various artists: Real: The Tom T. Hall Project

various artists
Real: The Tom T. Hall Project

ALTHOUGH HE'S NO longer a household name, '70s country icon Tom T. Hall is among the best, and most natural, songwriters American popular music has produced. As a musical short-story writer, his only competitors are Randy Newman (characterization, scope, wit) and Woody Guthrie (sheer volume). Best known for penning the megahit "Harper Valley PTA," and destined to endure for the realist narrative style he perfected on the landmark 1971 record In Search of a Song, Hall has probably written 1,000 tunes. Some are stunning; some are pure dross. At least 100 are worth knowing.

More renowned for composition than performance, Hall was the sort of genius who could shine through a variety of stylistic lenses, making him the perfect subject (and there aren't many left) for a tribute album. To this end, Real: The Tom. T. Hall Project enlists a couple of old-timers (Johnny Cash and Ralph Stanley), along with a bunch of younger alt-country stars (Iris DeMent, Whiskeytown) and singer-songwriter types (Freedy Johnston, Ron Sexsmith).

The catch is that Real doesn't so much establish Hall's greatness as a songwriter as reveal how much his songs' success depended on his offhand performance style. Hall's writing at its worst was sentimental; at its best, though, it was often about sentimentality. Yet his performances were rarely saccharine. Hall's matter-of-fact delivery allowed significance to seep out from beneath the accumulated details, or from under the carefully placed moment of tragicomic peripeteia. It was all in the songs; nothing flashy was needed to complete the task.

The least successful performers on Real are those who invest misplaced emotion or seriousness into songs that don't need such dressing. Indie country stars Calexico make the self-indicting humor of "Tulsa Telephone Book" seem like overwrought tragedy, while the usually stark Joel R.L. Phelps overemotes his way through "Spokane Motel Blues." Similarly, Joe Henry seems to forget his gentle 1993 take on Hall's "I Flew over Our House Last Night," and misses the nuances of "Homecoming" by cranking up the volume.

Much better are Kelly Willis's take on "That's How I Got to Memphis." Willis's soulful vocal is a perfect match for one of Hall's most moving first-person lyrics. R.B. Morris is the only performer to actually top the original. Hall's version of "Don't Forget the Coffee Billy Joe," at first has the feel of a flashback ("Daddy couldn't get work then and I was just a child/God was on vacation for a while"). But ultimately, Morris's freewheelin' rendition brings the story of hard times into the present.

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