When Greg Hall decided to start playing live music again, he was picking his way through songs he hadn't played in 10 or 15 years. He told the audience, "Here's one I wrote in 1994 and haven't touched since 1996 ... let's see how it goes."
That might sound capricious or -- at the very least -- questionable, but for Hall, it was like meeting up with old friends he hadn't seen in awhile. He still loved them. He believed in them. He didn't realize how much he'd missed them.
And they picked up right where they left off.
A native Texan, Hall has been touring for the last seventeen or so years as a headlining comedian, and it's worked out well for him. Sure, his guitar rarely left his side during stand-up sets, but songwriting of a less madcap nature had taken a backseat after his head went through a windshield in 1999.
That car wreck left him with 137 stitches in his forehead and a cover photo for his final music album, 2000's Better Than I've Ever Been.
Final, so far.
Another heavy event, the death last August of his close friend and mentor Richard Fagan, has sent him back on the road with an album's worth of new material, a bit less rock than his previous effort, inspired by and largely co-written with the late songwriter. Fagan was the pen and pick behind six top ten country singles recorded by artists like Neil Diamond, John Michael Montgomery, George Strait and Hank Williams, Jr.
But, that doesn't mean Hall expects the music industry to be any easier this time around.
When he returns home to Texas on Friday for a night of storytelling and songs at Poor David's Pub, he humbly estimates a sizable portion of the seats will be filled with high school buddies and family friends from Odessa. Not that he's complaining: It's good to have friends.
That's one thing Hall says he learned through decades of trying to make it in Nashville.
Hall grew up in a music loving household, the son of a passionate guitarist who played backup at local joints whenever big stars like Bob Wills would swing through West Texas.
The younger Hall began playing at Dallas clubs in Deep Ellum, Lower Greenville and the once-thriving West End area, as well as in Tyler and Austin's Sixth Street, opening for and jamming with local superstars like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Billy Joe Shaver, Eric Johnson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Steve Fromholz, Shake Russell -- "all the Texas guys," he says. "It was a nice 'school' to learn in."
He recorded a couple of albums in Texas before taking a chance on Nashville in the early 1990s. In total, he put out six independent albums between 1988 and 2000 but, with each, he found himself increasingly angry toward music industry machinations.
If "a man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book," as Ernest Hemingway mused in a 1924 letter, Hall seems to have put that sentiment into practice. But, his "punishment" was mostly self-inflicted, he says. He blames his own "entitlement, ego and fear" for holding him back creatively and personally.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that same self-destructive streak made for some funny stories. And, the bad car wreck in 1999 seemed like a sign to try something else: stand-up.
Over the next decade, Hall began rising through cruise ship, casino and comedy club ranks. It was fun, he traveled and the crowds were good, even when they'd never heard of him, he says. He kept booking steadily until there were no headliners left at his agency who were willing to follow his act. That's how you know you've earned top billing, he says. It's a good feeling.
Hall's guitar stuck around as he developed his act -- almost, friends say, like an extension of his body. He used it like a punctuation mark: He'd start a story and then pick a spell, as if extending the humor through the melodic ellipses, before dropping the punchline. In comedy, as in songwriting, timing is everything.
Anger may have led him into comedy, but the good vibes he picked up through stand-up have guided him back into songwriting.
Hall began learning ways to create rapport with audiences. Comedy crowds are different, he explains. A performing musician can close his eyes and shut out the crowd, if he chooses. In stand-up, that's not an option.
"You have to go out there and talk to those people and let everyone in that room look into your spirit," he says. It's terrifying and rewarding. He calls it "inclusiveness" with the audience, and says it's the most important skill comedy afforded him.
Inspired by that audience-performer exchange, he says his show at Poor David's will be a "hippie lovefest."
That's because Hall's new songs are a celebration of life -- generally, and one in particular. About half of the planned new album was co-written with Fagan, some of it while the latter was in hospice care.
Fagan was a successful and admired songwriter but, tragedy and legal trouble struck in 2008. He was accused of murder, but the charges were dropped. He went to rehab and spent his final years in search of redemption; it became the title and emphasis of his final album.
Redemption is something Hall understands. Last summer, he sat with Fagan during his final hours, meditating on his own passion and purpose; then, he resolved to apply lessons his path has taught about humility and vulnerability. It was time again, as the Sunday School song says, to stop hiding his light under a bushel.
Check out Hall's recent performance of "Don't Let Your Light Go Out," one of his new songs, and the final one co-written with Fagan. "Pretty brave words for a man who died two weeks later," Hall says about the lyrics.