A grouchy Texan with a fathoms-deep voice, Lee Hazlewood was one of American pop music’s great outsiders. He’s best known for masterminding Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” in 1966, then cutting a couple of brilliant, if risquéé duet albums with Old Blue Eyes’ daughter.
Before that, he was best described as a hustler, who’d enjoyed success producing fellow Texan Duane Eddy’s twangy guitar instrumentals, but had failed in his quest to make it as a radio DJ, and a solo artist. This first installment in a reissue campaign from Light In The Attic, the illustrious label responsible for Rodriguez, The Monks and many more, tells of his early steps in the latter direction.
Trouble Is A Lonesome Town was released by Mercury in ’63, which majored in country music at the time, but it didn’t trouble the scorers. Each of its 10 tracks features a spoken introduction from Hazlewood, in which, with typically mordant wit, he lays out a background narrative about Trouble, a fictional sleepy railroad town in the old Wild West, and the cowboy characters who inhabit it — all by way of preparation for their exploits in the songs that follow.
“The people that live in Trouble do lots of remembering — I guess that’s because they ain’t got much to look forward to,” he quips at the beginning, before an acoustic guitar strums, his rumbling singing voice takes over, and we’re off into Hazlewood’s macabre and somewhat bleak world. Along the way, we meet Sleepy the undertaker, who only smiles “when he sees one of the old folks looking pale” (“We All Make The Flowers Grow”), and the town’s glamour puss, Anna Mae Stilwell, whose husband woefully informs some jealous menfolk that “she can’t cook, she can’t love, she ain’t worth a dime” (“Look At That Woman”).
Trouble was certainly conceived in pre-PC days. Its format was hardly groundbreaking — Hazlewood, then a wily 34-year-old, borrowed it from Johnny Cash’s 1960 travelogue, Ride This Train — yet his style of campfire storytelling is uniquely his. Even on a cold winter’s night in Blighty, it can transport you to the dusty canyons of Nevada. Though, as with much country, it’s not for those prone to depression, it’s a record which provides a rare sense of one-on-one company.
The idiosyncrasy of Hazlewood’s vision is underlined across this superlative re-release’s 15 bonus tracks, most of which haven’t been heard in 40 years — if at all. Some were released under the prosaic, short-lived pseudonym, Mark Robinson, while two others were cut with Duane Eddy & His Orchestra.
On “It’s An Actuality,” an unreleased demo from as early as 1955-56, Hazlewood served up the couplet, “Normal people love perfection/ They read Playboy’s middle section.” He would rattle many a feminist’s cage right up to his death in ’07, but, just like esteemed men of letters like Norman Mailer and Henry Miller, he was a true American classic.