The Storyteller retold

Seattle's Joel Phelps joins 16 others on a new Tom T. Hall tribute album.

Growing up on the AM radio of late-1960s Montana, Seattle musician Joel Phelps says it was virtually impossible not to be exposed to the music of Tom T. Hall. Often called the poet laureate of country music or the Storyteller, Hall has written more than 1,000 songs, some of which he recorded; others he offered to the likes of Dave Dudley, Bobby Bare, Faron Young, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, and Johnny Cash.

Various Artists

REAL: The Tom T. Hall Project, Vol. 1 (Sire)

For Chicago record producer Justin Bass, Hall’s name didn’t become familiar until late in 1993, when Bass discovered in the liner notes to Joe Henry’s Kindness of the World that the author of that record’s “I Flew Over Our House Last Night” wasn’t Henry, but Hall. Now Phelps, Bass, and Henry have come together to pay tribute to the storytelling songwriter on REAL: The Tom T. Hall Project, Vol. 1, featuring 17 Hall compositions reinterpreted by 17 different artists, including Cash, Iris Dement, Richard Buckner, Mary Cutrufello, and Whiskeytown.

For Bass and co-producer Mark Linn, the project has been nearly four years in the making, beginning with a telephone call to Henry and jump-started by Cash’s early contribution. “The first domino fell when Johnny Cash called us,” Bass remembers. “He said, ‘I heard about your project and I want to do “Morning Dew.”‘ We said, ‘Yes sir, Mr. Cash.'”

In a remote Australian cabin, Cash, accompanied by a lonesome guitar, recorded “I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew,” taken from Hall’s first album and originally written for Flatt & Scruggs. As word of Cash’s participation spread, songs began pouring in: Henry’s eerie “Homecoming”; Kelly Willis acing “That’s How I Got to Memphis”; Ralph Stanley and Ralph II reworking “The Water Lilly”; former Jayhawks member Mark Olson and Victoria Williams singing duet on “It Sure Can Get Cold in Des Moines”; Freedy Johnston’s finger-snapping “Coffee Coffee Coffee”; and Syd Straw & the Skeletons’ blistering version of Hall’s no. 1 hit (Jeannie C. Riley’s 1968 single) “Harper Valley P.T.A.”

While living in Seattle in 1994, Linn offered Phelps a slot on the album-in-progress. After perusing a list of songs, Phelps chose “Spokane Motel Blues” from Hall’s The Rhymer And Other Five and Dimers. In 1973, the song sparked controversy in Spokane, and Hall apologized with a special benefit concert. “It seemed like a natural song for me to do,” says Phelps. “I liked the chords and I liked the idea. I guess if I were Tom T. Hall, this is how I’d have done it.”

Backed by the Downer Trio (Rob Mercer on bass and William Herzog on drums), Phelps slows down Hall’s buoyant, honky-tonk version, twisting it to heartbreak, fueling it with Mercer’s wicked steel guitar, and letting go of each lyric with an aching deep in his gut: “Willie Nelson’s picking out in Austin/And Waylon’s wailing out in Mexico/ . . . I’m stuck in Spokane in a motel room/There ain’t no way to get away.” Phelps’ track ranks with Ron Sexsmith’s gorgeous “Ships Go Out” and Jonny Polonsky’s playful romp “Old Enough to Want To” as the tribute album’s best.

Bass and Linn both consider REAL not as a one-off project, but rather the initial phase of a mission to reintroduce Tom T. Hall to an audience they feel he deserves. “We want to do justice to Tom T. and to do that, we have to get his Mercury back catalog re-released,” says Bass. “Nothing he did from 1968 to 1977 exists on CD. It would be an honor to be involved in getting all of it back out there the right way: re-mastering the songs, including period photos and liner notes, and finding some unreleased stuff from the vaults.”

As for the Storyteller himself, Bass says that while Hall, 62, has heard the songs on REAL, he hesitates to get too involved with the project. “That’s 180 degrees opposite of his personality. He’s really a modest, humble man. He always says, ‘I’m just a guy who wrote some songs.'”

REAL: The Tom T. Hall Project is available through the Tom T. Hall Web site: