Girl Power

The memories faded long ago, like old pictures left too long in the unforgiving August sun. The applause turned to echoes; the echoes to silence. Whatever fame she once possessed--and it wasn't enough to land her in a single history book, which is history's loss--has vanished, which suits her just fine. She's 73 now, so far removed from the spotlight and stage she barely recalls what happened a thousand yesterdays ago--and even then, she remembers only when prompted, which is hardly ever. There are few people left who remember the days when the tiny cowgirl stood, just barely, on the stage of a wrestling venue to sing her pretty, venomous songs about drunk, cheating, honky-tonk husbands. But those who are left have long since moved on, as has she: Helen Hall long ago traded in songs of sin for psalms of salvation. Today, you can find her outside Palestine, Texas, singing backup in the Fairfield Christian Center choir on Sunday mornings, alongside her daughter and two other women. She swears she's never been happier. "Happy as a lark," she chimes.

But there was a time, in the mid-1950s, when Hall was this close to stardom: She had a recording contract (with Decca's Coral subsidiary), a starring slot on the Big "D" Jamboree housed in the once-venerable Sportatorium on Industrial Boulevard, and enough fans to have been voted among the best female country singers in more than one magazine (often, ahead of women who would become legends). More importantly, she had her own songs: Hall was among the few performers, male or female, to pen her own material, much of which even now sounds ahead of its time--these feminist anthems, these pissed-off missives about carousing husbands being told off by their indignant spouses. "You don't care about your home/You don't care about your wife," she sang in 1955, before offering the ultimate slapdown: "You're the perfect example of wasted life."

"It seemed to me that was the theme of the day," Hunt says now, laughing at the mention of all those old songs about honky-tonk husbands. "All the big writers, like Webb Pierce, they all seemed to write about that sort of thing. I wrote 'Wasted Life' because it rang a bell. I was somewhere playing a show, and I heard a girl say she was mad at the fellow she was with. She walked away and said, 'You're the perfect example of a wasted life,' and it just rang a bell. I don't know. I never thought much about it. I just wrote about different things, but it's mostly about cheating husbands. That's what country music was all about anyway. They don't do it now, because they got all those long-hair boys from Nashville changing the music altogether. It isn't all that groovy anymore."

At first listen, "Wasted Life" and so many of Hall's other songs--among them "What Else Does She Do Like Me?," "Rock Till My Baby Comes Home," "Hello Baby," and "Honky Tonk Husband," some recorded in the 1950s and others from as late as 1973--sound like proverbial classics, something you heard forever ago on a jukebox somewhere; they carry a familiar sting and sway with a familiar swing. But don't be fooled: They're strangers to your ears, songs that have been buried away in storage for decades--lost and forgotten, especially by the woman who cut those tracks. To Hall--who once played the Jamboree on crutches after a 1955 car accident--they might as well have never existed at all.

She was reminded of their existence only recently, when she received a call from David Dennard, a man who's made a career (if not exactly a living) out of rescuing deserving, discarded musicians out of history's dustbin. Dennard began the 1990s by releasing albums by some of Dallas' best-known young bands (among them Tripping Daisy and Hagfish) on his Dragon Street Records label; he ended the century by unearthing and restoring to glory such abandoned heroes as "Groovey" Joe Poovey and Johnny Dollar. It was Dennard who also unearthed the "lost Dallas sessions" of rockabilly icon Gene Vincent, releasing them on an astonishing CD in 1998, and who last year issued The Big "D" Jamboree Live! Volumes 1 & 2, a double-disc collection of recordings made on the Big "D" Jamboree stage in the 1950s by the likes of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Ronnie Dawson, Jerry Reed, and Wanda Jackson.

Dennard called Hall to tell her he had in his possession some recordings she'd made in 1955 at the studio of producer Jim Beck, among them "Honky Tonk Husband" and "Wasted Life," and some demos she cut in a Fort Worth home in 1957. He told her he wanted to release those songs on a CD he was planning to release titled The Gals of the Big "D" Jamboree, a companion disc to last year's two-CD release. The collection, he told her, was going to feature nothing but performances by women who had appeared on the Sportatorium stage, among them Hall, Charline Arthur, Sunshine Ruby, The Lovett Singers, Sherry Davis, and Betty Lou Lobb--all women relegated to the margins of country and rockabilly history. When Dennard phoned, Hall recalls, she was "surprised to no end."