Rant ‘n’ Roll: Dina Hall — Ballad of a Singer-Songwriter

Dina Hall wears a lot of hats. Songwriter. Guitarist. Bandleader. Activist. Mentor. Graphic designer. Yet listen to her sing John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” or his “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” and you’re captivated upon first listen. She is, after all, first and foremost, a vocalist. There’s a cover of “After The Gold Rush” on her Live! Bootleg album, subtitled A Personal Collection of Live Recordings:  Stories And Songs, wherein she beats the Dolly Parton version by correctly quoting Neil Young’s unforgettable line “and I felt like getting high” instead of wimping out by singing “I felt like I could cry.”

Her choice of covers is, in a word, sublime. I’ve always wondered about how it seems that my favorite artists always love my other favorite artists. Kristofferson loves Jerry Lee; Bruce loves Elvis; Keith Richards loves Chuck Berry. There’s dozens of such examples. Dina Hall seems to only cover my favorites like Tony Joe White, Steve Earle, Lead Belly, Rodney Crowell, and John Hartford. And she does them with respect for their originals but with a flair of idiosyncratic artistry wherein the song becomes her personal mantra.

Vocally, she has a second gear to her voice. I’m not talking falsetto. She can belt. Not belt in the traditional Broadway stage way (she’s much too discreet in a folkie kinda way for that) but listen to her profound original “Round and Round,” as she reaches for a dramatic crescendo which is followed by…. nothing. Silence. Dramatic silence. Maybe two beats worth. “Yeah,” she says over dinner at La Lupita, an exquisite Mexican BYOB joint, “I’m at full vocal throttle and then nothing. Alanis Morrisette does that too.  So, what do you do when it’s quiet? You have to think and fill in the space with your own thoughts.”

Alanis? Hall is not one of those hipper-than-thou music appreciators who would never admit to guilty pleasures (and we all have them: hell, I love Britney Spears). She loves Karen Carpenter, Carole King, Nicolette Larson, and Melissa Etheridge. (You can hardly ascribe guilt there.) On her almost all-original Logic and the Heart studio album, she opens up auto-biographically a bit, but not too much. Although influenced by Joni Mitchell’s pioneering confessionals, she’s quick to point out that unlike a lot of today’s younger female singer-songwriters, “it’s not a therapy session.” (Hall has a knack for composition to the point where you hear one of her songs for the very first time, and you still become wrapped up in her story, and enraptured by her melody—always the mark of a damn good song.)

When I saw her in the Fowler Blast Furnace Room & Loft on the Steel Stacks campus opening for New Orleans legend Marcia Ball, she blew me away, and only had super-duper guitarist Andy Killcoyne with her. His succinct runs in-between her lines, his driving rhythms and leads were like having a whole band behind her. When she sang Emmylou Harris’s “Red Dirt Girl,” you could hear a pin drop. “I put together an Emmylou tribute show, Songbird, a few years ago and it’s taken on a life of its own. I keep adding songs and players. The beauty of her music, although she only wrote a few, is she grabbed the best songs from the best songwriters and did duets with some incredible people. My show just keeps evolving.”

Hall also serves as the President on the Board of Directors for a small but nationally respected folk venue in town, Godfrey Daniels, where for the last 43 years, greats like Nanci Griffith, Tom Paxton, Odetta, David Bromberg, and Townes Van Zandt have performed in its intimate environs. Folkie hero John Gorka, as a Moravian College student, got his start at one of the venue’s still-continuing Open Mic nights. After dinner, I walked across the street and literally swooned in appreciation as Texas troubadours Dale Watson and Kinky Friedman took to that postage stamp-sized stage and provided exquisite songcraft, humor and, in the case of Kinky, larger-than-life charisma, even dueting with Watson on his classic “Homo Erectus.” I was hoping for “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” which Willie covered, or even “They Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” but you can’t always get what you want. (Kinky’s a classic: mystery novelist, Texas gubernatorial candidate, stand-up comedian, raconteur, Willie’s poker buddy.)

All in all, Dina Hall cares about her community enough to not only become a mentor for younger female singer-songwriters, but holds an annual benefit for Turning Point, a Lehigh Valley non-profit organization helping victims of domestic abuse. “It doesn’t get talked about a lot,” explains Hall, “but there are women and children out there who find themselves in situations they cannot get out of. Many of them don’t even know it until something very devastating happens. They need services, a shelter, someone to listen to them, and take care of them.”

To that end, on April 14, she will host, once again, “Ramble On The River,” a concert to benefit Turning Point, at The Ice House. For the $20 tax-deductible ticket, Hall, along with Alex Radus, Rameen Shayegan, Andrew Portz, Mitch Shelly, and Todd Scheid will play their originals, throw in a few well-chosen covers, and even have a rhythm section for back-up. It’s bound to be a night of exquisite Americana songcraft. For more information on the music, the artist, or the cause, go to www.dinahall.com.