Tom T. Hall — “The Storyteller” of country music

The Storyteller, Tom T. Hall
Tom T. Hall, photo by Mercury Records – Billboard, 12 August 1967, Public Domain

I’ve been binge-listening a new podcast with the unforgettable name Cocaine & Rhinestones. If you guessed it’s about country music, you win. Now, you may not be a fan of the genre, but if you’re reading this blog I’m pretty sure you’re a writer. Or you’d like to be. So allow me to introduce you to “The Storyteller”—that’s the industry’s nickname for songwriter Tom T. Hall. (You can listen to the podcast episode here, or just read the handy transcript.)

The writer and host of Cocaine & Rhinestones, Tyler Mahan Coe, tells us:

“One word often used to describe Tom’s writing is ‘literary.’ Similar to Bobbie Gentry’s best work, there’s a quality to Tom’s narratives reminiscent of the great American short story writers in the 20th century. Sinclair Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway – these are Tom’s influences.”

As a songwriter, Hall writes poetry. But he finds inspiration in short stories. How does that affect his writing?

Many pop or country songwriters will state a theme—like the ubiquitous, “I love you”—and then spin out a series of variations on the theme in discrete, often interchangeable verses or even just lists. In fact, Hall did that on occasion too—listen to his hit song “I Love.” That’s what I call short-arc thinking.

More often, Hall thinks in longer arcs than a 12-syllable line of poetry, or even a verse. That allows him to tell a story, and as my regular readers know, storytelling is one of the best ways to hook an audience on your idea. Even better if your stories spark emotions in the reader or listener. And when you combine a good story and a singer who can really connect emotionally to her material, well, that there is gold.

In an earlier episode of the podcast, Coe reveals that singer/songwriter Bobbie Gentry’s biggest hits—”Ode to Billy Joe” and “Fancy”—both started out as short stories. Tom T. Hall’s most recognizable song, “Harper Valley PTA,” also tells a story that stretches out for the full length of the song. (And, if you’re really interested, for a full three episodes of Coe’s podcast.)

The Storyteller as songwriter

Here’s Coe again:

“Ask [Hall] what one of his songs is about and more often than not he’ll tell you a story about something he saw or did or something he heard someone talking about somewhere. The story that ends up in his song almost always starts with a story outside his song.”

I added the bold there. I talk a lot about Story Safari™—training yourself to see stories in the world that other people might not see. What I haven’t talked enough about is that those stories may not turn into the actual end product—they might just inspire the end product. And that’s perfect too, because you’re still writing from a unique perspective, your perspective.

Now, Tom T. Hall didn’t just sit around reading Hemingway. He had a lot of odd jobs (Coe adds, “and I do mean odd.”), like working in a funeral home. Among the less odd were his stints as a radio disk jockey:

“It’s probably worth noting that most of these gigs require Tom to write his own copy for the commercials he reads on-air. These are not songs, just tiny little scripts to read – again, like you hear in a lot of podcasts these days. But being forced to churn out disposable content like that can really make a writer out of someone. (If it seems funny that writing commercials could make you a better songwriter, well, try thinking about songs as little commercials for life.)”

It’s not just that songs are “little commercials for life”—though I love that idea. It’s “being forced to churn out disposable content” that made Hall a better writer.

When you write on deadline, you can’t be all precious and wait for the Muse to descend from on high and bless your typing fingers. You write. And you get used to writing badly sometimes, as we all do (even with the Muse). But it’s easier not to care about quality if your work goes out into the world anonymously. And if the script sucks the first time, you can always rewrite it the next time the commercial comes around. Plus, when you’re less attached to your writing, you rarely get a visit from the Willits. It’s a great way to experiment and grow.

Commit to creativity

Another thing you need to know about Tom T. Hall the writer:

“Before he was rich, Tom started his days with coffee and writing, believing the best stuff came when he was fresh from sleeping. After he got rich, Tom started his days with coffee and writing. The only thing that changed is where he was doing the writing.”

Write every day. If you’ve heard me say that once, you’ve heard me say it six hundred times.

And his definition of a songwriter tracks completely with my definition of a writer:

“In 2016, he told Peter Cooper that ‘songwriters aren’t good songwriters. People are good songwriters […] You sit down as a person and write a song. If you’ve written a song by the time you stand back up, you’re a songwriter. But the person comes first.'”

If you make words appear where there are no words before, you’re a writer. So stop waiting and start doing. The world is full of stories ready for you to find and tell.

Want more? I love coaching writers, individually and in groups. Click here for paid, low-cost (my e-book on storytelling is only $4.95), and free resources. Now get writing!

