Olive Hill, KY. | #BluegrassTrails
Part of the mygrassisblue.com #BluegrassTrails series, on the trail of bluegrass history and its pioneers/early protagonists.
Portions of the Carter County town of Olive Hill, Kentucky, a 20-mile drive north of Sandy Hook, were as quiet as we’d come to expect from rural Kentucky, but the town is both big enough (population over 1,500) to boast some activity and its residents curious enough to approach us wondering what on earth we obvious out-of-towners were doing poking around somewhere like Olive Hill on a mid-October Thursday afternoon.
“Blame Tom T.”, we said. “Who else?”
Olive Hill, Tom T. Hall & Bluegrass Music
A once-busy railroad town incorporated in 1884, Olive Hill’s musical claim to fame is as the birthplace of country singer/songwriter icon Tom T. Hall (May 25, 1936 – present). A prominent spokesman for and supporter of bluegrass who in later decades, and in collaboration with his wife, Miss Dixie, focused on bluegrass music by advancing the careers of fledgling and established musicians and creating bluegrass music themselves, Hall’s storytelling lyrics helped change the language of country and bluegrass music, expanding narrative and imagistic possibilities. ‘The Storyteller’, as he is known, ‘used his God-given talents to become famed as one of America’s balladeers, telling in music form the story of the common folk and the daily happenings which color their lives,’ so says a plinth dedicated to the town’s most famous son situated adjacent to Olive Hill’s long and fetching Historical Mural.
Tom T. Hall, “I Couldn’t Live In Southern California,” 1978
Tom T. Hall| IBMA Hall of Fame Bio
Quoted by Peter Cooper in Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music, Spring House Press, 2017
IBMA Hall of Fame Induction| 2018
Born | May 25, 1936 in Olive Hill, Kentucky
Primary Instrument | Guitar
Country music legend Tom T. Hall’s work was inspired and informed by the bluegrass music he internalized in his Kentucky youth.
Hailing from the eastern Kentucky community of Olive Hill, Hall composed his first song at age nine. As a teen, he joined a bluegrass band called the Kentucky Travelers, and the group performed on local radio and stages. Hall worked as a disc jockey in Morehead, Kentucky before joining the army in 1957.
Discharged in 1961, Hall studied journalism at Roanoke College in Virginia, and took jobs at radio stations writing advertisements and working on the air. He said, “You’ve got to take a three-story department store and in one minute you’ve got to tell them everything that’s in it.” That exercise helped Hall find a way to compose songs that conveyed layers of meaning in an economical and insightful manner.
Hall moved to Nashville on January 1, 1964, taking work writing songs for Newkeys Music. In 1965, Johnnie Wright scored a #1 hit with Hall’s “Hello Vietnam,” which became the opening theme for the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. In 1966, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs released Hall’s “It Was Only the Wind” as a single. Flatt and Scruggs went on to record numerous Hall songs, six of them on a concept album, The Story of Bonnie and Clyde.
Hall signed to Mercury Records as a recording artist in 1967, changing his stage name from Tom Hall to Tom T. Hall. His first single, “I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew,” was a Billboard Top 30 hit. In 1968—the year that Hall married songwriter and journalist Dixie Deen—Jeannie C. Riley recorded Hall’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” which topped country charts, crossed over to pop radio, and sold millions of copies. A year later, he enjoyed his first #1 country hit, “A Week on a Country Jail.”
Hall joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1971, the same year his “The Year Clayton Delaney Died” rose to the top of the country charts. The following year, he won a Grammy for Best Album Notes for the album Tom T. Hall’s Greatest Hits.
In 1974, Hall released Songs of Fox Hollow, an album of country music songs for children. That album featured chart-topping hits “I Love” and “I Care,” along with the ubiquitous “Sneaky Snake,” about a root-beer-drinking serpent.
Hall’s The Magnificent Music Machine (1976) was a bluegrass manifesto, aimed at the broader country market. It included Hall’s version of “Fox On the Run,” already a bluegrass standard, and musical assistance from Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Kenny Baker, Donna Stoneman, J.D. Crowe, Bobby Thompson, J.T. Gray, and others.
