What a songwriter wants
Born May 25, 1936, in small-town Olive Hill, Kentucky, Hall wrote his first song — called “Haven’t I Been Good To You,” according to the Country Music Hall of Fame — at age nine.
Hall, the son of a preacher, quit school after his mother died and a hunting accident left his father disabled. He cut his teeth playing bluegrass, often taking the stage after shifts at a local garment factory. He took a job at a Kentucky radio station before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1957, serving in Germany — where he sometimes performed original numbers on the Armed Forces Radio Network.
Hall moved to Nashville on New Year’s Day 1964, after gaining the ear of Music Row publisher Jimmy Key. He once told The Tennessean he was delighted to move to a city with a great newspaper and a great bar, the latter referring to what now stands as Lower Broadway haunt Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.
“What else could a songwriter want?” he told The Tennessean in 2008.
Hall began writing songs that other artists recorded, including “Hello Vietnam,” his first No. 1, cut by Johnnie Wright in 1965. By 1967, he signed with Mercury Records and began releasing solo music, starting with “I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew.”
“Dew” — which follows a traveler struggling to understand human cruelty — gave listeners a glimpse of empathy that would become one of Hall’s signatures.
Hall sings: “The first strange town I was ever in
The county was hangin’ a man
Nobody cared if he lived or died
And I just didn’t understand
So I washed my face in the morning dew
Bathed my soul in the sun
Washed my face in the morning dew
And kept on movin’ along”
In 1968, Jeannie C. Riley released “Harper Valley “P.T.A.,” a song written by Hall that transports listeners to a world where a single mother challenges judgements from small-town hypocrites. It came at a pivotal time for songs by women in Nashville, following Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe” and arriving the same year as Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City” and Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”
And Hall crafted the story from real-world experience. As a kid in Kentucky, he said he once saw a “socially disenfranchised” woman storm “the local aristocracy [to] read them the riot act, so to speak.”
The song begins: “I wanna tell you all a story ’bout
A Harper Valley widowed wife
Who had a teenage daughter
Who attended Harper Valley Junior High
Well, her daughter came home one afternoon
And didn’t even stop to play
And she said, “mom, I got a note here from the Harper Valley PTA”
“I wrote the song 30 years later,” he told country music website The Boot in 2016. “That song was my novel. I had been reading Sinclair Lewis. As a young man, I read Lewis’ novels ‘Babbitt’ and ‘Elmer Gantry,’ which is about hypocrisy. ‘Babbitt’ is, of course, about the social structure of the small town. So, being a big Sinclair Lewis fan, when I wrote ‘Harper Valley,’ I incorporated elements of ‘Elmer Gantry’ into the song.”
A decade later, a film inspired by the song — starring Barbara Eden — was released.