“I want to see you be brave” — Song for a, well, Any Day

By Source, Fair use

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about women in the business world. Especially the many talented women stuck in mid-level corporate jobs when they’re clearly capable of so much more. I can give these talented women the tools they need to share their ideas and get noticed, but before I can empower them, I have to reach them. And then Sara Bareilles’ song “Brave” floated into my head:

“Say what you want to say
And let the words fall out.
Honestly, I want to see you be brave.”

I woke Fenway from a sound sleep when I shouted “That’s it! That’s exactly the message I’ve been looking for.”

Let your ideas out—even if it feels scary to do it. You’ve got this.

(More tomorrow. In the meantime, turn up your speakers and dance along with Sara.)

When October Goes — Song for a Sunday

When October Goes
Nancy LaMott & Christopher Marlowe; her last television appearance, just nine days before she died

Did Johnny Mercer really collaborate with Barry Manilow? Well, yes and no. Manilow did write music to an unfinished poem by Mercer, but after the legendary lyricist’s death. The result, “When October Goes,” is gorgeous in the right hands and can easily turn into power-ballad schmaltz in the wrong ones.

The late great singer Nancy LaMott was definitely “the right hands.” Her arranger Christopher Marlowe used the song “Autumn Leaves” to lead in to the Mercer/Manilow song. LaMott’s simple, direct vocals shine a spotlight on the lyrics. I don’t think you’ll find a better interpretation of “When October Goes” anywhere.

When Do “We Need a Little Christmas”? — Song for a Sunday

After more than two decades as a professional writer, I’ve come to the conclusion that some words carry so much power that they can erase people’s short-term memories. “Christmas” is one of those words. And the song “We Need a Little Christmas” serves as Exhibit A.

It’s from Mame, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. We’re introduced to the title character as a high-flying member of 1920s New York society. But then the stock market crashes in late October 1929 and she loses everything. Not being one to dwell in negativity, Mame throws a party and decorates the house for the most festive holiday she can think of:

Haul out the holly;
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again.
Fill up the stocking,
I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now.
and a few lines later:
It hasn’t snowed a single flurry,
But Santa, dear, we’re in a hurry;
These are what we call clues. Clues that it is not, in fact, Christmas. Yet singers of all stripes trot this song out at Christmastime. Drives me crazy. The lyric
We need a little Christmas
Right this very minute
makes no sense on December 21st. I mean, what? You can’t hold off for four more days? Three if you celebrate on Christmas Eve.

A Little Christmas & Valentine’s Day, Too

Why, you may be wondering, am I ranting about this in October? I recently ran across a video of an indie folksinger doing a very lovely rendition of the song—at a Christmas party. I’m not linking to her video here because Lord knows she’s far from the only performer who’s ever sung the song in December.
Besides—give the audience what they want. Audiences hear the word “Christmas” and they expect to hear the song at Christmas.
Same thing with “My Funny Valentine.” That’s also from a show—Babes in Arms, music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart. It’s been a long time since that show premiered in 1937, so most people don’t know that Valentine is the name of the male romantic lead in the show.
But the closing line contains one of those phrases that obliterates all that’s gone before. When the ingénue in the show sings
Each day is Valentine’s day
she’s talking about her devotion to the dude named Valentine. Not about the holiday around which this song has become inescapable.
Honestly, if I could time-travel back to 1936, I would shake Larry Hart by the shoulders—hard—and say, “Don’t do it, man! If you name your character ‘Valentine,’ your lovely ballad will become an oversung, saccharine piece of mush.”
Sadly, until someone loans me a souped-up DeLorean or a standard-issue Tardis, we’ll all just have to learn to live with “My Funny Valentine” on, you know, that day. And “We Need a Little Christmas” every freaking December.
But since it’s October, the song is seasonally appropriate. So enjoy your song for a Sunday:

Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

Faith – Song for a Sunday

Today’s song doesn’t have anything to do with God, unless you understand God as the force that moves your body to a driving beat.

I needed to tap my toes yesterday and then I remembered this, the showstopping finale of the animated movie SingStevie Wonder’s song Faith.

I stuck it on replay and, whaddaya know?, some of the annoyance fell away. It’s impossible to tap your toes and not to be in the moment.

Go on, try it.

“I’ll Plant My Own Tree” — Song for a Sunday

I’m oddly ashamed to admit this, but somehow the song “I’ll Plant My Own Tree” never hit my radar until last week.