#TomTHall’s 1976 ‘The Magnificent Music Machine’ was a #bluegrass manifesto aimed at the broader #countrymusic market & featured, among others, #BillMonroe, #JimmyMartin, #KennyBaker & #JDCrowe. #bluegrasshistory #musichistory
Hall was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1978, and in 1979 he published the masterful memoir, The Storyteller’s Nashville. In the early 1980s, he hosted the syndicated television program Pop! Goes the Country, and in 1982 he teamed with Earl Scruggs to record The Storyteller and the Banjo Man, featuring Byron Berline, Randy Scruggs, Rodney Crowell, Jerry Douglas, and Rosanne Cash.
Beginning in the 1990s, Hall worked with wife Dixie Hall to write hundreds of bluegrass songs, and the couple opened a recording studio that catered to bluegrass artists, many of whom recorded their songs. Tom T. and Dixie became regular fixtures at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass trade show, at the annual SPBGMA convention in Nashville, and at the Bean Blossom blue-grass festival at Bill Monroe’s music park in Indiana.
– Reproduced from the Tom T. Hall entry on the Hall of Fame Inductees page of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum website
One of the few businesses still to be found on Olive Hill’s largely abandoned Railroad Street, the site of the town’s now restored but unused passenger depot (trains haven’t trundled into Olive Hill since the tracks were pulled up in the mid-1980s), we didn’t need to ‘Sound Horn’ to attract the attention of the owner of Walker’s Family Restaurant; taking pictures of Railway Street while out front of his establishment both lured him out from behind his darkened and mirrored windows and got us talking. He was curious why we were in Olive Hill at all, while we were curious as to why this photogenic portion of the town sits largely abandoned.
“Times are not as prosperous as they once were”, we were told.
If I can add to the Railroad Street conversation, Olive Hill was hit by devastating, back-to-back floods in the spring/summer of 2010. That impacted a LOT of the buildings and businesses on Railroad Street too. But if you look up and down the road, you’ll see little pockets of revitalization. The Scenic Hills Realty building, for instance, has been gorgeously refinished inside, and is a fantastic example of what’s possible with the gorgeous old buildinds downtown, despite the flood damage.
The old railroad depot building, another great piece of Olive Hill period architecture, is being organized as a Welcome Center for the town as well, and a large number of items donated by Tom T. will be on display there, along with memorabalia from other local acts and artists. It’s going to be worth it to come back to town and check that out once it’s open. Also, if you haven’t had a white light sliders from the Drive-In, it’s another one of those unique Olive Hill experiences. I promise you, you’ll be 100 miles away and six months down the road and you’ll think, “Man, that was a good burger. I want one of those. Or three.” (Get the double, trust me. It’s the perfect cheese to meat to bun ratio, and get it as God intended with the mustard.)
I won’t deny, times are tough in Olive Hill. But times are tough everywhere, and that almost makes Olive Hill the perfect kind of place for a day trip. It’s not going to cost you an arm-and-a-leg, you get to visit a picturesque town with friendly folks and delightful restaurants like Walker’s and Henri’s and Tyler’s and the Drive-In, and if you come at the right time, you might be able to catch a show at the Center for Art & Education. I absolutely love Olive Hill, and, since I live in the area, I get there every chance I have.
Oh, and that creek? The one that can run clear and be “always in (your) dreams”? Or run like an angry river? It’s perfect for kayaking, all the way into Carter Caves State Resort Park. (Just, trust me again here, and leave your phone in the car, or have a damn good dry bag. Tygart Creek, she is an unpredictable dance partner. She can sway you in elegant arcs. She can spin you in dizzying circles. And if the mood strikes her, she’ll stomp all over your feet.)
Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Jeremy. We did like Olive Hill, as we said herein, ‘right off the bat’ (that wasn’t Irish sarcasm!). We look forward to getting back, especially now that we have so many local recommendations. Oh, and we forgot to mention in the article the conversation we had outside Sturgill’s with an Officer from the Olive Hill Police Department. What a memorable character he was!
Was it Dick? The older, chain-smoking gentleman? He really is quite a character, and has done SO much for the kids of Olive Hill, especially at the holidays when he donates time, energy and money to give some of those families who have fallen on hard times a good Christmas. (I was a reporter covering Olive Hill and Carter County for three years before the corporation that owned us closed shop, and the people of this community truly stole my heart.)
I’m sure he divulged it, but we never did catch his name. Dick, you say? It’s gotta have been him, right? I mean, how many older, chain-smoking ‘characters’ work for the Olive Hill PD? 🙂
My mother grew up in olive hill and she says she used to sit next to Tom T hall when he was learning the guitar. I want to take her there for a cisit now that she is up in years. Are there any upcoming events where tom t hall will be there.