There aren’t many artists whose careers took as many twists and turns as Lee Hazelwood. Having left the US Army, Lee worked as a disc jockey, whilst forging a career as a songwriter. The first hit he wrote and produced was Sanford Clark’s 1956 rockabilly hit The Fool. Two years later, in 1958, Lee and Duane Eddy formed a successful partnership. Lee wrote and produced a string of hits for Duane. This included 1958s Rebel Rouser and Peter Gunn, plus 1959s Forty Miles of Bad Road and Shazam. Then in 1960, Lee decided to launch his solo career.

His debut single was Words Mean Nothing, which Lee recorded with Duane Eddy and His Orchestra. Words Mean Nothing wasn’t a commercial success, so Lee went back to songwriting and production. He continued his partnership with Duane Eddy, which was one the most productive of his career. The two pioneers enjoyed a run of successful hit singles. Lee also wrote singles for Tony Castle, Greg Connors, Tom and Jerry, Donny Owen and The Ventures. Then in 1963, Lee Hazelwood decided to relaunch his solo career. Signing to Mercury, Lee Hazelwood released Trouble Is A Lonesome Town, which was recently rereleased by Light In The Attic Records. Before I tell you about Trouble Is A Lonesome Town I’ll tell you about the early years of Lee Hazelwood’s career.

Lee Hazelwood was born in Mannford, Oklahoma in April 1936. During his early years, Lee and his family moved between Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. Brought up on a diet of bluegrass and pop, Lee’s tastes broadened when his family moved to Texas. Music it seemed was in his blood. Despite that, Lee didn’t make a career out of music when he left high school.

No. On leaving high school, Lee headed to Dallas’ Southern Methodist University, where he decided to study medicine. After university, Lee joined the US Army during the Korean War. When he was discharged from the Army, Lee decided medicine wasn’t for him. 

Instead, Lee took a job as a disc jockey. His reason for doing so, was it allowed him to work on his songwriting skills. Lee had decided to pursue a career in music. That didn’t mean spinning records. No. It meant writing them.

The first hit Lee wrote and produced was Sanford Clark’s 1956 rockabilly hit The Fool. That was just the start of Lee’s musical career. He went on to pen two more hits for Sanford Clark, 1956s Usta Be My Baby and 1957s The Man Who Made An Angel Cry. Lee then wrote Leroy Vandyke’s 1957s The Pocket Book Song and Pat Boone’s 1957 single Why Did I Choose You? However, Lee’s career really took off when he met innovative guitarist Duane Eddy. 

Best known for his twangy guitar sound, Duane Eddy will always be remembered as  a pioneering guitar player. With Lee Hazelwood writing and producing many of his singles, Duane Eddy went onto enjoy a successful career. Lee penned and produced 1958s The Walker, Rebel Rouser, Dixie Part 1 and Peter Gunn. Soon, Lee writing for other artists, including Sam Horn and His Orchestra, Mark Robinson and Das Hazy Osterwald Sextet. However, just like 1958, most of the hits he wrote were for Dune Eddy.

During 1959, Duane Eddy enjoyed a string of hit singles. Forty Miles of Bad Road, Only Child, The Quiet Three and Shazam. Duane Eddy was now one of the biggest names in music. Although Lee had to keep the hits coming for Duane, he penned singles for Hans Brandel and Sanford Clark. This was no bad thing, as the hits started drying up for Duane Eddy.

1960 saw Duane Eddy release just three singles, one of which Rebel Walk, had been released before. Luckily, Lee was writing for other artists including Paul Rich, Tony Castle and Greg Connors. Another artist who’d release a single during 1960 was Lee Hazelwood.

Lee’s debut single was Words Mean Nothing. which Lee recorded with Duane Eddy and His Orchestra. It wasn’t a commercial success, so Lee went back to songwriting and production. However, Lee had enjoyed a tantalizing taste of life as a recording artist. His return to songwriting and production was only going to be temporary.

For the next three years, Lee Hazelwood was busy working as songwriter and producer. During 1961, Lee worked penned songs for Tom and Jerry, Donnie Owens, Tony Gunner and Bud Ashton and His Group. Then in 1962, Duane Eddy enjoyed a string of hit singles. With The Shadows and The Ventures recording songs written by Lee, Lee Hazelwood could’ve continued to enjoy a career as a successful songwriter. He didn’t. 

Instead, Lee decided to relaunch his solo career. He signed to Mercury and began work in what was his 1963 debut album, Trouble Is A Lonesome Town. The last seven years had been time well spent. Not only did Lee write the ten tracks on Trouble Is A Lonesome Town, but he produced the album which was recorded at Western Recorders.

When recording began at Western Recorders, in Los Angeles, Lee had put together a tight band of experienced session players. The rhythm section featured drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Bert Dodson and guitarists Billy Lee Riley, Billy Strange and Marshall Leib. Billy Lee Riley added harmonica and Hal Baline percussion on the ten tracks that became Trouble Is A Lonesome Town, which was released in 1963.

On its release in 1963 Trouble Is A Lonesome Town failed to chart. Neither did the title-track. Critics were won over by Lee’s worldweary baritone on what is essentially a concept album. Each of the ten country-tinged tales of heart, hurt, life and love gone wrong on Trouble Is A Lonesome Town are about a town called Trouble. In Trouble you’ll hear about The Railroad, Ugly Brown, Son Of A Gun and The Peculiar Guy, each of which I’ll tell you about.

