Like so many other country icons, the story of Lefty Frizzell, who was born William Orville and dubbed Sonny by his family, is really the story of hardscrabble America. Frizzell embodies the story of wits and perseverance in a time when poverty gripped portions of the South in a steadfast grip. Just as bleak coal mining towns and haggard porches gave birth to Loretta Lynn, cotton fields and dust-caked Texas and New Mexico roadhouses gave birth to the Lefty that fans adore.
While Tin Pan Alley was crooning, Sonny was sleeping on pallets in a house without an indoor bathroom and playing super-hero by tying sheets around his neck and running amuck. Later, as he eked out a living raising money for a WWII veterans hotel, he understood that such dire circumstances, grim as they were, only stiffened his Nietzschean-like resolve. Frizzell made marks on musical history with a boyish smile and unique vocal delivery that was deeply affected by listening to yodels from the likes of Jimmie Rodgers.
Sonny earned his alias Lefty after frenzied fisticuffs with local boys. Unfortunately, such scrapes were nothing compared to a brute father who was loved only when far away in World War II’s danger zones. At home, his father was, at best, a rancorous and demanding figure, at worst a venomous drunk who attacked his own wife. But Lefty’s mother is the one true hero in the whole story. She was the lifeline for Sonny and his siblings.
Her desire and devotion are painstakingly pictured, wept over, and catalogued. When all hell broke loose, when jail time lurked and rotten managers hovered, dipping into Lefty’s pockets, his mother was in the background, providing a spirited backbone and an indelible belief in Sonny’s unlimited brilliance. She sewed Lefty’s early cowboy suits with flair, and sowed his emotional belief in himself. When life seemed desolate, and Lefty endured county jail time and career missteps, she was the gardener making sure his life blossomed, regardless.
Brother David Frizzell provides the account I Love You a Thousand Ways: The Lefty Frizzell Story in a lean, anecdotal, and breezy style. As both kin and songwriter himself, who scored a few huge hits in the early ‘80s, he sketches the biography with warm primary colors. He’s not concerned with country folklore or song-by-song analysis, but with providing a kind of humble snapshot of a legend, from his own trusting hands. He effortlessly invokes an era well before Nashville succumbed to total plastic pop with a southern underbelly for the Wal-mart iPod generation.
With ample humor and easy reminiscing, David Frizzell recounts the bygone generation when road trips were the Internet highway, phone calls across state lines could cost over $5—a formidable price in those days—radio shows like the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport could make and break an artist, and songs were crafted in studios in live takes and later stolen by middlemen who cashed endless checks as Lefty worked the lonely miles between gigs, scribbling letters home to his wife Alice, who endured it all, and kept those handwritten gems.
Like many artists, Lefty was almost always at the mercy of charlatans, or at least businessmen whose talent did not include helping over-worked singers. Luckily, Lefty enjoyed the profound camaraderie of family, legends like Hank Williams, with whom he holed up for three days trading songs, and a knack for songwriting that stayed deep in his DNA, even as chartbusting hits eluded him.
Lefty began as a kid singing from balconies, carving out a KELD-AM radio slot as a 12-year-old with plenty of gumption, and penning achey-breaky love songs. He had a stirring baritone, innovative phrasing, willowy delivery—and a boyish charm and total commitment to music. He practically kick-started the career of younger admirers, such as Merle Haggard (whose foreword graces the book). That maverick has never forgotten Lefty’s kindness and originality.
“... I’m more excited about this [recording the songs of Lefty Frizzell] than anything I’ve ever done, because it’s done without any electronic manipulation. We’re using basic microphones, no echo of any kind. We’re doing it all at the same time, so the spirit rises at once. It’s incredible,” Haggard told me back in June 2001.
“I can’t imagine how far off the damn center we’ve come with this electronic bombardment of manipulation and making everybody a good singer, when they couldn’t sing one song—couldn’t sing ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ without the help of a tuner of some sort. In 40 years, I haven’t heard a voice as good as Lefty Frizzell’s.”