Welcome to Hazleweird

Lee Hazlewood

John Mellencamp can breathe in a small town, but Lee Hazlewood couldn’t.

“Town” dots Hazlewood’s iconoclastically subversive catalog same as Malvina Reynolds’ “little boxes made of ticky tacky” all looking just the same. If people ridicule that which they unwittingly embody, that which they can’t escape, Hazlewood, who died August 4 in Nevada at the age of 78, should’ve covered hayseed boy’s “Small Town,” inverting it the same way he cow-poked fun at a lifetime’s worth of previously innocuous standards. Liner notes to the first of his three solo LPs for Frank Sinatra’s personal imprint, now collected on Rhino Handmade’s new Lee Hazlewood, Strung Out on Something New: The Reprise Recordings, provide sketchy details from 1964.

“A Mannford, Oklahoma evacuee, Lee now lives in the San Fernando Valley of California, spending his time writing, loafing... and fixing his favorite food, Billy Steak. (“Take one fifth of 12-year-old Scotch, and eight ounces of cheap steak; drink the fifth of Scotch and feed the steak to the dog; nobody likes to eat a cheap cut of steak anyway.”) Lee also gives considerable thought to the development of a low-cal Scotch.

“At this point, it would be best to confess that we at Reprise Records have a real problem. We originally asked Lee to write his own liner notes for this album. What’s so embarrassing is that he did.”

The “Wit and Warmth” aging Hazlewood’s The N.S.V.I.P.s (Not So Very Important People) roll-calls just the former Okie and Al Casey’s 12-string guitar. And some very soft bass. Only 1963 Mercury Records debut Trouble is a Lonesome Town preceded the NSVIP LP, its Mark Twain-ish spoken intros preceding tall tales of small town happenstance. A Phoenix disc jockey that had become a Midas touch producer, Hazlewood’s drawling good humor and unfailing compositional simplicity lands NSVIP somewhere between Hee Haw and forgotten 1950s comedy duo Bob & Ray.

“On each [song], Lee begins telling a tale,” continues Hazlewood’s self-introduction. “It’s usually a gentle tale, usually about a soul that, if not lost, is at least pretty widely overlooked (hence the album title). After a minute or so of winsome verbal wanderings, Lee then launches into another Hollywood product: a song, usually less winsome and more pointed and satirical.”

Take, for example, NSVIP's second Hazlewood original, “I Had a Friend,” and its sole two verses:

“I had a friend named Bill. He lived over there on that big hill. I went to see him yesterday, then I heard someone say: ‘You’re just in time to be too late, we shot Bill this morning. He read some books we didn’t appreciate, so we shot Bill this morning. You missed the crowd all filled with hate. We burned his house last night at 8. Ain’t you sorry that you’re late? We shot Bill this morning.’

“I had a friend named Sam. Sam was a mighty man. I went to see him yesterday. Then I heard someone say: ‘You’re just in time to be too late, we hung Sam this morning. He had ideas he thought were great. We hung Sam this morning. He said all men should be free, but we know this can never be, so we hung him to a tree. We hung Sam this morning.’”

Delivered in Hazlewood’s innocent bystander shrug, think Shel Silverstein off his meds. Every NSVIP leads with Calaveras Country incredulity.

“Dirk Thornton thinks he’s a goose. It’s alright, though, ‘cause we let ‘im.”
(“I’m Gonna Fly”)

“Tinker Mason hated cities. You just name any city, and Tinker’d hate it for ya.” (“Go Die, Big City”)

“Malina Lynch is fat. She weighs 142 pounds… on each side.”
(“Save Your Vote for Clarence Mudd”)

“Elf Dilly has a three-legged chicken by the name of Maxine.”
(“I Might Break Even”)

1965’s Friday’s Child (“…is a little ugly”), which new reissue liners from Patti Smith power source and pop historian Lenny Kaye tag as a “more traditional singer-songwriter album,” incorporates Hazlewood’s NSVIP mockery into a Roger Miller template. Dean Martin quaff “Houston,” for instance, does for the Bay City was Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” did for Curt Kirkwood. What the Meat Puppets could do to Hazlewood’s “Hutchinson Jail.” On the other hand, a fairly straight Hazlewood nugget of romantic regret, “By the Way,” could be any prime country-western male stoicizing. Covers of Harlan Howard’s trotsy “Sally Was a Good Old Girl” and Bobby Darin’s “Since You’re Gone” soak up more crocodile tears. The dong, dong, dong of “That Old Freight Train” drawls as irresistibly as Johnny Cash doing a Red Sovine impression. The original LP introduction chuckles at ol' Hazleweird:

“He tells lots of stories, mostly about his ‘billy friends from the hill country. He’ll tell you about the novel he’s noodling with – about a ‘billy named Elmo Furback, who takes a bus from Phoneix to L.A., which isn’t exactly Ian Fleming, but does benefit from a straight-line plot. Or about the Christmas Eve he swallowed a big bug in the May Co. parking lot. Or about the time he got locked in the john at the Toluca Lake Hot Dog Show. Or drawl on about his Darlin (his black-haired Souther belle of a wife, Naomi).”

Strung Out’s second disc opens with Hazlewood taking “Ode to Billie Joe” from melodrama to minstrelsy in a manner promised to make AM radio devotees steer clear of the Mason Dixon line, north and south. 1968’s Love and Other Crimes, recorded in Paris with sidemen to the stars Hal Blaine and James Burton, revels in Hazlewood’s newfound success as Nancy Sinatra’s producer. His reading of Southern standard “Morning Dew” would’ve made Duane Allman fall off his stool laughing. “She Comes Running” jumps off the aluminum bit next, instant Hazlewood indellible. Parched lounge lizardry (“She’s Funny That Way”) counters the sincere supplication of both “Wait and See” and “Forget Marie.” When Hazlewood’s not gently yanking chains, he’s pulling heartstrings. The closing title track, a one-minute confessional, guilty as charged. Crimes flies the straightest of the singer’s trio Reprise releases, making it – paradoxically - both the best and the least of the three LPs here.

Almost two dozen tracks Hazlewood produced for others flesh out the pair of nearly 80-minute discs in boutique gatefold-out Digipak and slipcase. From the instrumental flourish of Jack Nitzsche’s flaring “Zapata” through Wildcats’ sock-hop “What Are We Gonna Do in ’64?” and pre-teen novelty Dino, Desi, & Billy wetting themselves on “The Rebel Kind” to the bongo-driven twang of the Our Man Flint movie theme, Hazlewood produces. Well. Duane Eddy (“This Guitar Was Made for Twangin’”) t’weren’t good for nothing but wham, bang, instrumental twank ya m’am, his “Monsoon” slowing Dick Dale to braille, while closer “This Town” creeps down the main street of Hazlewood’s shot up and strung up ghost town of origin.

Those were Lee Hazlewood’s boots that were made for walking, not Nancy Sinatra’s.

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More Lee Hazlewood
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Lee Hazlewood R.I.P.

Audra Schroeder, Aug. 6, 2007

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Lee Hazlewood, Strung Out On Something New: The Reprise Recordings

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