Unveiling the Tale Behind Tom T. Hall’s “Country Is”
The year was 1974, and the country music landscape was undergoing a transformative phase. Billboard Magazine’s December 7th issue that year bore the headline, “What Is Country Music? Charts Reflect Confusion.” This headline succinctly captured the prevailing dilemma among country radio programmers grappling with the surge of artists crossing over from the pop music scene, including renowned figures like John Denver and Olivia Newton-John, both CMA award-winners. This conundrum, however, was not a new one; it resurfaced in the limelight a couple of decades later with Bob McDill’s iconic creation, “Gone Country,” which soared to the top of the charts through Alan Jackson’s 1994 rendition.
It’s worth noting that even before 1974, several artists had straddled the boundaries of multiple music genres. However, what made the issue contentious was the perception that these artists had “imported” themselves to Nashville, rather than making Music City their home base from the outset. In response, certain radio stations adopted a stringent stance against records they deemed “non-country.” Concurrently, fifty Nashville performers joined forces to establish the Association of Country Entertainers (ACE), an organization determined to champion authentic country music. This initiative led to the estrangement and, in some cases, the exclusion of pop artists, with Olivia Newton-John being a prominent casualty of this movement.
Yet, the question that lingered in the air, “What Is Country?” found its eloquent answer in the form of Tom T. Hall’s #1 hit, “Country Is.” Tom T. Hall, an astute songwriter and performer, had a penchant for prose. Occasionally, he would craft liner notes for his albums, and on this occasion, he embarked on defining what country music meant to him. He had previously employed a similar approach when he penned the list that gave birth to his earlier hit, “I Love.” However, what began as mere liner notes soon evolved into a full-fledged song.
In “Country Is,” Hall articulates his perspective on what constitutes genuine country music. While he raises several thought-provoking points in his lyrics, Tom T. Hall ultimately attributes the best definition to Kris Kristofferson’s succinct declaration: “If it sounds country, it’s country.”
Ironically, just prior to releasing “Country Is,” Hall himself had experimented with the boundaries of country music through his infectious track, “That Song Is Driving Me Crazy.” This unconventional song featured a Dixieland jazz ensemble in its closing, a far cry from the traditional country arrangements of the time. Despite this experimental twist, the song ascended to #2 on Billboard’s country singles chart, demonstrating the evolving nature of the genre.
In a twist of fate, Tom T. Hall resigned from the Grand Ole Opry at the time, citing restrictions on performing with horns on stage as his reason. This situation mirrored the Opry’s historical stance on drums, which it had forbidden for many years, even leading to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys being kept off the show in the 1940s. Fortunately, both rules have since been lifted, underscoring the evolving and inclusive spirit of country music.
In conclusion, “Country Is” by Tom T. Hall not only provided a timely response to the age-old question of defining country music but also exemplified the genre’s ability to adapt and embrace diverse influences while staying true to its roots. The story behind this song serves as a testament to the enduring allure of country music and its capacity to transcend boundaries, both musically and philosophically.
Artist: Tom T. Hall
Album: Greatest Hits Vol. 2
Genres: Children’s Music, Country
Country is sittin’ on the back porch
Listen to the whippoorwills late in the day
Country is mindin’ your business
Helpin’ a stranger if he comes your way
Country is livin’ in the city
Knowin’ your people, knowin’ your kind
Country is (country is) what you’ll make it
Country is (country is) all in your mind
Country is workin’ for a living
Thinking your own thoughts, lovin’ your town
Country is teachin’ your children
Find out what’s right, to stand your ground
And country is a-havin’ the good times
Listen to the music, singin’ your part
Country is (country is) walking in the moonlight
Country is (country is) all in your heart