Tom T. Hall: In a profound way, Hall’s messages to children and adults in 1974—messages about treating each other with respect, about the nature of friendship, about the inextricable link between animals, humans and the land--have even greater relevance in 2011. (Photo: Bob Shortridge at http://www.theboman.com/photo_gallery2.htm)
For Kids Of All Ages
Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow gets a proper salute
By David McGee
I LOVE: TOM T. HALL’S SONGS OF FOX HOLLOW
Red Beet Records
The past few years have been good ones for Tom T. Hall, as one bluegrass band or artist after another has revived and rethought some of his vintage tunes, even as Tom T. and his wife Dixie pen new ones that are immediately snapped up. A tribute record honoring the man’s body of work seemed like a sure thing, but the least likely tribute—or at least the one no one could have foreseen—is this, a gathering of top-drawer country and bluegrass artists performing all the tunes from Tom T.’s wonderful children’s album from 1974, Songs of Fox Hollow, which exists on CD only on 1995’s Country Songs For Children two-fer packaged with seven tracks from Hall’s other children’s album, 1988’s Songs For Children.
Credit for this inspired concept goes to one of the great bluegrass singers of our time, Eric Brace of Last Train Home (and, unforgettably, The Skylighters, who need to make another album), and Peter Cooper, who may be better known as a music critic for the Nashville Tennessean but is steadily gaining recognition as a fine country singer-songwriter in his own right. They came up with the idea while touring together, made a wish list of the artists they would like to have participate, and lo, it happened. The result is a thoroughly charming album—gentle, wise, funny and warm hearted—that turns out to be the best kind of tribute to Tom T. Hall. Hall has always said what he loves about children is their search for simplicity, and how that’s what he tries to capture in his songs; for all the great numbers he has written and either recorded himself or had covered as hits by other artists since getting his big break in 1963 with Jimmy C. Newman’s take on his “DJ For a Day,” there is arguably no collection more representative of his sensibilities and his personality than Songs of Fox Hollow. In all their innocence and humanity, these songs represent the essence of the artist and of the man. To the credit of Brace and Cooper, the artists they tapped for this project clearly understand where Hall is coming from; their empathy for his material suffuses the entire production with a glow springing from great respect, even love, for what’s being said here. Hall may have proffered the original album as a children’s project, but grownups need to be reminded of how certain values never go out of style, no matter how coarse our culture and public discourse becomes. In a profound way, Hall’s messages to children and adults in 1974—messages about treating each other with respect, about the nature of friendship, about the inextricable link between animals, humans and the land--have even greater relevance in 2011.
Red Beet Records’ promotional video for I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow
But as Hall did on his original album, so do Brace, Cooper and their partners in song do here in taking the songs as they come and letting the beauty of their insights simply be, without becoming didactic or preachy. You could say Tom T. didn’t have the greatest singing voice, but the millions of records he’s sold says he communicates on a meaningful level with his listeners. There are voices both beautiful and powerful on I Love, but all serve the song, not their egos. These artists sound not only respectful of the task at hand, but humbled by it, as Tom T. did back in ’74.
In an increasingly multicultural society, Tom T.’s sensible advice about communicating with someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you—in the lilting pop-country of “How To Talk To a Little Baby Goat,” a tale told gently by Jon Byrd—makes an important point about tolerance and respect. Similarly, Mark & Mike—a backwoods duo of former Derailer Mark Horn and Ozark Mountain Daredevil Michael “Suge” Granda (“We’re like Homer and Jethro would have been if they had lived to see Dumb & Dumber,” Mark says in the press materials)—sing “The Song of the One-Legged Chicken,” a funny story of a physically challenged hen who happens to be a productive egg producer in spite of her affliction, the larger lesson here being obvious. Jim Lauderdale’s affectionate rendering of “I Like To Feel Pretty Inside,” done in a bustling bluegrass arrangement with a lively banjo romping through it (courtesy of the irrepressible Mike Bub), teaches, in a most entertaining way, how self-respect flows from tolerance and from withholding judgments based on appearance, using the skunk and the mink as object lessons in making his point.
Tom T. Hall sings ‘Sneaky Snake,’ from Songs of Fox Hollow, and ‘Old Dogs and Children,’ from Songs for Children.
Emmylou Harris fans will remember Starling McLean, or Fayssoux as she’s now known, from a number of Emmy’s memorable recordings. Fayssoux closes out the proceedings with one of Tom T.’s most tender and touching songs, a brand-new one Hall wrote with his wife Dixie especially for this outing, the sweetly humming, folk-flavored “I Made a Friend of a Flower Today.” Its appeal to protect and nurture all living things, and to appreciate that the most unassuming gesture (in this case, watering a forlorn flower) can do lasting good, is a most timely message. The man of the hour must have felt strongly about what he was saying, too, since he pops up to sing a soothing verse of his own at the end, with Fayssoux in velvety harmony with him on the chorus. Bookending this is the album’s opening number, one of Tom T.’s biggest crossover hits, “I Love,” recast in hymnlike solemnity by a deeply invested Patty Griffin, supported in her plaintive testifying by Lloyd Green’s discreetly deployed pedal steel swoons and a reverent, subdued hum courtesy Jon Gunderman’s accordion.
Song after song, the mood sustains, the joy maintains, the spirit rises. Buddy Miller offers the jolly tale of the root beer thieving “Sneaky Snake,” an energetic workout further enlivened by the muscular, incomparable twang of the great Duane Eddy). Peter Cooper himself arrives on the disc with a terrific low-key country reading of “Everybody Loves To Hear a Bird Sing,” the title being a telling tipoff of the song’s aim, in an arrangement that also employs Eddy’s classic twanging guitar buttressing its graceful, singsong atmosphere. Eric Brace and Last Train Home check in with a wonderful reading of “The Mysterious Fox of Fox Hollow,” a brooding ballad (lent an exotic patina by dint of Kevin Cordt’s haunting trumpet solo) that hopes to disabuse listeners who might regard the fox as a dastardly creature. Gary Bennett, former stalwart of BR5-49, rocks on with a drawling vocal on the delightful western swing-tinged toe-tapper, “The Barn Dance,” as Gunderman embroiders the arrangement with honky tonk piano, Kevin Cordt interjects a lively trumpet blast and Lloyd Green gets it going on pedal steel; two great veterans, Tommy Cash and Bobby Bare, sparkle, the former on Dixie, Hall’s “Ole Lonesome George the Bassat,” being the account of an ambitious dog who happens to upstage Tommy’s brother Johnny one night (to Tim Carroll goes the honor of crafting distinctive Luther Perkins-style top strings licks), the latter with Hall’s typically wry but all-too-true words of love and commitment in “I Care.” Elizabeth Cook, one of the finest contemporary country singer-songwriters of our time, is joined by her songwriter husband Tim Carroll on one of Hall’s most clever expressions of love and friendship, in which the punch line, and the revelation of its true aim, doesn’t come until the song’s final phrase.
Tom T. Hall, ‘I Love’
So hats off to those on this wish list. All came and all gave it their finest. The band—Mike Bub, Jon Gunderman, Lloyd Green and drummer Mark Horn—played with infallible empathy for each song’s text and in synch with each artist's temperament. Cooper and Brace made nary a false move, from conception to execution. To Tom T., sail on, live long, keep writing and embrace this love your songs have earned you even as you have bequeathed it to all who follow the path you cut.