By Nancy Cardwell
One of the most accepted definitions of true charity is to quietly go about doing good. When we help someone, we shouldn’t announce it with loud fanfare, but just do it—as simply and undramatically as possible. Iris “Dixie” Dean Hall, in her kind-hearted but very direct, no-nonsense, focused way, quietly celebrates 52 years of making a difference in the bluegrass music business. Her efforts to promote the music closest to her heart, as well as her work to champion emerging bluegrass bands and songwriters, have had a couple of notable results. Hundreds of new songs and dozens of strong recordings have been unleashed on the bluegrass listening world, attracting new fans and expanding our audience. And thanks to the kind assistance and promotion from Miss Dixie Hall and her team at Good Home Grown Music and Blue Circle Records, the professional music business—a rough and challenging ride for any artist out there—is a friendlier, more encouraging place.
During the past 17 years, more than five hundred Dixie Hall songs have been recorded, and she has become one of bluegrass music’s most recognized, awarded, and recorded writers. Her latest project, Pickin’ Like a Girl from the Daughters of Bluegrass series, is a four-CD box-set featuring 134 women on 69 songs, all written by Dixie and her well-known husband, Country Music Hall of Famer Tom T. Hall. Fifty-two of the songs are new cuts on the first three discs, and the fourth CD is a re-issue of a previous Daughters of Bluegrass project, Bluegrass Bouquet. All the vocals, instrumental work, and sound engineering are by women. The fourth in the Daughters series (an album concept originated by Gena Britt and Lorraine Jordan) includes several new faces and international artists this time, including participants from Australia, Ireland, Slovakia, and Canada.
Originally from Sutton Coldfield in England’s West Midlands, Dixie Hall’s unlikely path to the music industry began with horses. Her parents owned a sweets and tobacco business—a little shop where they sold candy and pipe tobacco. She once won a poetry contest hosted by the BBC with a poem she wrote about Canada. Miss Dixie remembers loving music as a child, in particular the country and western movies from America at Saturday morning matinees. The sweeping panoramic horizons, the galloping horses, and the music in the scores of these films spoke to her. By age 18, she had become a talented horsewoman and was working as a trick rider in Wild West shows on summer weekends.
One morning, she was leaving on a train for London and she heard a familiar voice ask, “Who are you young lady, and what are you doing with a Stetson hat and a pair of boots strapped to your suitcase?” It was the country and western-singing cowboy movie star Tex Ritter on tour in England. In conversation on the train, Ritter mentioned that he’d love to be able to distribute his records in Europe, and Dixie told him she would take care of that for him, even though she had no previous experience with music distribution or promotion. “I took some of his material over to EMI Records, and they wound up releasing ‘Green Grow The Lilacs’ and some other things,” Hall says. “I didn’t at all know what I was doing. I guess I found their address in the phone book, or I just asked until I found out.”
Her success with Tex Ritter’s music impressed Don Pierce of Starday Records in Nashville, so Dixie next got involved with promoting one of his acts, Bill Clifton and the Dixie Mountain Boys, while also writing a column for the Country And Western Express magazine. When Pierce offered her a job with Starday doing promotion and publicity in 1961, Dixie took a ship to America. En route to Nashville, she spent some time in Virginia where Clifton and his wife, Sara Lee, had a home. And she met the Carter family, icons of traditional country music. Bill Clifton had been a close friend of A.P. Carter, who had passed away a few months before. “It was like I’d known them all my life,” Dixie says about her immediate personal and music connection with the Carter family. “The music they made was the pure stuff,” she says. “It was the origin, to me. And the family reached out and pulled me in.”
At Starday, Dixie promoted a roster of bluegrass artists such as the Stanley Brothers, the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Stringbean, Lonzo & Oscar, Carl Story, Grandpa Jones, and Bill Clifton. “String and Estelle were just absolutely precious,” Dixie remembers. “They were good friends with Grandpa and Ramona (Jones). They were worried about my blood being too thick, coming over from England, and they wanted me to drink sassafras tea.”
Although Dixie’s first impressions of American music were the western tunes at the Saturday movie matinees and later the Starday artists she promoted as a teen, she says, “I’ve been a bluegrass fan all my life—always. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know. I’ve just always known it in my soul. I can’t explain it.” In particular, the Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers still resonate most deeply with Dixie. “There’s nothing else like it,” she says of their music. “It’s honest. It’s real. I feel like it’s always been a part of me, and I’ve always been a part of it. And I don’t know why or how. It’s a mystery.”
