Music Reviews

Tom T. Hall

The Ultimate Collection


The problem with calling something an “Ultimate Collection” is that it’s unbelievably easy to shoot holes in such a claim. This umpteen-millionth collection of Hall’s work is no different.

Although it improves on last year’s skimpy 12-track Millennium Collection offering (this one has 24), it doesn’t quite reach the song selection of 1995’s two-disc compilation Storyteller Poet Philosopher. That one included two of my all time favorite Hall songs, “That’s How I Got to Memphis” and “I Flew Over Our House Last Night,” which are noticeably missing here.

Now the good news: The Ultimate Collection is a fairly good summation of Hall’s career (at least up to 1983) that would serve as a valuable introduction for the uninitiated. Many of his hits from the ’60s and ’70s are brought together on one disc that would be a fine text for a Songwriting 101 class. Hall’s eye for the telling character detail and knack for spinning a yarn are on full display on tracks like “Ballad of Forty Dollars,” which is about the old time funerals he used to see in his home town. Using the literary device of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” and other songs, “Homecoming” relates a conversation heard from one side. And Hall sings about serving time in a Paintsville, Kentucky jail on “A Week in a County Jail.” It wasn’t quite Oz, or “Folsom Prison Blues,” for that matter. Of course one of the finest examples of the story song in Hall’s work may be “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died.” Here the singer remembers his boyhood friendship with a guitar-playing drifter, and over the course of two and a half minutes, we learn not only the drifter’s story, but who the boy became and the influence the drifter’s life and death had on him.

Hall’s 1972 hit “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine” is a heartfelt slice of life number that offers a simple philosophy of life. The liner notes take note that the song has become a favorite played at funerals. Hall later attempted to repeat the sentiment on tunes like “I Love” and “I Care,” but those songs are almost too simple, though charming in their own way. The silly “I Like Beer” is in the same mold. Hall also provides the antidote to the simple life here on “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet).” Instead of “old dogs, children, and watermelon wine” we get “faster horses, younger women, older whiskey, and more money.”

Indeed, Hall has made a habit of revisiting themes and character types throughout his career. On “Your Man Loves You, Honey,” he writes about a stubborn husband who loves his wife but won’t change his ways. “Jesus on the Radio (Daddy on the Phone)” is basically the same song told from the wife’s perspective.

Musically there is much to recommend on this collection as well. Check out the great drums, harmonica and piano interplay on the blues and soul-inflected “Shoeshine Man.” And give a listen to Hall covering the Manfred Mann British hit “Fox on the Run” bluegrass style.

For the Hall completist, this collection also includes a previously unreleased acoustic demo for the classic “Harper Valley PTA,” which became a hit for Jeannie C. Riley.

In short, this collection is as good a place as any for most newcomers to begin. But for further research, pick up the 1995 two-disc collection. To see what he’s been up to in recent years, listen to Hall’s 1997 album, Home Grown, and its spirited tribute to a bluegrass pioneer “Bill Monroe for Breakfast.” And to grasp Hall’s continuing influence, check out the 1998 tribute, Real: The Tom T. Hall Project with a few of alt-country’s finest and a couple of old-timers (Johnny Cash and Ralph Stanley) covering Hall’s tunes. Or listen to Buddy Miller sing “That’s How I Got to Memphis” on his Your Love and Other Lies, or Joe Henry sing “I Flew Over Our House Last Night” on Kindness of the World. My own “ultimate collection” would include all of the above.

Universal Records, 1755 Broadway, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10019

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