Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Tom T. and Dixie Hall - A Visit

Our GPS led us precisely around Nashville and south past the garish mansions of Brentwood and back out into the country in Williamson County.  It took us down a country lane where we passed the unpreposessing mailbox we had been told marked the drive up to Tom T. and Miss Dixie Hall's home.  We were early anyway, so we drove on for a while through lovely rolling hills, past gated communities and smaller, more modest homes.  Soon we turned around, drove back, and went through the gate up a gravel drive.  A couple of men were working at an outbuilding and one followed us up in his pickup truck.  We pulled into the circular drive, but he got and directed us to drive to the back where we found a small parking lot.  Irene looked at me, and mouthed, "That was Tom T."  We walked around the front of their lovely, but not over-blown home to an out-building behind with a small sign saying "We Take in Strays."

Around back, Tom T. opened the door to his and Miss Dixie's office and studio area.  A comfortable outbuilding that looks unimpressive from the outside, but opens into a museum of the memorabilia of a life well lived as well as an active life still being created, now in the service of helping to develop young and deserving bluegrass performers.  Part museum as well as part working office and studio, the office area welcomes and impresses simultaneously.  Plaques, tributes, trophies, and awards mix comfortably with statues of Miss Dixie's beloved Bassett hounds and meaningful memorabilia collected over more than half a century of musical success. 

Tom T. Hall
Tom T. Hall grew up in Mount Olive, KY during the end of the depression and World War II.  At this time, many people were leaving Appalachia to move to the thriving factories ringing the Great Lakes.  He determined to stay home to finish school.  He says his gift for storytelling and language grew from his unsuccessful high school basketball career.  The coach, determining that while Tom T. looked like a basketball player, he really wasn't one, found a space for him in the school library.  Over the next year or so, Tom T. says he read the library, the whole thing: history, novels, poetry, and, I suppose, the dictionary and a couple of encyclopedias.  From this experience of self-education grew the gift of language and simple, poetic story telling that led to eleven number one country hits, twenty-six top ten songs, and several books, including one called How I Write Songs.  The list, from Harper Valley P.T.A to Old Dogs, Children & Watermelon Wine to The Day Clayton Delaney Died and too many more to list, is a catalog of country songs that has moved us through the years.  He's also had a mammoth career as a performer and developer of new talent.  All this led to his induction, in 2008, into the Country Music Hall of Fame.  On this day he's a little rushed, as he and country/bluegrass singer Jeff Orr are working to send a tiny GPS device down the septic tank.

But with all his acclaim and the worldly success that accompanied it, I prefer to think about the friendly, rough-hewn, simple man who ambled around the kitchen space in the office making us a cup of coffee (Don't Forget the Coffee, Billy Joe) while waiting for Miss Dixie to join us, making us comfortable and beginning to tell some of his story, because through it all, Tom T. is always a marvelous story teller.  After a while, Miss Dixie Hall comes in and joins us at the kitchen table.  Miss Dixie to everyone, including her husband, Dixie Hall is a woman of substance and achievement in her own right.  As she chats in her soft, mixed accent, her British accent comes clearly through the southern one laid on top of it.  Born in England, she somehow, from childhood onward was fascinated with the American west, cowboys, and western music.  Even as a child in England, she wrote poetry about America and Canada.  Early on, she performed in a children's hour on BBC radio and was involved in trick riding with a Wild West show.  Once, on her way to London with her boots and cowboy hat strapped to her valise, she met Tex Ritter, who happened to be in England performing.  She connected with the recording industry through the late Don Pierce, country music pioneer and founder of Starday Records.  Miss Dixie met Tom T. at a BMI event while wearing a mink stole belonging to Mother Maybelle Carter.  

Miss Dixie Hall

While both Tom T. and Miss Dixie claim to be retired, they currently lead an active life promoting the careers of deserving and emerging bluegrass performers.  A year or so ago, their record label, Blue Circle Records, produced Jerry Butler's new album Haulin' Grass, a collection of bluegrass and grassed country songs all dealing with a trucker theme.  This album has kicked off a new career for Butler as front man for his own band, Jerry Butler & the Blu-J's.  More recently, they have released an album by The Bluegrass Soul Pickers, a young and impressive band from northern Alabama, which recently showcased at the IBMA- World of Bluegrass convention in Nashville. Miss Dixie also produced the third volume of the  IBMA award winning project celebrating women in bluegrass, Daughters of Bluegrass, in which fifty women singers and pickers appear.  Tom T. and Miss Dixie continue to write songs which have contributed to many bluegrass performances and CD's in recent years.  Their catalog of songs, both secular and gospel, is huge, and many bluegrass performers, actually too many to detail, select numbers from it. 

The Wall

IBMA Awards


We were pleased to learn, a couple of months ago, that our friend Rebecca Long, formerly of Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike has joined Tom T. and Miss Dixie's staff as a graphic designer and recording engineer.  We enjoyed a pleasant reunion with her while visiting.  We also met Jeff Orr, a young country/bluegrass singer who's in semi-residence while working on the video of a new bluegrass song.  Both of these young people's career arcs are being supported by the efforts of the Halls, as have the careers of many other young and aspiring performers.  Their commitment to fowarding the music through helping and supporting young artists should stand as an example to many others.  

Rebecca Long

Jeff Orr
After a while, Tom T. and Jeff returned to their work of tracing the septic system and making a video of the GPS's progress through it, while Miss Dixie chatted about the importance of IBMA to helping young artists and seasoned professionals learn to school themselves "to understand their craft."  She also talked about her love for animals and her commitment to adopting rescue dogs into their canine family.  After giving us a copy of one of Tom T.'s books and both the cookbooks she'd assembled as part of her animal rescue efforts, as well as their complete catalog (What a treasure!), Miss Dixie bade us farewell, inviting us to return again,   Rebecca gave us a tour of the studio.

The Studio

 Miss Dixie's Dog Trophies

As we headed down the driveway, we took with us memories of time spent with two of the most memorable, interesting, and warm people ever to have allowed us into their world.  We're grateful and humbled that such opportunities have come our way.

Miss Dixie Hall

Tom T. Hall