Tom Hall works the steel of his National Guitar
first published in The Riverfront Times, Feb. 6, 1991
When a Thursday night patron of the Broadway Oyster Bar exhorts the musicians with a shouted “The Show Must Go On, Tom Hall winces, then resolutely mounts the stage, straps on his metal-bodied National Steel guitar and, with the help of his backup band, The Illusions, launches into an old blues standard.
For Hall, 38, the “show” has been going on now for a dozen years. Twelve years of playing as a full-time professional musician in St. Louis. Twelve years of crafting a unique style that includes Delta blues, ragtime, jazz, rock and even classical influences.
The small, crowded room is lit by the wan glow of a bare bulb refracted through an inverted goldfish bowl. A fire in the hearth burns low. Tobacco and wood smoke mix amid bawdy banter. A boxing glove dangles from the low ceiling next to a trumpet that appears by its irregular surfaces to have been in more than one fight of its own.
Up on the bandstand, the auburn-haired Hall finger picks a rendition of “C.C. Rider,” his thumb alternating a bass rhythm while his index and middle digits play a counterpoint melody. A thick mustache hides his upper lip; half-closed lids shield blue eyes.
Quick chord changes combine with a cadence reinforced by drummer Jim Miller and bassist Mike Prokopf. The tune’s arrangement is just quirky enough to stymie lead guitarist Stuart Johnson, who is filling in for regular Dave Black. From the first not, Johnson, a music instructor with 25 years of playing experience, is aware this is no ordinary wedding band he is sitting in with.
Blues pianist James Crutchfield and Ike Turner’s former drummer Billy Gayles, who are in the audience this night, pay respects at break. Even then the show goes on: Gayles feigns paranoia when a reporter asks his name; Prokopf professes he and Miller have recently returned from a Tibetan tour’ and Johnson, the straight man in this comedic chorus, academically defines Hall’s repertoire as “eccentric.”
Eclectic would be another apt description. When performing as a solo act, it is not unusual for Hall to slide from “Dust My Broo,” a 1930s staccato bottleneck blues by Robert Johnson, to “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring,” a composition by Johann Sebastian Bach first performed July 2, 1723, as part of Cantata 147.
Bach, an organist by trade, might well be intrigued by a technique Hall uses sparingly. By modifying his National Steel guitar with an acoustic pickup wired to a vibrato pedal, he can create an echoic effect reminiscent of a cathedral keyboard with the tap of his foot. Hall also uses the devise when playing Heliotrope Bouquet, a 1907 Scott Joplin rag more synonymous with St. Louis saloon society.
Whether it be blues or Bach, an integral part of Hall’s style is forged with heavy metal — his guitar. National Steels were mass produced from 1925 until around World War II. John Dopyera, a Czech who also developed the wooden-bodied Dobro guitar, invented the instrument after immigrating to Los Angeles. Both types of guitars are augmented with a large metal resonator at the center of their body where the instrument’s sound hole would normally be located. National Steels were born from a demand for more volume just prior to the electrification of the guitar. The instrument’s brash tone is ideal for hard-driving blues.
“Somebody playing John Denver tunes in a Holiday Inn wouldn’t want a guitar like that,” says Hall. Hall acquired his National in 1980 from the now-defunct R&D Music on Cherokee Street. After being tipped by guitar repairman Jimmie Gravity as to its availability, Hall sold his 1950 Plymouth to a Soulard neighbor for $400, then caught a southbound Bi-State bus and bought the instrument the same day.
“The thing’s 60 years old,” says Hall. “You can’t hardly find them anymore because collectors buy them and hang them on the wall. I think they ought to be played. They’re great sounding guitars.”
Hall’s National is a 1930s O-style with a Hawaiian motif sandblasted onto its chrome surface. One of his original pieces 920 State Street employs a D6 tuning that originated with Hawaiian guitar playing, according to Hall. The repeated ascending and descending arpeggios give the instrumental a “New Age” feel. The title is a tribute to a house in Springfield, Mo., where Hall rested after a wearying road tour several years ago.
Hall has yet to compose an ode to a less sanguine memory from yesteryear. Hall had his extensive record collection ripped off here in St. Louis. “The only thing they didn’t take were my 78s,” says Hall. The audio library had taken years to amass, but would be of little value to anyone other than another blues buff,” according to Hall. Ironically, they probably ended up sailing them like Frisbees,” he says.
Nowadays, Hall not only collects recordings, he produces them. He is presently working on two projects: an instrumental album of his original music in the vein as 920 State Street and another devoted to traditional blues. Plans are to record the material at Absolute Productions on Oregon Avenue.
Broadcast is yet another recent faet of Hall’s musical career. Because of the theft of his record collection , Hall now mainly relies on CDs when airing his radio show on KDHX (88.1 FM). Hall first volunteered his services at the community radio station two years ago, hosting a weekly late-night blues program. For the last six months, he has held down the Monday afternoon slot with a show called Colored Radio.
As might be expected, recordings by virtuoso guitarists such as Chet Atkins, John Fahey and Leo Kottke often highlight the show. Hall’s eclectic taste, however, influences his radio programming as much as his guitar playing. Led Zeppelin may be cued up following Fats Waller. Dire Straits can find itself riding the airwaves with Tampa Red. “I tend to switch gears quick, and some people don’t like that,” says Hall.
Hall’s musical odyssey began in the early 70s when he became fascinated by the syncopated finger-picking styles of old-time country blues artists such as the Rev. Gary Davis, “Mississippi” John Hurt and “Blind” Arthur Blake. Davis and Hurt had been rediscovered, along with many other bluesmen, during the folk music revival of the 60s and quality recordings of their music were available.
Hall listened and learned.
He made his professional debut at the Orphanage, a Euclid Avenue bar. Soon thereafter, in August 1978, Hall began performing a solo act in a small neighborhood bar in Soulard. At the time, Mike and Min’s was undergoing a change in ownership. The transition created a funky mixture of old and new, the perfect atmosphere for Hall’s music to grow. Neighborhood regulars rubbed shoulders with a more affluent, younger clientele. The Naugahyde and Formica bar contrasted the jungle of houseplants displayed in the front windows.
Hall joined another performer at the club, Steve Mote, to form a duo, and gradually from this nucleus a seven-piece band evolved called the Geyer Street Sheiks. The Sheiks’ arrangements of blues, rags and novelty focused on multipart harmonies and extended improvised instrumental breaks.
During the 1980s, Hall continued to play as a solo act and as part of Billy (Gayles) and the Preachers, Rhythm City Rhythm the Barbeque Band, Crash and Burn and the Illusions.
At 38, Hall is now considering returning to college to major in music. The contemplated turn leaves him at an intersection not unlike the “Crossroads” that bluesman Robert Johnson sang about.
“The bar scene gets pretty old after a while,” says Hall. “Twelve years. I can’t go to school and play music four or five nights a week, (which is) the only thing I’ve been doing for years. It’s amazing I’ve been able to survive this long. It wears you down. Being up late all the time, no security, no benefits, no paid days off
“I’m trying to look down the road a little bit. Maybe get a degree and become a welder,” Hall says with a laugh.
On this night, however, it’s time for his second set, and as he climbs back onstage, the only steel he intends to heat up has six strings attached to it.