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Tom T. Hall, country music storyteller who sang about life’s simple joys, dies at 85

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tom T. Hall, the singer-songwriter who composed “Harper Valley P.T.A.” and sang about life’s simple joys as country music’s consummate blue-collar bard, has died. He was 85.

His son, Dean Hall, confirmed the musician’s death on Friday at his home in Franklin, Tennessee. Hall, known as “The Storyteller” for his unadorned yet incisive lyrics, composed hundreds of songs.

Along with such contemporaries as Kris Kristofferson, John Hartford and Mickey Newbury, Hall helped usher in a literary era of country music in the early ’70s, with songs that were political, like “Watergate Blues” and “The Monkey That Became President,” deeply personal like “The Year Clayton Delaney Died,” and philosophical like “(Old Dogs, Children and) Watermelon Wine.”

“In all my writing, I’ve never made judgments,” he said in 1986. “I think that’s my secret. I’m a witness. I just watch everything and don’t decide if it’s good or bad.”

Hall, the fourth son of an ordained minister, was born near Olive Hill, Kentucky, in a log cabin built by his grandfather. He started playing guitar at 4 and wrote his first song by the time he was 9.

Hall began playing in a bluegrass band, but when that didn’t work out he started working as a disc jockey in Morehead, Kentucky. He joined the U.S. Army in 1957 for four years including an assignment in Germany. He turned to writing when he got back stateside and was discovered by Nashville publisher Jimmy Key.

Hall settled in Nashville in 1964 and first established himself as a songwriter making $50 a week. He wrote songs for Jimmy C. Newman, Dave Dudley and Johnny Wright, but he had so many songs that he began recording them himself. The middle initial “T” was added when he got his recording contract to make the name catchier.

His breakthrough was writing “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” a 1968 international hit about small-town hypocrisy recorded by Jeannie C. Riley. The song about a mother telling a group of busybodies to mind their own business was witty and feisty and became a No. 1 country and pop hit. It sold millions of copies and Riley won a Grammy for best female country vocal performance and an award for single of the year from the Country Music Association. The story was so popular it even spawned a movie of the same name and a television series.

“Suddenly, it was the talk of the country,” Hall told The Associated Press in 1986. “It became a catch phrase. You’d flip the radio dial and hear it four or five times in 10 minutes. It was the most awesome time of my life; I caused all this stir.”

His own career took off after that song and he had a string of hits with “Ballad of Forty Dollars” (which also was recorded by Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings); his first career No. 1 hit “A Week in a Country Jail,” and “Homecoming,” in the late 1960s.

Throughout the ’70s, Hall became one of Nashville’s biggest singer-songwriters, with multiple hit songs including, “I Love,” “Country Is,” “I Care,” “I Like Beer,” and “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and The Poet.)” he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1978.

“Tom T. Hall’s masterworks vary in plot, tone and tempo, but they are bound by his ceaseless and unyielding empathy for the triumphs and losses of others,” said Kyle Young, CEO, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, in a statement. “He wrote without judgment or anger, offering a rhyming journalism of the heart that sets his compositions apart from any other writer.

He also penned songs for children on his records “Songs of Fox Hollow (for Children of All Ages)” in 1974 and “Country Songs for Kids,” in 1988. He also became an author, writing a book about songwriting, “The Songwriter’s Handbook,” and an autobiography, “The Songwriter’s Nashville,” as well as fiction novels.

He was host of the syndicated TV show “Pop Goes the Country” from 1980 to 1983 and even dabbled in politics. Hall was close to former President Jimmy Carter and Carter’s brother, Billy, when Carter was in the White House. Tennessee Democrats urged Hall to run for governor in 1982, but he declined.

For his 1985 album “Songs in a Seashell,” he spent six months walking up and down Southern beaches to get inspiration for the summer mood of the LP.

He was inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008 and in 2012, he was honored as the BMI Icon of the year, with artists such as the Avett Brothers, bluegrass stars Daily & Vincent, Toby Keith and Justin Townes Earle paying tribute to the songwriting legend. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019.

“I think a song is just a song,” Hall said at the ceremony in 2012. “They can do it with all kinds of different bands. It’s just a lyric and a melody. I was talking to Kris Kristofferson one time. They asked him what was country, and he said, ‘If it sounds country, it’s country.’ So that’s my philosophy.”

He married English-born songwriter Dixie Deen in 1968, and the two would go on to write hundreds of bluegrass songs after Hall retired from performing in the 1990s, including “All That’s Left” which Miranda Lambert covered on her 2014 album, “Platinum.” Dixie Hall died in 2015.

In 2015, music legend Bob Dylan singled out Hall for some harsh criticism in a rambling speech at a MusiCares event. He called Hall’s song, “I Love,” “a little overcooked,” and said that the arrival of Kristofferson in Nashville “blew ol’ Tom T. Hall’s world apart.”

The criticism apparently confused Hall, as he considered Kristofferson a friend and a peer, and when asked about Dylan’s comments in an 2016 article for “American Songwriter” magazine, he responded, “What the hell was all that about?”

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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