Long Back Train, a railroad song, opens Trouble Is A Lonesome Town. Lee’s half-spoken vocal makes him sound like an old-fashioned storyteller. Then with guitars and harmonica accompanying him, the story unfolds. His vocal is wistful, as he remembers the dreams and hopes he and his childhood friend had. Then years later, they’re on opposite sides. When his friend robs a bank, his job is to bring him to justice. As he sings about his friend being sentenced to “ninety-nine years,” although it’s with a sense of sadness and regret, he knew it was the right thing to do. 

Ugly Brown sees Lee follow a similar pattern as the opening track. Lee’s half-spoken vocal gives way to his vocal as he introduces to another character from a small-town. This time, it’s “Ugly Brown.” Lee’s delivery is deadpan, as he delivers lyrics like: “ even my own dog bites me…no one wants me in this town…I won’t swim in the river…cos every time I get out, you keep throwing me back.” Heartache, hurt and humor collide head-on during this country-tinged track.

Son Of A Gun is another story of a judgmental small town. This time, Lee introduces us to the outlaw’s son. With just an acoustic guitar and haunting harmonica for company, Lee’s vocal veers between sadness, melancholia and frustration. Later, there’s a twist in the tale. This Son Of A Gun who nobody never expected to amount to anything, goes from zero to hero by saving someone’s life.

As We All Make the Flowers Grow which sees us introduced to the small town undertaker, opens, it features some of the best lyrics on Trouble Is A Lonesome Road. You can picture the scenes unfolding before your eyes. Similarly, you can see the character striding down main street. Then as Lee delivers a thoughtful vocal, chiming guitars replace his nihilistic vocal. His vocal is confident and bereft of emotion as he delivers the line: “sooner or later we all make the little flowers grow.”

On Run Boy Run, Lee sounds not unlike Johnny Cash. With just acoustic guitars and meandering bass accompanying his vocal, Lee tells the story of an outlaw on the run. Lee’s advice is “Run Boy Run.” Melodic and catchy, it’s one of the highlights of Trouble Is A Lonesome Road.

Six Feet Of A Chain demonstrates Lee Hazelwood’s songwriting skills. Featuring lyrics that are cerebral, descriptive and dark, they tell the story of two brothers who are constantly jailed for stealing from each other. There’s a bitterness and real hatred in the lyrics, that shows how much the two brothers dislike each other. They’re never happier than when the other loses their liberty and find themselves attached to “Six Feet Of A Chain.”

Over the last hundred years, songwriters have written used railroads as a source of inspiration. Lee Hazelwood is no exception. So vivid are the lyrics to The Railroad, you realize who grueling and tough the work was. All week, the men worked hard and when they got paid, they let their hair down. Lee emotively describes this scene as it unfolds. Drinking and fighting was part of their life. Then when all that was over, another week begins on “The Railroad,” and they do it again.

Look At That Woman tells the story of the prettiest woman in this town called Trouble. Like everything else in this railroad town, something’s amiss. According to her husband, she’s got a cold heart and “I wish that woman was anyone else’s but mine.” Even love it seems, doesn’t run smoothly in Trouble.

Crystalline guitars accompany Lee’s vocal on Peculiar Guy. Usually, he’s like an old fashioned storyteller, painting pictures of life in this small town called Trouble. This time, the pictures are surreal and lysergic. It’s as if they’re painted by Salvidor Dali. You’re introduced to a man who won his wife in a card game. Briefly, she proved to be something of a lucky charm for him. That was until a lion ate her. After that, his luck changed. Then her husband slays the lion, leaving Trouble heartbroken and alone. Surreal, mythical and lysergic describes this left-field track.

Trouble Is a Lonesome Town closes with the title-track. It’s Lee’s farewell to the town called Trouble. With a worldweary, desperate vocal, Lee sings: “Lord I want to leave this town.” No wonder, given the characters we’ve been introduced to. With a sense of inevitably and a haunting harmonica for company, Lee sings: “Trouble Is a Lonesome Town, Trouble is where I was born.” Deep down he knows that Trouble is where he’ll die.

Lee Hazelwood’s debut album Trouble Is a Lonesome Town is best described as a concept album. During each of the ten tracks, you’re introduced to some of the characters that inhabit the backwater town of Trouble. Like all small towns, it’s a town full of characters and secrets. We meet the Peculiar Guy, Ugly Brown and Son Of A Gun. Then there’s the outlaws in Run Boy Run and Long Back Train use The Railroad that runs through Trouble to make their escape from Trouble. Proving that beauty is only skin deep is Look At That Woman, the tale of a cold hearted, beautiful woman. One of the most compelling characters is the undertaker and part-time philosopher in We All Make the Flowers Grow. No tale of life in a small town is complete without a “jail song.” There’s two on Trouble Is a Lonesome Town, Six Feet Of Chain and Long Back Train. This completes the story of life in Trouble.

Each of these songs are chapters in the story that is Trouble Is a Lonesome Town are variously compelling, gritty, dark and realistic. Lee Hazelwood is an old-fashioned storyteller. His worldweary half-spoken vocal sets the scene for each tale of life in Trouble. Accompanied by an understated arrangement, Lee’s worldweary, lived-in vocal takes centre-stage. He brings the stories to life, as if he’s lived or witnessed each of the stories. This is what makes them so effective. They’re believable, despite being recorded forty years ago. These songs have stood the test of time, despite the understated, no-frills arrangements. They allow the Lee Hazelwood’s vocal to take centre-stage. That’s where it belongs as Lee describes living in a town called Trouble, which he describes on his evocative, country concept album Trouble Is a Lonesome Town, which launched Lee Hazelwood’s five decade solo carer. Standout Tracks: Long Back Train, Son Of A Gun, Run Boy Run and Six Feet Of Chain.


1 Comment

  1. Rob

    It’s H-A-Z-L-E-W-O-O-D.

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