Mainstream country demographics are no great mystery these days: It's music for adults. Martina McBride's new power-pop single "Teenage Daughters" doesn't talk to high school girls — it aims for their stressed-out parents. When Taylor Swift spoke directly to 15-year-old hearts, she broke the mold. What you won't hear on 21st century country radio are songs for kids.
If that sounds terribly obvious, it wasn't a forgone conclusion in 1974, two decades before the radio format became airtight. Back then, you would've heard country music's most highly evolved, down-to-earth storyteller, Tom T. Hall, interrupt a seven-year string of heavyweight hits with the less serious subject matter of "I Love," "Sneaky Snake" and "I Care." All three charted (two hit No. 1) and came from his album Songs of Fox Hollow. Its intended audience was spelled out on the LP jacket: "For Children of All Ages."
Thanks to years of kiddie schlock like Barney & Friends, it's hard to picture children of all ages finding any common musical ground now. But Hall was not one to talk down to his listeners, whatever their ages. Neither was his country-singing peer Bobby Bare, who released the successful Shel Silverstein-penned children's album Singin' in the Kitchen soon after, or Johnny Cash, who followed with his own.
Rather than complain about the fact that country radio isn't as open as it used to be, musical partners and Tom T. Hall fans Eric Brace and Peter Cooper decided last year to engage in aesthetic activism, gathering a group of likeminded pickers and singers — Jon Byrd, Jim Lauderdale, Elizabeth Cook and Tim Carroll, to name a few — to re-record Songs of Fox Hollow at Fox Hollow, the stately 60-acre Franklin farm Hall shares with his wife and present-day co-writer Miss Dixie.
The new version — dubbed I Love: Tom T. Hall's Songs of Fox Hollow — is a joint release between Brace's East Nashville-based indie Red Beet Records and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's CMF Records. "The motto of the Hall of Fame is 'Honor Thy Music,' " says Brace. "I like to think that we do that at Red Beet." (Hall turns 75 on May 25 — a day before Dixie's birthday — and they'll celebrate all these occasions with a star-studded release show and cake at the Hall of Fame.)
But making the original Fox Hollow wasn't nearly as strategic. It all started when Hall's 4- and 5-year-old nephews flew over from France for a visit.
"They came over here and they spent the summer with us," he says, sitting in a sunlit room at Fox Hollow, his Country Music Hall of Fame plaque adorning the wall. "So I got to following them around this farm here. We went down by the lake out here one day, and a little snake went wiggling through the water. So we named him 'Sneaky Snake.' And then we made up this story about him."
That wasn't the only creature on the premises to grab their attention. There was also a mysterious fox, a spunky one-legged chicken, hungry birds, a baby goat and a barn full of animated animals. Capturing realism with a butterfly net — that's what Hall did on infamous song-hunting trips that led to other albums. He'd hop in the car and drive until he wound up in some little town with a beer joint where he didn't know anybody and nobody knew him, and he'd take it all in with a novelist's eye.
During his summer with the kids, the clever yet plainspoken songs started coming. "Now, I'm getting up in the morning — I'm a morning person — and I'm writing all this stuff down, almost absentmindedly," he says. "Pretty soon I got a whole bunch of these things. And I'm not writing them for these kids. And I'm not writing them for an album. I'm just writing them down because they're there."
His producer, Jerry Kennedy, didn't initially view them as album material either. "He said, 'I don't know. You're famous for [singing about] drinking beer and getting out of jail, working in graveyards. I don't see this as a big career move.' " Still, he agreed to let Hall come in and record them.
Once Songs of Fox Hollow was out, Hall couldn't help but notice a new kind of fan mail. "I got hundreds and hundreds of people — kindergarten teachers — who would have the class paint [the images from] 'I Love,' " he says. "One of the kids would do a baby duck, another one would do a pickup truck, another would do some rain, another would do a slow-moving train and so on."
For all the risk involved in drastically changing the subject at the height of his career, Hall doesn't mention much backlash. "This one ol' fella up in West Virginia ... [would] watch me every Saturday evening, about 6 o'clock I would come on TV," he says. "So I rolled out one day and started singing 'Sneaky Snake.' And he threw a beer bottle at the television. He had this phobia about snakes. He said, 'That son of a bitch. I'm never gonna turn on that TV [show] that he's on for the rest of my life.' "
Hall held his children's songs to as high a standard as songs for older ears, like "A Week in a Country Jail." Says Cooper, "In Tom T.'s case, I don't think there's much difference at all in songs that were written for adults versus ones that were written for children. ... He didn't talk in the funny voice that people use when they talk to kids. He didn't create some sort of cute, fuzzy, fake animals. And he didn't really even pull any punches."
If there's little difference in quality between this album and other out-of-print Hall collections, it raises the question, "Why choose this one for a remake?"
"I got to thinking, 'Well, what's the first song that I want my kid to hear on earth?' " says Cooper, a new dad. "And really quickly I thought of 'I Love.' That would be the first song I would want him to hear. And it was. ... I had kind of an iPod jambox in the hospital room and held him and played 'I Love.' "
It was high time, he decided, to reintroduce the public to all of these songs, plus one new addition: the whimsical Tom T. and Dixie co-write "I Made a Friend of a Flower Today."
Hall sings on that song, but not on the others. Bare — who cut a number of Hall's songs decades back — gives "I Care" a thoroughly charming, grandfatherly reading. Buddy Miller takes "Sneaky Snake" as seriously as any hillbilly blues number he's sung; paired with Duane Eddy's sinewy baritone licks, it's an irresistible treatment. And during "I Love," the way Patty Griffin drapes certain notes in sumptuous vibrato couldn't be more different from Hall's conversational singing.
"They took these songs and they made 'em their own," says Hall. "Nobody asked me, 'Is this OK?' I was flattered by that. I said, 'Hey, if we're gonna do a new album, best thing to do is do a new album.'"
This is really sweet melody.
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