Known as "The Storyteller," Hall was renowned for hard-hitting, sometimes satirical adult story songs. Jeannie C. Riley's sassy 1968 rendition of Hall's "Harper Valley PTA" topped both the country and pop charts. But this time, Hall had a softer, more innocent (but no less witty) approach in mind. One tune, "I Love" had been a hit single already, aimed at adult fans.
While Hall and wife Dixie had no children, a visit to his farm by two of his nephews and their questions about animals and nature that surrounded them inspired him to plunge whole-hog into a kids' album addressing those very things. With a reformulated "I Love" (minus the references to bourbon) he wrote ten other originals to create Songs of Fox Hollow, which made it to # 3 on the Billboard Country Album charts in 1974.
Move ahead to April 7, 2010, the date Nashville Tennessean senior music writer and lifelong Tom T Hall fan Peter Cooper became a first time dad. Cooper, who commented via email, readily admits, "I've always got Tom T. Hall on the brain," became a first-time dad that day and already planned his son Baker Wiley Cooper's first-ever musical experience. "I wanted to play him Tom T.'s "I Love" before he heard anything else," he recalls, adding "in fact, I played it for him in the hospital room when they handed him back to me."
A singer-songwriter who regularly performs with Eric Brace, a former Washington Post arts reporter, Cooper also had Fox Hollow on the brain after his son's birth. "That got me to thinking about how kids aren't growing up now with Fox Hollow," he continues. "They're growing up with purple dinosaurs and Disney creations."
Duly inspired, he approached 75 year old Hall, who resides on his 60 acre Fox Hollow farm near Franklin, Tennessee, south of Nashville. Cooper pitched the idea of re-recording the entire album with Brace and a group of guest vocalists and instrumentalists at Hall's home studio. Cooper and Brace, whose collaborations have earned justifiable critical acclaim, began recruiting other Americana performers, country and rock legends for sessions that took place in June, 2010.
I Love: Tom T Hall's Songs of Fox Hollow was released this week on Nashville-based Red Beet Records, owned by Brace and his wife Mary Ann Werner (a Westmoreland County native) in conjunction with the Country Music Hall of Fame's CMF Records.
This is the video press kit about the making of the album.
All twelve performances are low-key, in the spirit of the original album, to better emphasize the lyric. Patty Griffin gives "I Love" heartfelt delicacy while Buddy Miller delivers a snappy take on "Sneaky Snake," with potent interchanges from twang guitar icon Duane Eddy and pedal steel guitar legend Lloyd Green, a frequent Brace-Cooper collaborator.
"Everybody Loves to Hear A Bird Sing" features Cooper, Eddy and Baker Maultsby. Country legend Bobby Bare (of "Detroit City" fame) delivers a heartfelt "I Care," While "I Like to Feel Pretty Inside" is interpreted by Jim Lauderdale. Brace and his band Last Train Home revive "The Mysterious Fox of Fox Hollow," and Elizabeth Cook and husband Jim Carroll reimagine "I Wish I Had A Million Friends."
Tommy Cash, Johnny's younger brother. gives "Ole Lonesome George The Basset" the Cash spirit, which makes sense since the lyric always had a Johnny Cash reference since it was based on a true story. Hall, joined Red Beet artist and former Emmylou Harris background vocalist Fayssoux Starling McLean for "I Made A Friend of a Flower Today," a newly written number by Hall and his wife.
Music Row tried and largely failed at marketing country to teenagers for decades until Taylor Swift broke through. No doubt an album like Fox Hollow, aimed at even younger listeners, presents its own challenges in an era when country's demographic is broader than ever, but not yet at pre-teen level.
Even so, the Brace-Cooper re-imagination is quite effective, satisfying Cooper's goal of, as he stated, offering "a joyful thanks to Tom T. for writing these songs that touched me from an early age and that continue to resonate (and to teach) today. And I wanted my little boy to have a record of me and my friends singing and playing songs that I figure he'll like a lot."
Note: Brace and Cooper, accompanied by Dobro virtuoso Mike Auldridge, will perform at SummerSounds in Greensburg's St. Clair Park on July 15.