Week 19: The Legendary Lefty Frizzell

Week 19: The Legendary Lefty Frizzell

A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.

There have been times throughout Nashville Or Bust when I felt like I was writing about the same country legend over and over again. The names and specifics differed, but the general outline was the same. A talented young man from a hardscrabble background discovers salvation in music while battling internal and external demons. Surrounded by drug dealers, con men, hustlers, and worst of all, executives, he channels a world of pain into hauntingly beautiful music, writing standards and No. 1 hits while barely old enough to drink legally. 

Fame and wealth only exacerbate his genius for self-destruction. He’s too talented and beloved to fail, but too fucked-up and dysfunctional to succeed. So he squanders his fortune on fast cars and faster women, spends time in jail, endures troubled marriages and ex-wives’ scorn, and ultimately either dies a young, dramatic, substance-related death, or dramatically kicks his addictions and lives to be an elder statesman.

So I really hoped, for his sake and ours, that the subject of this Nashville Or Bust entry, the great Lefty Frizzell, wouldn’t fit into this tragic template of genius gone to rot. Surely good old Lefty would be the exception that proved the rule, the clean-living, sober, responsible good apple who exercised moderation and restraint in all matters, managed his finances wisely, and died happy and wealthy, surrounded by his adoring children.

Yet I can’t say I’m surprised that Daniel Cooper’s Lefty Frizzell: The Honky-Tonk Life Of Country Music’s Greatest Singer, a lively, funny, affectionate biography of the seminal artist, opens with its 19-year-old subject in jail for the statutory rape of a 14-year-old. The jailhouse stint went on to play a huge role in the singer’s mythology, for it was there that he composed “I Love You A Thousand Ways” for his longsuffering wife. 

The song’s plea for forgiveness and patience is universal, but lyrics like “Darling please wait, please wait until I’m free / There’ll be a change, a great change made in me” speaks to a much more specific context. The aching sincerity of the lyrics match the almost nursery-rhyme simplicity of the melody. Emotional directness was one of Frizzell’s biggest charms. 

When Frizzell exploded onto the country scene with the massive one-two punch of “I Love You A Thousand Ways” and “If You’ve Got The Money I’ve Got The Time,” he sounded like no one else. Frizzell transformed the songs he sang every bit as dramatically as his idol Jimmie Rodgers or his friend/rival Hank Williams. But he did so in a way that never called attention to itself. He was the most casual and unassuming of musical revolutionaries, a man with an irresistible style so natural, it didn’t even seem like a style. 

Cooper convincingly posits Frizzell as the father of contemporary country singing. He’s the daddy of just about everybody’s style; Merle Haggard is a particularly close descendent. If you could trademark vocal mannerisms and an overall aesthetic, Haggard would still be paying royalties to Frizzell’s estate. It’d be easy to mistake Frizzell’s songs for Haggard’s even if Haggard didn’t make a point of covering his hero’s songs. 

While Frizzell’s delivery was slyly sophisticated, the lyrics of his early hits were simple to the point of being simplistic. The words Frizzell sang weren’t as important as the infectious way he sang them. No song better illustrates Frizzell’s genius for elevating trite lyrics through masterful delivery than his late-career hit “Saginaw, Michigan.” It’s a hokey morality tale about a simple fisherman’s son who gets revenge on the wealthy, disapproving father of the girl he wants to marry by saddling him with a worthless goldmine in Alaska, but Frizzell’s hypnotic delivery makes the song far better than it has any right to be. 

Frizzell’s life was marked by prison, a tumultuous marriage, a career with more valleys than peaks, and an alcohol-induced early death at 47, but he seems to have enjoyed most of it. He made friends easily, had a great sense of humor and charmed everyone around him, especially women. 

In the early 1950s, Frizzell rivaled Hank Williams in popularity, but his superstardom proved short-lived. By 1958, he hadn’t landed a song on the country charts in three years. An unwritten law seems to dictate that the more successful country singers become, the less they feel they need to write their own material. The hunger that fuels great songwriters on their way up seems to elude them once they’ve achieved substantial success. 

So while Frizzell wrote the vast majority of his early hits, he relied increasingly on other songwriters as his creative juices stopped flowing and his career dead-ended. In the late ’50s, Frizzell’s career was reinvigorated when he recorded Marty Robbins’ “Cigarettes And Coffee Blues,” and the first version of a song that would quickly become a country standard: “The Long Black Veil.” 

Country’s greatest ghost song, “The Long Black Veil,” is a haunting narrative about a man who is executed for murder rather than admit he was in bed with his best friend’s wife while the murder was being committed. Like a country version of Sunset Boulevard, the song is told from the perspective of a dead man, so in a nifty reversal of the usual dynamic, the living haunts the dead in the form of a grieving mystery woman who visits the narrator’s grave in a long black veil. Written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin in 1959, it could pass for a traditional folk song. It became an instant classic upon its release. Frizzell understood intuitively that he could best articulate the song’s spooky, primal emotions through understatement and atmosphere rather than histrionics. 

“Long Black Veil” wasn’t the crossover breakthrough Frizzell had hoped for, but after years of struggle and disappointment, he finally scored a monster hit with one of his silliest, most ephemeral trifles: “Saginaw, Michigan.” By this point, Frizzell’s boyish good looks were gone, and his alcoholism had taken a terrible toll on his health and career. Everyone’s pal was increasingly a lost man. 

Frizzell watched with decidedly mixed emotions as generations of young singers who grew up emulating him breezed past him on the charts, most notably Haggard, who loudly proclaimed his love for Frizzell to anyone who would listen. Frizzell’s sense that he was being eulogized before he died increased when Stoney Edwards scored a minor hit with “Hank And Lefty Raised My Country Soul,” a tribute to the dual legacies of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell that seemed to place Frizzell’s career and influences firmly in the past tense. 

So when Frizzell released The Legendary Lefty Frizzell, it was viewed as a late-period masterpiece from a great songwriter forthrightly facing down his own mortality and a lifetime of dissolution and regret, particularly its heartbreaking standout song, “I Never Go Around Mirrors.”

It would be inaccurate to describe Frizzell as forgotten, but he’s nowhere near as well known as Williams or Haggard. Fans looking to download Frizzell’s music will find only compilations and tribute albums from fans like Willie Nelson and Frizzell’s relatives. Frizzell died at 47 in 1975, but the overall impression I got reading Cooper’s book—which is worth the cover price for its George Jones drinking stories alone—is that an exhausted, defeated Frizzell embraced death as a welcome end to a remarkable life in which he’d accomplished more than he ever dreamed possible. 

The lines “I’m sick, sober, and sorry / Broke, disgusted, and sad” from Frizzell’s “Sick, Sober And Sorry” ring true within the context of the singer-songwriter’s life. So does a line that follows: “But look at the fun that I had!” 

Incidentally, I apologize for skipping a few weeks in the Nashville Or Bust rotation so I could concentrate on finishing the My Year Of Flops book. You shouldn’t have to wait anywhere near as long for my next entry: Garth Brooks. At long last I will be engaging with the tricky, oft-maligned beast that is contemporary mainstream country. 

Next up on Nashville Or Bust: 
Garth Brooks
Lee Hazlewood
Buck Owens