By: Carl Wilson
January 17, 2023

One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of favorite Country singles from the Sixties (1964–1973). Series edited by Josh Glenn. BONUS: Check out the DOLLY YOUR ENTHUSIASM playlist on Spotify.



Stop me if you’ve lived this one before… That’s how a lot of Nashville’s best ouput could be introduced, as stories ripped not from the headlines but mysteriously as if from the listener’s own experience. It’s certainly part of how I got to mainstream country music, after years of resistance. “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” originally written for Bobby Bare, isn’t the most familiar classic by the late Tom T. Hall, known as “the Storyteller” for his specialty in dramatic monologue; his biggest hit was “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” the 1968 small-town-hypocrisy scorcher by Jennie C. Riley. But “That’s How I Got to Memphis” is his most solid standard, a weeper many country and bluegrass bands have in their quivers to give crowds the shivers.

It’s a simple conceit: The singer follows a lover to another city. They’ve had some kind of trouble, the singer is asking around about her, he hasn’t eaten or slept in days, and when detective work fails he just tries to follow the “trail of her tears,” as well as his own. I first heard it as a cover by Kelly Willis on the 1998 tribute album, Real: The Tom T. Hall Project. I didn’t notice then the implication that the speaker has undertaken this pursuit uninvited. The song sucked me in because I’d spent most of my 20s moving from place to place, sometimes sensibly for work but usually ill-advisedly for love. I paired it with Lucinda Williams’ “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad”: “It didn’t matter what my friends would say / I was gonna see you anyway.” In 1998, I was about to do it again.

Those migrations occasionally worked out all right, but only after the relationship in question incinerated itself. “If you love somebody enough,” the song states, as adage not advocacy, “you’ll go where your heart wants to go.” As Hall said in a 1986 interview widely quoted after his August 2021, death: “In all my writing, I’ve never made judgments. I think that’s my secret. I’m a witness.” A lot of current writers could stand to hear that storytelling lesson. The eerie objectivity extends to the song’s title — the plain-factness of “That’s How…” instead of “Why Am I Stuck in Memphis?” or “Now I’m Lost in Memphis” (in the rain, when it’s Easter time too). It’s not a story so much as an instruction manual for an apparatus you should never use, a map you should never follow, a foregone conclusion unfolding. A few years ago I made a whole playlist of songs that use this “How…” device, like Misson of Burma’s “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate,” or the Fall’s “How I Wrote Elastic Man.”

Hall’s music refuses to be drawn into the protagonist’s obsessive mood — note the fatalistic melodic descent of the “how I got to Memphis” refrain and the patient lope of the song’s pace, in no rush to reach the looming wreck. No singer has delivered the song athwart that void so well as Solomon Burke, on his 2006 album Nashville. There, Memphis is not only the historical centre of the country-soul style in which he sings it, but an infernal portal the singer’s been a fool to breach. It’s also been sung beautifully by Rosanne Cash, Buddy Miller (as the veteran Americana singer-guitarist’s live signature), and many others.

It’s been a while since my heart prompted me to pack all my possessions. The last time I received such an invite, I turned it down. After learning in January that Hall’s demise at 85 was actually by suicide, it was hard not to speculate whether he’d been following his own late wife to destinations unknown. Part of me hopes some passion comes along to inspire another such grand mistake. Just not that particular one. Meanwhile, thanks to those in the past who led me so gloriously astray, and to you for your precious time — forgive me if I start to cryin’.


DOLLY YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | David Cantwell on Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton’s WE FOUND IT | Lucy Sante on Johnny & June Carter Cash’s JACKSON | Mimi Lipson on George Jones’s WALK THROUGH THIS WORLD WITH ME | Steacy Easton on Olivia Newton-John’s LET ME BE THERE | Annie Zaleski on Tammy Wynette’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E | Carl Wilson on Tom T. Hall’s THAT’S HOW I GOT TO MEMPHIS | Josh Glenn on Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen’s BACK TO TENNESSEE | Elizabeth Nelson on Skeeter Davis’s I DIDN’T CRY TODAY | Carlo Rotella on Buck Owens’ TOGETHER AGAIN | Lynn Peril on Roger Miller’s THE MOON IS HIGH | Erik Davis on Kris Kristofferson’s SUNDAY MORNIN’ COMIN’ DOWN | Francesca Royster on Linda Martell’s BAD CASE OF THE BLUES | Amanda Martinez on Bobbie Gentry’s FANCY | Erin Osmon on John Prine’s PARADISE | Douglas Wolk on The Byrds’ DRUG STORE TRUCK DRIVIN’ MAN | David Warner on Willie Nelson’s WHISKEY RIVER | Will Groff on Tanya Tucker’s DELTA DAWN | Natalie Weiner on Dolly Parton’s IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS (WHEN TIMES WERE BAD) | Charlie Mitchell on Stonewall Jackson’s I WASHED MY HANDS IN MUDDY WATER | Nadine Hubbs on Dolly Parton’s COAT OF MANY COLORS | Jada Watson on Loretta Lynn’s DON’T COME HOME A DRINKIN’ (WITH LOVIN’ ON YOUR MIND) | Adam McGovern on Johnny Cash’s THE MAN IN BLACK | Stephen Thomas Erlewine on Dick Curless’s A TOMBSTONE EVERY MILE | Alan Scherstuhl on Waylon Jennings’s GOOD HEARTED WOMAN | Alex Brook Lynn on Bobby Bare’s THE WINNER. PLUS: Peter Doyle on Jerry Reed’s GUITAR MAN | Brian Berger on Charley Pride’s IS ANYBODY GOING TO SAN ANTONE.




Country, Enthusiasms, Music