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September 20

Tom T. Hall and “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died”

Tom T. Hall would be remembered as the Mark Twain of country music. His compositions may appear different at first glance, but they are actually built in layers, with each piece of fabric slowly revealing Hall’s own life experiences.

The way he delivers his pieces leaves an impression on his listeners to call him “The Storyteller”. His songs stand apart from the most in the sense that they seek poetically of normal life and normal people. There is a direct, no-nonsense quality about his tunes, evident in their simplistic storylines.

His Beginnings

He began at a very early age and by his teenage years, he had already formed a small string band, playing backwoods schoolhouses and small fairs. He took a job as a disc jockey and his show became a hit in the area. Later on, Hall went on to write his original compositions and wanted to travel the world but the only way for a financially troubled man was to join the army.

In 1957, he joined the army and after his three-year hitch, he had been traveling the world and seeing a whole lot of new things. Most of his life experiences would end up in his songs.

Tom went back home to Morehead, Kentucky to his old disc jockey job. He then sent a few of his compositions to Nashville and that was the beginning of a career that would culminate with his name enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

His Songs

His songs began to be noticed, and after that, he obtained a songwriting contract with a Nashville publisher. He seemed to be on his way to becoming the writer of major country music hits. Then, at the brink of his success, the songs which he wrote were much different from those established writers were turning out at that time. A few of his works did eventually find their own places, such as “D.J. For A Day”, a Top Ten hit for Jimmy Newman in 1964, and “Hello Vietnam,” by Johnny Wright, which spent three weeks at #1 in 1965. However, most of Hall’s material was rejected due to his bizarre approach.

Later on, Hall identified the man who inspired him to write “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died” it was actually his neighbor and a childhood hero. He was doing pretty well but he got sick and was forced to come home. He died when he was about nineteen or twenty, but a lot of people thought the song was about an old man. His friend was not really named Clayton Delaney; instead, his real name was Lonnie Easterly.  He had a huge impact on Tom in a very strong way. Hall didn’t just write the line “I remember the year that Clayton Delaney died,” he lived it. Tom was eight or nine and had just been given an old Martin guitar when he first met Easterly, who was already in his teens. Tom was impressed with Lonnie’s guitar picking, but what impressed him most was the older boy’s great independence and style.

Tom had a belief when it came down to his own recordings.

Nothing was to get in the way of the lyrics. No fancy guitar riffs, dramatic backup vocals or sophisticated instrumentation. He didn’t even allow his own voice to stand out. Only the song’s message was important.

Lonnie Easterly, the man immortalized as “Clayton Delaney” probably died of tuberculosis, his death slow and painful, and he passed away without ever fulfilling his dreams. Yet, his dream and legacy were passed on to another man he inspired.


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clayton delaney, tom t hall


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