter family museum. It’s called the Fold. They have a little theater and a museum and A.P.’s old home place where he used to live. I went up there one summer and helped them bring this old cabin out of the holler, and set it up on the side of the road and we restored the whole thing, me and the Historical Society. So we hang out up there a lot. Johnny Cash had a house up there. John and June said to us years ago “Get you a little house up here so we can go up there, get out of traffic, sit on the front porch and tell lies.” And we did.
Dixie: In fact, we were up visiting with John Carter this past Thanksgiving. It’s like going back 30 years when you go back to Poor Valley. We’re going to be doing a record on Dale [Jett] this year and there will be some Carter family songs on it and one of ours he’s picked out. And he writes too. But to hear him on the encore, … the crowd went out of it’s mind. They did the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, the ‘Midnight Jamboree’ and tore them up there. So it was like the circle closed. It was all together and a very spiritual moment if you’d happened to be up. I hope to get a tape of it. Our house is at Mason Springs were the little school house was. Our house was where Aunt Silvie, who was A.P.’s sister, lived. Sylvie used to play with Maybelle when Sara first eloped to California. Sylvie would sit in. It’s quite an historical little house. I lived with Mother Maybelle for a number of years back then. We’d write songs together and play canasta and “Don’t Get Mad”. I’d do everything with her but bowl. I could not bowl. And she taught Tom T. to play “Wildwood Flower” right.
Hall: Yeah, I was out there one day and I had a guitar and I thought “You know this is a grand opportunity.” You know Mother Maybelle was the first lead guitar player in country music. People originally had used them as a strumming instrument. No one had ever played a melody on a guitar before. I don’t know how it never dawned on them with all those strings. So [the Carter Family] went over to Bristol in 1926 to make this record and she takes off picking the melody. And these records got around, and people said “My goodness! What are they doing there?” And of course, it became the national anthem of country music. Anyways, Ms. Dixie had me out drinking coffee with Mother Maybelle, and I said “I’ve heard this played several different ways but since you’re here, I want to learn to play Wildwood Flower exactly how you do.” Of course she used a thumb pick. But she showed me how to play it.
Dixie: She also taught Earl [Scruggs] to play “You Are My Flower”. I worked for Louise and we started the publishing company for them when I was living with Maybelle at that time in the middle 60’s.
Earl Scruggs is in my family tree, far, far away. I’ve never met him and he doesn’t know me from Adam. But my grandparents showed me one time years ago. They are from Boiling Springs. Of course everybody near Boiling Springs claims to be related to the Scruggs family, I imagine.
Dixie: He’s a great man.
I’ve always heard that. We saw him at Merlfefest a few years back. Is a festival like Merlefest something you two would consider playing or are you completely retired from live performances?
Dixie: Tom T. won’t get out there and work. (laughs) Once in a while if someone like J.D. Crow is on, or Jimmy Martin was on… There was no way he could escape Jimmy; he’d get pulled up on stage. But he doesn’t take bookings. Very, very seldom.
Hall: I don’t do paid gigs at all.
Dixie: Just if he happens to be there and the mood strikes him right — be it at the Station Inn or somewhere and somebody says, “Get up here Tom T.” But it doesn’t happen very often.