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"I think somebody said that there was a time in Nashville," Hall says, "when me and Kristofferson were the only two guys in town who could describe Dolly Parton without using our hands." This recollection gives way to a chest-rumbling chuckle.
In addition to his command of adjectives, Hall naturally took up topics and perspectives that defied narrow-minded notions of what country music was and who country fans were. The honky-tonk blues and sentimental tunes that were popular in country at the time weren't really his thing. "I wasn't very good at that," he says, "because I had been studying to be ... the Great American Novelist."
At first, following his instincts led to an uphill battle with his publisher. "I'd sing a song I'd written," Hall says, "a story-song of some kind. They'd say, 'You better get off that stuff and write some real songs. We're paying you 50 dollars a week.' "
All that changed with "Harper Valley P.T.A.," a story-song about a single mom who takes up for herself in the face of small-town hypocrisy. It became a huge country and pop hit for Jeannie C. Riley, and even spawned a movie.
"When I wrote the song and it hit to the extent it did and became a sort of cultural byword thing, that sort of astounded me," says Hall, "because I tapped into something: We all have our vices and shortcomings. Social status doesn't have anything to do with it, or money, or anything. That was really a wake-up call. And it was probably the novel I had intended to write. ... 'Harper Valley' was probably where I was going with my writing in my head to say something that would connect universally."
Kristofferson made his own forays into territory that had been more or less off limits in country music, including nonchalant references to sex ("Help Me Make it Through the Night" and "For the Good Times") and drugs ("Sunday Morning Coming Down").
"He opened up that door," says Bare. "He made it OK to take it in the bedroom. 'Come and lay down by my side, put your warm and tender body next to mine.' ... 'Sunday Morning Coming Down,' everybody knows what that was. And [Johnny] Cash made it OK to say 'stoned' [when he cut the song]. It was just honesty. Kris was writing about his lifestyle."
Over a beer (or five) at Tootsie's, camaraderie gained in the songwriter scene. But that wasn't the only environment where song ideas and creative energy were thrown around.
"So we'd hang out at Tootsie's and we'd drink beer," Hall says, "but Tootsie's wasn't the only place. There were some after-hours places, mostly people's houses and things. You know, pickers traditionally stay up all night. So when they'd close the beer joints or Tootsie's, we'd sort of call each other on the phone and they'd say, 'Well, so-and-so's cooking some chicken or making some barbecue,' and we'd just all wind up there and have these famous guitar pullings."
"Pull" — or "pulling" — is an apt term. There was an element of mutual stretching and challenge to the act of passing the guitar around and hearing what songwriting peers were coming up with. Says Tillis, "We'd hang around and we would try to impress the other writers, you know."
Bare fell into the habit of instigating guitar pulls before he moved to town. "I'd come down here from the road, from California or whatever, and I'd bundle up a bunch of songs," he says. "I'd have five or six that I'd written. And I'd get a room at the Andrew Jackson [Hotel] at the time. I remember distinctly getting a room with a big washtub, galvanized washtub full of ice and beer, and Roger and Willie and Harlan and a whole bunch would come up and we'd start passing the guitar around singing songs.
"By the time Willie and Roger and all of them sang their songs, I might wind up with one that I thought was brilliant enough to sing. And then it would be 'See what you guys think of this.' Because I was in the big leagues then."
The idea of a gang of gifted outsiders is powerfully appealing, almost a classic tale of underdogs making good. But, as Hall points out in his patient, perceptive way, it's also a tad idyllic.
"We all knew one another, right?" he begins. "But it might be romantic to say we were all big pals or we were the Rat Pack of the mid-'60s or whatever. We were competitors, you know. We sort of kept an eye on one another. Like prize fighters circling in a ring, metaphorically speaking."
Given the shadows the Tootsie's faithful still cast, and the lasting impact they've had — one need look no further than Jamey Johnson's brooding country singer-songwriter opus The Guitar Song, which features Tillis and Kristofferson covers, a co-write with Bare and nods to Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran — it's tempting to imagine that they'd aimed to leave such a mark all along. Of course, the narrative surrounding the songs, the writers and what was in the air in that time and place has grown with the benefit of hindsight and generations of journalism and scholarship.
"The first myth," says Hall, "is that we came to Nashville to change it. That's the first myth. The second myth is that we enjoyed it. We were just trying to stay alive. We were trying to find enough money to buy a beer or rent an apartment or put some gas in the car. We were professional songwriters and there weren't very many of us. When we first got to Nashville they would not let a songwriter have a telephone. You had to make a deposit if you were a songwriter. You couldn't just sign for a phone and they'd send you a bill. You had to pay in advance in case you skipped town."
Still, hearing how Hall reacted to a song of Nelson's — and Kristofferson to one of Miller's, and so on — it seems they sensed they were doing something new, even if they gave no thought to how important it would be. It also seems that they fully expected, and expect, the changes in country music to continue, to not simply stop with their contributions.
And things are indeed different now. Songwriters aren't the flight risks they once were; the most successful among them make very nice livings. Also, everybody knows this is Music City.
A lot of this came as a surprise, if not to the architects of the modern country music industry, then to the relatively small number of folks who were beating the streets, writing the songs and downing the beers at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge some 50 years ago.
"No one — I don't care who — no one," Steve Bess says, "could have ever guessed that that place would be as famous as it is today, had they been down there then."
Special thanks to senior historian John Rumble at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
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