Dixie ended up going back to Virginia to stay with Sara Lee Clifton while her husband, Bill, was on tour. Dixie continued to spend time with Maybelle Carter and her daughters and the rest of the family in Hiltons. When Maybelle invited Dixie to come and stay with them at their house on Summerfield Drive in Madison, Tenn., near Nashville, she accepted. Maybelle worked as a private home healthcare nurse, sitting with patients overnight. When she had a playing job out of town, Dixie would fill in for her so Maybelle wouldn’t lose her patients. The friends spent hours at the kitchen table—Dixie, Maybelle, and E.J. “Pop” Carter (Maybelle’s husband and A.P.’s brother), playing card games like Don’t Get Mad and Canasta. When her husband, country legend Hank Snow was on the road, their neighbor Min (Minnie) Snow would pop over in her housecoat and join the card games. They went bowling and fishing together. Dixie learned some autoharp from Maybelle, and they wrote a few songs together. “Louise Scruggs was another close friend—and Earl,” Dixie recalls. “In fact, Maybelle taught Earl to play ‘You Are My Flower’ on the guitar. I remember that well.”
When Louise Scruggs was in the hospital briefly, she asked Dixie to check on Earl and the boys, and then Dixie ended up working for her for a while. They started a publishing company for Flatt & Scruggs Music. Next, Dixie went to work for Music City News, where she did everything from answering the phone to mailing out subscriptions, which led to a column, writing articles, and eventually the editor’s job.
June Carter had returned from New York, and Johnny Cash was hanging around Maybelle’s house, trying to court June, Dixie says. John liked a couple of songs Dixie and Maybelle had written, “A Letter From Home” and “Troublesome Waters,” and he asked if he could record them. He did, and later Dave Dudley recorded Dixie’s “Truck Drivin’ Son Of A Gun,” which won a BMI Citation of Achievement. The flip side of the truck-driving record was “I Got Lost,” by a little-known writer named Tom Hall. The two met at the BMI Country Awards in Nashville.
The event was hosted at the Belle Meade country club, Dixie recalls, and she took Maybelle Carter as her guest. “It was the usual steak and potato thing, and Tom Hall, as he was known then, was seated across the table, so we had to speak. He said, ‘Do you like potatoes?’ And I said, ‘Yes, why?’ And he said, ‘Is that why you’re so fat?’ And I was positively skinny. He thought he was being cute, but Maybelle’s mouth fell open and I’ll never forget a word she said: ‘Lord, did you ever hear the beat?’ I had borrowed a sequin top from Anita and a fur mink stole from June, so I was all gussied up. Tom T. said later that he got to know me because he thought I was rich,” Dixie laughed. “I ran into him later during the Disc Jockey Convention, and he invited me to go fishing, and I jumped at the chance. I thought he was O.K. We went fishing and caught a huge catfish. I made him keep it in the bathtub in his apartment because I just couldn’t see it being killed. It was huge. I don’t know if he took it back and released it or not, but I know initially it went to his bathtub, and I named it after one of the Wilburn Brothers—Theodore, after Teddy.”
Tom T. and Miss Dixie were married in 1964, and for many years she focused on charity work, homemaking, raising and showing Basset Hounds, and working with the local humane society—helping them raise a million dollars by sheer willpower and hard work. One of the fundraisers was an open house at the Halls’ home out in Fox Hollow on the outskirts of Nashville—a charming Southern estate with peacocks strutting around the grounds. Although she wasn’t writing much, Dixie continued to listen to her favorite kind of music—bluegrass—and she hired bluegrass bands like Mickey Harris’s family (Mickey currently plays bass for Rhonda Vincent & the Rage) and the Nashville based all-female band, Petticoat Junction, to perform at her open houses. J.T. Gray and his friends from the Station Inn played at several of their events.
“The humane shelter evolved into a horseback riding program for handicapped children, a ‘hearing ear’ dog program for training dogs for the deaf which we did with the Ear Foundation, and the shelter, which was called Animal Land,” Dixie said. “We had canine Candy Stripers who were training to visit hospitals and nursing homes. We had training classes for people and their pets, and it got very busy. It was a full-time, round-the-clock job. We raised all the money ourselves. A lot of it was through making pickles and jellies and selling hundreds of thousands of jars at the lawn and garden show, the women’s show, and Uncle Dave Macon Days, places like that.”
Before the humane society focus, Dixie showed dogs very successfully, traveling to various states with as many as ten Basset Hounds and one assistant, showing the dogs herself. At one point, she had as many as fifty dogs living at Fox Hollow. The kennel is now a recording studio.
In the ’90s, Tom T. retired and came off the road, looking forward to playing some golf and puttering around in his garden. “He was tired,” Dixie said. “The music was too loud and people were showing up with four or five buses. It wasn’t the same and the music was changing, so he decided he wanted to retire. He was burned out. He didn’t even want to hear music. He’d walk into the house and if I was playing records or the radio, he’d ask me to turn it off.
“I said it was ok to quit the road, but don’t give up on music,” Dixie said. “Music is too much of a treasure to throw it away.” She urged him to write for the joy of the music itself, not for the money to make a living, but just to be a part of the bluegrass community. “He said, ‘If you think it’s so easy, go ahead and write an album of songs and you can have Nancy Moore (a singer they met when they were building a place in Florida) record them and that’ll be a fun project for you.’”
So, Dixie wrote “Your Memory Followed Me Home,” “High Lonesome Love,” and several others. She got about halfway through the album set of songs when Tom T. couldn’t stand it anymore, she says. He pulled up a chair, a guitar in his hands again, with ideas about where a certain song should go.
