Out There

Hall monitors

Real: The Tom T. Hall Project
Various artists

Nobody writes songs like Tom T. Hall anymore--nobody save Hall himself, who keeps recording despite Nashville's tendency to promote him as though he were dead. Maybe that's because somewhere between 1967 and, oh, 1973 Tom T. did his best work, said his piece, then became one of those underappreciated icons who gets his due only when he dies or when some alternaheroes and post-folkies pay homage to the great before he becomes the late-great. After all, it wasn't Nashville that came calling when the kids wanted to pay homage to the man best known--and forgotten--for having written "Harper Valley P.T.A." and "I Like Beer." Rather, it was the No Depression crowd alongside the crit-fave singer-songwriter set...or, wrapped all in one, Richard Buckner, who does a credible Chris Isaak when crooning "When Love is Gone."

But Tom T.'s the perfect songwriter for the young'uns to rally around: He's the son of a preacher man, an honest-to-God Southern boy, and an Army vet whose politics lean so far left you could mistake him for right. He never sentimentalized what his peers turned to sugar, never got caught up in jingoistic fascism, and when he ran out of things to write about at home, Hall hit the road, took notes, and came back singing about what he had seen. There was never anything too terribly fancy about his music: Hall, the stingiest genius, wrote like a man who didn't have a vowel, a note, or a second to waste. Either that, or he was just the accidental genius, a storyteller who didn't know how to screw things up by digging too deep. That's why "Don't Forget the Coffee Billy Joe" is one hell of a song whether done in Hall's common-man croak or R.B. Morris' rockabilly sneer. Nothing says real and real funny like the story of a kid walking through the snow for his daddy's caffeine and, oh yeah, his mama's pills.

Some of the stuff here's strictly novelty, no matter Tom T.'s estimable rep: Freedy Johnston will never make much out of "Coffee, Coffee, Coffee"; Syd Straw and the Skeletons have a blast romping through "Harper Valley P.T.A."; and Joel R.L. Phelps has a good-bad time pretending (ha!) to be a no-name superstar snowed in with the "Spokane Motel Blues." But Johnny Cash turns "I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew" into a bona fide protest song. Jonny Polonsky is the right ripe young age to make "Old Enough to Want To (Fool Enough to Try)" more than a middle-aged man's joke, and Ron Sexsmith proves he is indeed Jackson Browne on "Ships Go Out." And you know there's some magic in Tom T. when even Mary Cutrufello and Whiskeytown can't screw it up, no matter how hard they try.

--Robert Wilonsky


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