Confucius in cowboy hat say, "Guy who has to sing about what is country ain't country." It is a troublesome thought, though, excising all such material from the legitimate country songbook. Country artists seem to like to write songs defining their lifestyle, their genre, and their worldview, and viewed as a collective block of real estate, any said banishment would be the equivalent of removing several entire counties from the state of Tennessee. What Tom T. Hall winds up saying here is that country "is all in your mind." It is by far the best attitude to have and, like many of this singer/songwriter's philosophies, is nearly camouflaged by its surroundings. Hall is consistently daring in a sly way. His status in country music can be interpreted as a kind of bridge between acknowledged fame -- he is, after all, considered one of the genre's great songwriters -- and a truly rebellious spirit associated more often with forgotten or neglected performers. Many of Hall's recordings such as this one were not huge commercial smashes because he simply put too much into them. A listener will travel a great distance with him through the 11 songs on this album from the first half of the '70s. Entire choirs and orchestras will be encountered along the way, as well as an A-list of Nashville session men. If the liner notes seem a little fuzzy on a used copy of this record, it is probably because someone has been drooling on said list of sidemen. One of the best things about Hall's sides is that he lets the pickers in on a feature here and a feature there as the songs unfold. Admittedly, this might be the only aspect of the record that appeals on the initial listen. It is typical of this artist's records to seem even slightly repulsive at first, especially if attention is allowed to waver.
This is balanced by another Hall factor, the vast amount of both charm and interest that his records develop just by the second listen. By that time, a fan of this artist -- who might be known as a Hall monitor -- might be ready to rank the album among the best he has done, or somewhere in the middle. The status evolves through a lifetime of enjoying an album; it is hard to predict how a listener might feel about one of these songs after playing the album a couple of times a year over the next two decades. The main point is that Country Is will stay in the collection, if only to reward the songs that initially seemed to be ghastly. Hall plays with these expectations, particularly on the second side of the record. Those who unfailingly switch stations as soon as the name of Jesus Christ comes up might pick up the album cover during the song "You Love Everybody But You" and think they are actually hearing the next track, "God Came Through Beltville Georgia." They figure out where they are in the program and then start asking questions like "Is this two religious songs in a row?," "Was this guy a Jesus freak when he recorded this album?," and "Why does country music have to be so religious?" Instead they should be listening -- the only way to figure out what Hall is really up to. His "God is good, God is great" stanzas in "You Love Everybody But You" are intended to provoke discomfort in some listeners as a bittersweet song unfolds about an individual's lack of self-confidence, hardly a typical subject in this genre. "God Came Through Beltville Georgia" is typical, on the other hand, in that there were many such cynical songs on the radio in the '60s and '70s from artists such as Joe South and Johnny Paycheck. It is hardly the type of material that would have been played on gospel stations, though.
Hall tries too hard to dazzle at the outset by setting a large ensemble into swing motion, the veteran session men and horn section demonstrating superior ability but the song itself irritating, like honey stuck on the fingertips. "Forget It" wipes out the memory of this miscalculation. It is a dark and brooding breaking-up song in which the brilliant instrumental work includes both classical-influenced mandolin from Ray Edenton and the magnificent steel guitar of Pete Drake. "Gone to Hell in a Basket" changes the mood briskly -- it is a Ray Stevens-style novelty song, fun and the type of material Hall pulls off well. So is "Who Needs a Baby" -- "Who needs a baby? They sometimes cry..." is the same kind of deadpan writing that made Hall's song entitled "If I Had One" such a classic. Charlie McCoy's harmonica is the star of another song in which very little else registers in the memory even after repeated listens -- knowing Hall's love of his instrumentalists, this might also have been purposeful. "Canadian Women -- Canadian Clubs" is a challenger in the league of the stupidest country songs ever recorded, so of course features a sitar played by Jerry Kennedy. Maybe the use of this instrument is a reference to the large Indian population in Canada. Hall also mentions Louisville, Kentucky, and Sudbury, Ontario, in this song, as well as "Gordon" (as in Gordon Lightfoot) and Canadian booze, the latter subject coming up more than once. Hall ends the program with the album's only cover version, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" done with full orchestra. It is hardly the best version of this song ever recorded -- nobody ever came close to topping the young Judy Garland. It is a standard that for some reason appeals to country performers, and not because of the octave jump in the first line. Hall's version rates about average among the many in this genre, yet at the same time is a more than fitting conclusion for Country Is. Country is not just in your mind but somewhere over the rainbow. But it might be a good idea to listen to the album again to see if that is what he is really saying.