Movie poster Fair use

Maybe that’s not surprising: I’ve never seen the movie Valley of the Dolls. I’ve never been a huge fan of André and Dory Previn, who wrote the song. And while I like Judy Garland just fine, I’ve never obsessively combed the more obscure corners of her discography.

Garland recorded “I’ll Plant My Own Tree” because she was supposed to play the character who sings it in Valley of the Dolls. She dropped out early in the filming, replaced by Susan Heyward.

The song hit my radar this week when some friends of mine posted an American Gothic-like photograph of themselves, after planting, um, their own tree. So I clicked on the song link and there was Susan Heyward in a glittery gown, belting it out while a giant Calder-esque mobile swirled around her, casting trippy pseudo-psychedelic colored shadows. The setting, choreography, and the relentless 1960s-ness of the arrangement made it impossible for me to form an opinion about the song.

Next stop, Judy. No setting or stilted choreography to worry about here—the only thing that exists is audio. But the arrangement is even more aggressive, like the conductor and the entire orchestra were on speed. And about as subtle as a truck.

Was that really the best I could find?

Lena Horne plants her own tree

And then I found Lena Horne’s performance. Still a little too peppy for my taste—someday maybe I’ll sing this song the way I hear it in my head. But the emotional intensity gave me goosebumps. No doubt about it, Lena Horne is going to plant her own tree. And if anyone tries to stop her, she may just bite their head off.

Full disclosure: I would like to bite the head off whoever posted this video. It’s the entire song MINUS the climactic ending. There’s a special place in hell for you, whoever you are. Still, there’s enough here to make you fall in love—or at least serious like.

Go plant your own damn tree this week. I know I will.

Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

“Go, Cubs, Go!” — Song for a Sunday

When I wrote about Steve Goodman last week, I had no idea I’d be standing in his favorite place in the world this week—Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.

Steve spent many hours of his tragically short life in the “friendly confines.” And he’s spent time there in death, too: his brother scattered some of Steve’s ashes in the outfield, thanks to a groundskeeper friend. Yes, that last part sounds too good to be true—I read it in Clay Eals’s voluminous biography, Steve Goodman: Facing the Music. But  I checked with Steve’s widow, Nancy, and she verified all the details.

I was supposed to be in Houston this weekend, but I changed my plans in the wake of the hurricane. And so while my personalized Cubs jersey sat in a suitcase somewhere back East, I headed off to see the Cubs play the Braves.

The first inning looked rocky, but the Cubbies roared back, taking what seemed like a decisive lead and then adding to it. A good thing, too, because the Braves had the tying run at the plate in the 9th and the Cubs’ closer seemed to forget his job. But the Cubbies won.

Which was the main thing I’d been hoping for. I wanted to hear Steve sing “Go, Cubs, Go!” in the building it was intended for.

And it was amazing. Nearly everyone in attendance stayed—after a nearly four-hour game! If the Mets had an equivalent song, everyone would be shouting the lyrics while racing down the stairwell. Still a community experience, but rather a different kind.

I made a video of the scene at Wrigley yesterday. Notice how you almost can’t hear the opening lines through the crowd noise, but then everyone either gets quiet or starts singing. What a gift Steve left behind for Cubs fans—for all of us.


Go, Cubs, Go! September 2nd 2017 from Elaine Bennett on Vimeo.

Murphy’s Law of Relativity

I had a nightmarish day yesterday. I can’t even get a Story Safari out of it—that’s how bad it was. Almost the whole day seemed to be operating by Murphy’s Law.

And then I remembered Houston.

My day from hell would have looked pretty darn good for someone wading through chin-deep water in Houston today. Or someone huddled in a shelter, trying to dry out a clean pair of underwear for tomorrow. Or someone getting by on an hourly wage, trying to figure out how to make ends meet if the electricity really is out for six weeks. Freelancers and entrepreneurs—no internet, no work; no work, no income. I can’t even imagine.

Sending love—and music. This is how we deal with hurricanes in New Jersey. Sing it loud.

“The perfect country song” — Song for a Sunday

Back in 1975, Steve Goodman thought he had written the “perfect country and western song.” His friend, singer-songwriter David Alan Coe disagreed. Oh, Coe liked the song well enough. But he felt it needed a little bit more to make it the perfect country song. So Goodman added a verse.

Here, listen to Coe explain:

I appreciated finding this video embedded in a Rolling Stone article about Coe. It gives proper credit to Goodman—as Coe does in this clip. That doesn’t always happen when people talk about or write about this song.

