As a rule, three things plague most tribute albums: (1) excessive piety or nostalgia for the tributee; (2) hubris on the part of the interpreters; and (3) pure pointlessness. We'll ignore the rapacity of record labels looking for one more way to cash in on a Sinatra or an Elvis -- that's a given. But what, if anything, contributes to a successful homage?
Ultimately, tribute albums need some basis for reinterpretation. Sinatra and Elvis, for example, were themselves primarily performers, interpreters -- great ones, and no less important because of it. Their art existed in the moment of their singing, their phrasing, so covering their performances in tribute sheds no new light and only reveals the weaknesses of those paying homage.
The newly released Real: The Tom T. Hall Project (Sire) takes as its subject one the most subtle but intensely catalytic figures in American music and succeeds at the point where most tributes turn dull. Seventeen acts -- including Calexico, Whiskeytown, Johnny Cash, Ralph Stanley, Syd Straw and the Skeletons, Ron Sexsmith and Victoria Williams -- radically reimagine Hall's best and best-known work. There's a purposefulness to the collection, a result of Hall's peculiar status in American music. He is revered by fellow writers, but as country music slides further and further from its moorings, Hall is becoming more and more obscure.
Widely known for "Harper Valley P.T.A.," Hall's finest work pushes beyond that rather contrived slice-of-life hit. His '70s albums for Mercury, especially In Search of a Song and The Rhymer and Other Five and Dimers, combine the simplest blues-based country melodies -- his songs are often melodically identical -- with unprecedented details, complexly layered narratives and an ability to document the rural working class of the South in their own language. He constructs whole songs from the raw snatches of dialogue he's remembered or recorded in his journalistlike travels around the South. In fact, it's New Journalism -- Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer -- that his songs most often recall -- that semifictional reporting that merges with self-reflection and self-criticism. "He shook my hand and said, 'I'm glad I met you, Mr. Hall/But I guess there ain't a song here after all,'" he sings in "Kentucky, Feb. 27, '71." Hall always told the stories of songs themselves as much as the real people and places he encountered.
A young Tennessee songwriter, R.B. Morris, tells me, "Hall wrote things that would become hits in Nashville, but he said he then wanted to write songs known as 'Tom T. Hall songs.' That's when he went back to his childhood, the people he knew, and he drew upon those details that aren't normally in songs. He did that, and he brought something new to country writing. He emerged as the word man, the one with an edge as a writer." Morris covers "Don't Forget the Coffee Billy Joe," attracted in part by the song's combination of rural details of "Warm Mornin'" stoves, pool halls, hog slaughter and woodcutting but also by the simple, flashing wisdom of its best line: "And I was just a child and God was on vacation for a while." "In a very easy way," Morris says, "so that it's not too heavy or doesn't lose the symmetry of the song, he'll introduce things that allow the listener to go wherever they wish to."
For Joey Burns -- of Calexico, OP8 and Giant Sand -- Hall is the figure of the writer "always on the road, always searching for something." As part of Calexico, Burns covers "Tulsa Telephone Book," an obsessive tale of reading the phone book to find a lost lover's number: "I thought that rather than do it in the same vein, we'd do it the way we've been playing, in a minor mode and a Latin feel. When I heard Johnny Cash would be on the record, I thought, Shit, this is my chance to tip my hat to Cash for using horns on songs like 'Ring of Fire.' I wanted to take the song to a different place. I liked changing the girl's name to Juanita from Shirley, changing the setting a bit. I also love his dark sense of humor -- you know the line 'If you see a girl named Shirley/Juanita with ribbons in her hair, won't you tell her she's wanted on the phone.'"
Likewise, Iris DeMent turns in a surprisingly edgy version of Hall's hit "I Miss a Lot of Trains." "I first became familiar with Tom T. Hall through my brother Glen," DeMent says. "He was a collector of country records. I was about 10 years old, so my familiarity goes way back. But I really paid attention to him as a songwriter when I was an adult and started writing. I appreciated his abilities, and I always liked his voice a lot. It just so happened I was doing a Tom T. song on the road with my band when (record producer) Justin Bass talked to me. If I had been playing solo, I wouldn't have chosen that song. We were foolin' around at soundcheck, and that's how I picked it. There are other songs of Tom's I love that I could have done. I don't know what draws me to a song. I'm not that intellectual about music. Something about a song will just hit me and I'll want to hear it again or sing it. It just felt good, so that's how we did it."
Joe Henry, who made some of his early records backed by members of country-rockers the Jayhawks, also grew up with Hall's songs. His musical vision may have moved beyond country, but he's taken Hall with him. "When I started to work on 'Homecoming,'" Henry says of his version of Hall's classic narrative, "I sampled a drum loop from N.W.A.'s 'Straight Outta Compton.' But nobody was comfortable with leaving that in there, wondering if Dr. Dre or Ice Cube would come looking for us at some point. So I completely recreated the loop -- a similar groove but without their screams in the background. Once I had to change the drum loop, I heard the song in a different way. The older version wasn't as fragmented as the new one. Initially I was treating sounds as if imagining a unified band, but that's not how I was hearing it a year later; that's not how I've been hearing anything lately. I prefer a fragmented approach. Even if there's a guitar player sitting there with me, I prefer it to sound like a sample I flew in, like found pieces, a collage."
The key, however, to Hall's narrative craft -- one that has, in Justin Bass' words, made him both an "international superstar and a complete unknown" -- rests in the balance between melancholy and humor, in finding the human truth where those emotions coexist. "Richard Pryor said anything that's really true is funny," Henry explains. "You laugh out of recognition. I laughed when I heard 'Homecoming' the first time because it was such a marvel of truth. Hall's songs are like Raymond Carver stories, the way he speaks in this dispassionate voice of things of great passion.