At the end of Light in the Attic’s new reissue of Trouble is a Lonesome Town, the listener gets a six-part biography narrated by Hazlewood, initially sent out as promo material for the album. It’s worth noting that Hazlewood’s story starts with opposition and anonymity. According to him, one of the “almost 200 people in the United States” asked “who is Lee Hazlewood?” When he offers an answer, the asker gives him a “daddy-bear punch.” So Hazlewood is, in his own story, both lost in a sea of people and someone who might get hit a lot.
This self-deprecation and dark sense of humor serves him well on this album, even if it sets up some curious promotional material. But before we delve too deeply into the extra material here, it’s worth understanding context for the album itself. This, his 1963 debut, wasn’t really much of an arrival for Hazlewood in the musical world. He was already there. He wrote hit songs and produced records for years, working with Duane Eddy and the Shacklefords. He’d even released some vocal singles under the name Mark Robinson. But Trouble is a Lonesome Town was his first true solo record, released when Hazlewood was already 35.
The Texas-born singer-songwriter first got into music as a DJ, which fits perfectly with is work on this album. As a DJ, he not only learned what made hit songs, he learned how to bookend them, how to tell stories, how to set up a song and get an audience excited about it. Trouble is a Lonesome Town finds Hazlewood not DJing but rather sitting around the campfire, spinning dusty yards about that title town and all its inhabitants. It’s the kind of storytelling that’s full of clever lines and memorable characters – see the undertaker Sleepy Gilwreath, Emery “Ugly” Brown, Winfield Bloodsaw who runs the feedstore, the town knockout Anna May Stillwell, to name a few. Hazlewood’s interstitial tales paint Trouble as a poor town, a down-and-out place, but a community nonetheless.
What seems to keep these people together is that they are inextricably tied to a place. As sarcastic and Hazlewood can be in his tale telling, the stories of everyone’s shortcomings or minimal successes set up songs that are all about escape – both the possibility and impossibility of it. “Long Black Train” is about the train that cuts through the town – because of course there’s a train track – and two boys who yearn to get away, one of which turns to crime and the other who has to catch his friend before the law does. “Ugly Brown” is stuck by his looks and he admits, “Even my own dog bites me.” The kids in “Son of a Gun” are trying to avoid paying for the mistakes of their outlaw parents, while “Six Feet of Chain” finds two crooked brothers – Orville and George Dockins – literally bound to each other. Hazlewood makes sure we, and the people who live in this town know there’s no getting out. “We All Make the Flowers Grow” tells the story of the town’s undertaker, not surprisingly the most well-dressed (i.e. most successful) man in the town, and by the time we’re to the closing title track, Hazlewood isn’t storytelling so much as giving up to the fact that Trouble is a place to “die and be forgotten.”
This may seem all pretty dark for what is ostensibly a concept pop record, but Hazlewood injects it with enough dark humor and brief moments of hope and absurdity (see “A Peculiar Guy”) that things never get too bleak. This in spite of the evergreen sadness of Hazlewood’s low, gravelly voice and the spare, dusty compositions here, based mostly around his voice, his simple but affecting melodies, and an acoustic guitar. This of course drives the campfire feel home – even when a harmonica comes in to impersonate the train whistle – though Hazlewood himself claims this was merely a demo. To listen to the album, and its careful construction, is to remember another album that was supposedly a demo, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. In both cases, the notion of the album as a demo is probably more self-stylized myth than actuality, but also in both cases the conceit doesn’t affect authenticity.
Because make no mistake, the storytelling here is a conceit, one that threatens to get in the way of a nearly perfect batch of songs. But while this reissue does us one huge favor in giving us the long-unavailable original mono recordings of the album, which sound excellent, it also tells a different story. The bonus tracks cover some unreleased solo recordings from 1955, as well as a few tracks Hazlewood released as Mark Robinson, some he recorded singing for Duane Eddy’s orchestra, and of course the biography. They are, in and of themselves, not all that special. But to hear the surf rock of the Mark Robinson track “Pretty Jane” or the sweet pop grandiosity of the Eddy tune “Words Mean Nothing” or even his own early, rough-hewn tunes like “It’s an Actuality” or “Forth Worth” is to hear a series of fascinating tangents, each one in search of Hazlewood’s voice as an artist. The early songs – replete with intro stories – feel intimate but slightly awkward, the Mark Robinson songs of a piece with trends but indistinct, the Eddy tunes a huge sound drowning out the hidden oddities and expressions in Hazlewood’s voice.
And then there’s the proper album. A story about a town and a people that do not exist. It’s a fiction entirely, and yet it’s more revealing of Hazlewood as writer and performer than anything else here, and the start of a career that would follow with other equally curious albums that, in their obscure pop turns, reveal truth about Hazlewood and his songs, each an attempt to find humor and humanity in the darkest of corners. Cowboy in Sweden and A House Made for Tigers may have been stranger, but they wouldn’t exist (and couldn’t match up anyway) to Trouble is a Lonesome Town. So whether it’s tossed-off tales or a deeply constructed, intricately woven narrative, in the end it doesn’t really matter. It’s Lee Hazlewood, and it’s a fine record we’re lucky to have readily available again.