Of course, I put the “You Never Even Call Me By My Name” in my Steve Goodman tribute show—you can hear a bit of it and its story starting at 1:50 in the clip below. I took the lyrics from Goodman’s recording, so they’re slightly different than Coe’s. No F-bomb, for one.

Well done, Steve.

Steve Goodman wrote the "perfect country song"
Steve Goodman

Elaine St. George: Happy birthday, Arlo

Our first guest blog post comes from…me, the singing side of me. I don’t blog often as Elaine St. George—come to think of it, I don’t sing often as her these days, either. But I’ll take any opportunity to remind the world about the underappreciated singer-songwriter Steve Goodman. So enjoy this post from July 10th, 2015:

Happy birthday, Arlo

by Elaine St. George

Arlo Guthrie
Arlo in 1979, publicity photo from Warner Bros.

It’s Arlo Guthrie’s birthday today. Obviously Arlo holds a special place in the hearts of Steve Goodman fans. His cover of “City of New Orleans” gave Steve his first visibility. Well, as much visibility as a songwriter ever gets when he’s not singing his own song. Even if it’s a hit.

When I bought my first Steve Goodman album in the late ’70s and found “City of New Orleans” on it, I’ll admit I checked the credits twice. Like most of the rest of America, I assumed Steve was covering Arlo’s song. A few years later, of course, that perception changed. When Willie Nelson sang “City of New Orleans” in the mid-’80s, presumed authorship of the song transferred to him. Steve got his first Grammy when Willie’s cover won “Best Country Song.” But by then Steve was no longer around to receive it. He’d died a few months earlier.

And that brings me back to Arlo Guthrie, because in a way it was through him that I rediscovered Steve. Well, not “rediscovered”—I’d never forgotten about him. But that was when I decided to put together a whole show of Steve’s songs. And that show has now turned into an album. But I digress…

(Cue the harp and the wavy focus to signify a flashback…)

Five or six years ago, I did a show in Boston. The venue wanted a longer set than I’d planned so I had to add some material and I thought, “Why not do some songs written by people who live in Massachusetts?” First person who came to mind was James Taylor, but I had trouble finding a second. Then I remembered Arlo Guthrie had written “Alice’s Restaurant” about a place in the Berkshires so I decided he’d be perfect. I couldn’t cover “Alice’s Restaurant”—I didn’t have that much time to fill! But I thought I’d sing “City of New Orleans” and tell a story about how Arlo hadn’t written it, Steve Goodman had.

Being a thorough kind of gal, I researched the backstory and I discovered two things:

  1. Arlo first heard “City of New Orleans” when Steve had the guts to walk up to him out of the blue in a crowded bar, introduce himself, and ask Arlo to listen to the song. The rest, as they say, is history.
  2. Steve had the guts to do that because he knew he didn’t have any time to waste. He was dying of leukemia. In fact, he had died in 1984 at the age of 36. And I’d had no idea.

A little more research confirmed that #1 wasn’t exactly the truth. But #2 absolutely was. This guy whose work I loved—whose songs were so full of life and heart—was gone. And I’d missed it completely.

How had I remained so clueless? I’d moved on, listening more to showtunes, the Great American Songbook, and jazz than to the folk music that had sustained me in my teen years. But now that I knew the real story—or something closer to the real story—of Steve’s big break as a songwriter, I thought more people deserved to hear it. And I decided I needed to tell it.

For the record, the real story—as recounted in Clay Eals’s incredibly thorough book Steve Goodman: Facing the Music—is that the meeting was no accident. It was set up by a Chicago club owner who knew Steve had a great song on his hands and wanted to get him a break. The other part of the real story is that Steve only became a songwriter after doctors told him he had leukemia, and maybe only a year more to live. With typical Steve guts, he managed to stretch that one year out to 16.

That resonated with me. No one would have blamed Steve if he’d spent the rest of his life on a beach somewhere. But he insisted on living. And creating. That’s when he turned himself into a songwriter. And that’s how he had the guts to sing his song for Arlo Guthrie. Yes, the meeting was prearranged. But Steve showed up for it. And he kept showing up, until the leukemia finally claimed him.

I don’t know if you’ve ever done anything creative—art, singing, whatever—but it takes courage to stand up there on stage or hang your picture on a wall and say, “This is who I am. This is what I care about.” Steve did that. He seized every opportunity he could to share his work with people. He inspires me as an artist every day. And I hope that by telling his story and singing his songs, I can inspire other people to do whatever seems hardest for them.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying: Thank you, Arlo Guthrie. You have no idea who I am, but you’ve had an impact on my life. Happy birthday.