Trouble Is A Lonesome Town
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
As the story goes, Lee Hazelwood never intended for his debut to be released. . . at least, not as we’ve come to know it. Trouble Is A Lonesome Town was recorded as a series of sparse demos. When the folks at Mercury released the hokey-seeming recording in 1963, it failed to engage a large audience.
Hazelwood had experienced success prior, producing for Duane Eddy, and also in the years following, most notably for writing “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” and numerous others for Nancy Sinatra. He’s since become regarded a pioneer of the psychedelic country-pop sound that bubbled just below the mainstream radar in the late ’60s. At one point he was even linked to Gram Parsons prior to his respective stints in The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers. Many think of Hazelwood as the quintessential ‘urban cowboy.’
Fast forward 50 years and his music is experiencing a revival, thanks in part to Light in the Attic Records having recently reissued a chunk of his catalog. Add to that this curious undertaking on the SideOneDummy label from Thriftstore Masterpiece, an indie-All-Stars collective organized by producer Charles Normal, which pays homage to Hazelwood’s debut in the form of a fun-loving reenactment.
Normal discovered Hazelwood’s nostalgic gem – a ten-track-narrative about a fictional southern town full of disenfranchised souls – at a junkshop in Oslo, Norway. He was instantly smitten, coming to enlist an oddball group of familiar fellows to help embellish the bare-bones originals with full-band arrangements. He compiled the tracks on-and-off over the next five years. The results often sound like the town of Trouble must be located just south of the border – mariachi horns are prominently featured, and Latin rhythms often spice up the earthy grit at the album’s core. Despite this, Trouble is an unmistakable slice of Americana.
The scrappy, cow-punk vibe that Frank Black (a.k.a. Black Francis of Pixies fame) firmly establishes on opener “Long Black Train” – and continues with his other two contributions – ends up holding the set together, setting a tone mimicked by Modest Mouse front man Isaac Brock (“The Railroad”), Pete Yorn (“Six Feet of Chain”), and Normal’s late brother Larry (“Ugly Brown,” and the title song). Black’s son, Julian, throws an amusing, youthful shift of perspective on the endearing cha-cha “Son of a Gun.” As a group, these performances lend a note of continuity to the project, helping portray it as a band effort rather than a group of unrelated artists gathered for a tribute. Ongoing narration from none other than Normal’s mailman, Jerry, maintains the storyline when the sound occasionally takes a departure, as on “Peculiar Guy,” performed with unmistakable Euro-flair by Art Brut’s Eddie Argos, and the folksy “We All Make the Flowers Grow,” sweetened with a feminine touch ala Normal’s wife Kristin Blix. Courtney Taylor-Taylor of The Dandy Warhols offers the most modern sounding track in the bunch with his take on “Look at That Woman.”
Granted, if you lack a soft-spot for cowboy kitsch and/or mid-century country hybrids, even this updated take on Trouble may not entertain you any more than the original did for listeners a half century back. But for those that enjoy some camp in their twang, from Bobbie Gentry to Loretta Haggers’ character on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Hazelwood’s fictional tale of anytown-south’s underbelly will likely amuse and delight. To appreciate the story, however, a sense of historical perspective is required. Unfortunately, many of us are desensitized to the point that the human foibles portrayed in Hazelwood’s story might seem. . . well, a little ‘old hat.’