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!


Also published on Medium.