Best Acoustic Guitarist: Tom Hall

Dec 9, 1998 at 4:00 am
Tom Hall fell into his peculiar genius late, but he fell hard. At 22 he picked up an acoustic guitar, and only played his first gig at 26. "I went to a friend's house in Columbia -- Gary, can't remember his last name. He put on a Mississippi John Hurt record. I'd never heard him before. I was trying to flat-pick at the time; couldn't hold a pick, though. I heard Hurt, and that was it. It was real exotic sounding, that finger-picking. I was playing bluegrass banjo, and it naturally transferred over. I bought a double album of Hurt live at Oberlin College, one of the greatest albums ever -- used to have it; somebody stole it. I borrowed a friend's guitar and locked myself in a room for three years: Let it roll, play it back, let it roll, play it back. Figured out the chords, asked people how to do it."

You might mistake Hall for a barfly, heckling the pickers down at Riddle's or the Soulard clubs. They're probably his friends. He's played in all manner of bands: Irish, bluegrass, contra-dance, straight-up blues, whatever it was the Geyer Street Sheiks played. "I met Steve Mote and did the Sheiks thing, and that just evolved into this monster," Hall says. "My hobby evolved into my job. I can't afford to quit. I can pay my bills, and I don't know what else I'd do, though I've thought about quitting a million times." What was his life before the guitar? "Nothing," Hall says. "Tending bar, painting houses, whatever, getting drunk, hanging out in the street. I had no direction. It gave me an identity. I kinda had a weird childhood. Playing guitar saved my life. Sometimes I think it's gonna kill me."

Tom Hall, with guitar, alone on a stool: He toys with the strings, as though pursuing a melody he only half-remembers or comprehends, starts a lick, seems to look at the sound, actually looks at it, squints at it. Then he'll stare off in the distance while his fingers fly like a spider on speed. You can't tell whether he's in the middle of a song or just fiddling. He may finish, or he may get bored and stop halfway through, or let the melody trail off into something completely unrelated. "I can't stand sameness," he says. "I get bored to shit. People will say, 'What do you play?' Golly, I don't know. Little bit of this, little bit of that." But the sounds his guitar makes are magnetic, earthy in their rhythmic thump, impossibly sensible in the unpredictable, private constellations he draws between the sparkle of notes. He sounds like Mississippi John Hurt filtered through Ireland back through Robert Johnson's Delta back through St. Louis ragtime. He no longer copies anyone but follows his own eccentricities.

"I've gotten to the point where I just won't go away," Hall says. "Twenty years playing the bars. But I get so sick of the scene, the whole mentality. Some people are just sheep -- you know, whatever's on the jukebox or radio, that's what they want to hear. People don't take time to listen, to dissect stuff. That's all I'm into. Ten people might walk in and then walk right out, because they won't understand a thing I'm doing, but the one guy who does, he's hooked."

-- Roy Kasten