The builder for their house in Florida invited Tom T. to a local studio called the Possum Club, where they demoed songs. Tom T. had turned his briefcase upside down in a dresser drawer when he came off the road, so he dug through the papers, thinking about writing songs again. He came across a song he started writing down in Australia called “Little Bitty.” Tom T. was less than enthralled with the thought of going to Music Row to record, but Miss Dixie convinced him to record Songs From Sopchoppy at the Possum Club in Florida. Tom Collins, Bob Oermann, and half the staff of Mercury Records came down to the Possum Club to do the album, and it turned into quite a party, Dixie says. “Little Bitty” was on that record, and then Alan Jackson recorded it, which eventually funded the renovation of the Halls dog kennel into a state-of-the-art recording studio at Fox Hollow.
Miss Dixie picked the band for Nancy Moore’s album, which included Terry Eldredge, Ronnie McCoury, Mike Bub, Scott Vestal, and Charlie McCoy, among others. They did the session in the sitting room of their home. “We were gaining allies,” Dixie says. “I’ve known Pete Kuykendall (editor of Bluegrass Unlimited) forever, and of course there were good friends like Melvin Goins and Jim & Jesse, and Ricky Skaggs. When I was making those pickles and what have you, we also sold them at Fan Fest, and Ricky was in love with the hot chow-chow and would get it by the case.”
The Halls started attending IBMA’s World Of Bluegrass conference, the SPBGMA convention, and the festivals in Bean Blossom, Ind., where bandleaders would approach them and ask for songs. Continuing with the creative, over-the-top theme of some of their booths at Fan Fest in past years, Miss Dixie designed truly original exhibit booths for the IBMA Business Conference. They came up with “Good Home Grown Music” as their publishing company name because the music is “good and it’s home grown.” Blue Circle Records is their label. “Circle signified the music coming back around and blue is for bluegrass,” says Dixie.
Some folks buy a place in the Riviera to retire, according to Tom. Instead, he and Miss Dixie have chosen bluegrass music as a respite and a community where they want to spend the last chapter of their lives. Actually, “I did not go after bluegrass music,” Miss Dixie says. “It came after me. It reached out and pulled me in.”
The bands who record songs by the Hall are not business associates; they become members of the family. Bands come and stay at Fox Hollow, and record their music in the studio at no charge other than compensating the sound engineer. “The studio is a thank you,” Dixie explains. “It’s just a show of appreciation to try and help those who have recorded our songs. It’s still a business, but it’s given in thanks, not at a price.”
Since 1999, the Halls have worked as a writing team, and more than three thousand of their songs have been recorded by bluegrass artists such as Chris Jones, Don Rigsby, Alecia Nugent, the Larry Stephenson Band, James King, and Charlie Sizemore. Dixie Hall has now received more songwriting cuts than any female in bluegrass music, and she and Tom T. were awarded a Distinguished Achievement Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2004. Two Blue Circle Record releases won IBMA’s Recorded Event Of The Year award, and Mark Newton won an award for the Halls’ Follow Me Back To The Fold, a tribute to Maybelle Carter. And after ten straight SPBGMA Songwriter Of The Year awards, the Halls were given the Grand Masters Gold and have had their jerseys retired from the category.
“Sometimes I think to myself, ‘Oh, if I had another twenty years to write bluegrass songs, what could I do?’” Dixie wonders. “But we got into it a little late. Just think, all those foolish years, frittered away on (Tom T. country classics like) ‘Homecoming’ and ‘Harper Valley (PTA),’” she laughs.
Looking back at her successful streak of bluegrass cuts, the thing Dixie says gives her the most satisfaction is talking to fans who approach her at festivals and want to talk about her songs. “They’re from everywhere, and little old men and little old ladies with tears in their eyes come up and say they love this song and say, ‘You’re just like a daughter to us.’ They look you in the eye and you realize they’re speaking the truth. They pour their hearts out. That’s the greatest feeling. That’s when you know you’re reaching them. You’ve made something that you believe and feel. You hit home. I think the answer to being able to do that is to be one of them,” she explains. “Think on their level. Don’t write down to them; just be them. Because it’s what you are.”
An increasing number of bluegrass musicians find their way to Fox Hollow these days, looking for new songs and returning again later because they’re part of the family. “I’m trying to ease their way, in the same way that the Carters and so many others have eased mine,” Dixie says. “If a few dollars worth of studio time…or groceries…or conversation can make someone feel a part of the bluegrass family, then that’s what I want to do. It’s a family, and it’s important that it stays that way, so that tradition continues. I write songs every chance I get. Songwriting is an escape, a retreat, and a haven for me. It’s somewhere to go. There’s nothing like the feeling when a song’s completed. You see what it is you’ve brought into the world. And then you have to let it go, and hope someone doesn’t put drums on it,” she smiles. “Bluegrass music speaks to my heart,” Dixie says simply. “It’s what comes out. It’s the best thing that happens.”