by Jason Gubbels Kicking the Canon Music

Tom T. Hall | In Search of a Song

There were country music concept albums before In Search of a Song and there would be many after, from modern sounds in country & western music to tributes to the best damn fiddle players in the world and red headed strangers. But Tom T. Hall’s modest eleven song, thirty-one minute offering stands apart from the rest, perhaps because it’s not really a concept album at all. The packaging certainly works to suggest some kind of narrative arc, with Hall standing at the ready aside a rural fisherman, open notebook and portable tape recorder at his feet, while polaroids sprawl across a road map alongside coffee and cigarettes on the back cover. The idea was clearly to present Hall as a modern day song hunter, as dogged in his pursuit as Alan Lomax or Francis Child, with the twist being that our troubadour was seeking inspiration for his own compositions rather than the forgotten ballads and mountain breakdowns of America’s back roads. But that’s about as far as you can take the thematic structure. Hall’s journey takes him from his home base of Nashville to deep winter Iowa and perennially sunny Los Angeles, with two swerves into country hokum to wrap things up (“Second Hand Flowers” and “Ramona’s Revenge,” a weepy deathbed realization and a jokey deaf/blind morality tale, respectively, portended the shlocky tendencies Hall would soon be less deft at sifting out, ie, “One Hundred Children,” “I Love”). And although the album utilized the cream of Nashville’s A-Team to deliver the goods — Harold Bradley, Pig Robbins, Charlie McCoy, Jerry Kennedy — Hall leaned for inspiration most heavily upon his own state of Kentucky, from birthplace Olive Hill (pop. 1400) to the dreary mining town of Hyden, host to the then-recent Hurricane Creek disaster of late December 1970.

In a nation bent asunder by civil unrest and political divisions, Hall tried to understand the youth fleeing this particular Kentucky hollow rather than shake his head at generational divides.

Hall’s no kind of sentimentalist when it comes to tracking the damage done to communities and landscapes at the hands of mining companies: “temporary looking houses,” thirty-eight dead miners, and the stray thought that if Jesus returned soon like the hand made signs dotting the region suggested he would, “well man, he’d sure be disappointed.” “Trip To Hyden” isn’t a Woody Guthrie-type expose, however — Hall throughout chooses calm exposition to get his stories across, along with the kind of sly tolerance that marked his star-making 1968 chart smash for Jeannie C. Riley, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” (just how open-minded that song was became clear years later when a recently born-again Riley publicly distanced herself from her biggest hit). Our narrator may be a country boy, but there’s plenty of detours into urban territory on In Search of a Song — like a young boy dreaming each night of the city or Hall himself gamely admitting, “I like California.” And there’s little in the way of rural sentimentality: a working farmer frets over feeding his hogs during a health scare, a guitar picker bedeviled by drink gets ostracized before his death, an old man in the Kentucky hills realizes traditions die out for a reason. That last encounter comes courtesy of “Kentucky Feb. 27, ’71,” an epic at 3:17 propelled along by chiming Roger McGuinn-style 12-string electric, in which Hall grapples with the fallout of wanting something better for a new generation. In a nation bent asunder by civil unrest and political divisions, Hall tried to understand the youth fleeing this particular Kentucky hollow rather than shake his head at generational divides. Songwriter travels the land, discovers things to be simultaneously more complicated and simpler than he’d suspected, does his best to reject red state / blue state reductions. Quite a concept, actually.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.

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