Lee Hazlewood: 13

Lee Hazlewood's 13 is an excellent -- if uncanny -- addition to his eclectic body of work, a fascinating document for devoted fans and curious newcomers alike.
Lee Hazlewood
Light in the Attic

In September of 1969, on the bloody edge of the Vietnam War, country music legend Merle Haggard released his career-defining single, “Okie from Muskogee”. It was an instant smash, and while Haggard later would later say he was “dumb as a rock” when he wrote it, the song expertly packaged the reactionary stripe of white conservative identity politics that would drive mainstream country and western music for the decades that followed.

“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” Haggard warbles (from California) about a salt-of-the-Earth Okie over a shuffling snare and jangly guitar. “We don’t take no trips on LSD. We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street. We like livin’ right, and bein’ free,” he adds.

At the same time, an Okie from Mannford — about 70 miles northwest of Muskogee — had an entirely different idea about the counterculture. Meet Lee Hazlewood, grandson of an Oklahoma mule skinner who relocated to Sweden in 1970 to protect his son from the draft. Hazlewood bleats in his deadpan baritone on the 1969 psych-country masterpiece, Cowboy in Sweden: “I received your invitation to the war. I sent it back, so please don’t send no more”.

Exploding Haggard’s model of the milquetoast heartlander, Hazlewood offered listeners something more sonically and politically radical. With his good-humored croak and ear for adventurous pop arrangements, he gleefully remapped genre conventions while always treating them with something that sounded an awful lot like lovingness. It’s a move he updates on his delightfully odd 1971 LP, 13 — reissued in January by Light in the Attic Records — which finds Hazlewood sounding like a spirit-wise Route 66 trucker on the set of a chintzy ’70s game show: buoyant, smarmy, still, and always radical.

According to the press release announcing the reissue, “13 was never supposed to be a Lee Hazlewood album”. The record was arranged and produced by Larry Marks, a studio employee of Hazlewood’s LHI Records, who gave a batch of songs from Hazlewood’s back catalogue a bright, brassy, and soulful reboot. The label folded and the album was never released until Hazlewood, enjoying considerable success in his new Scandinavian home, wiped Marks’ vocals from the record and punched in his own. Voilà: 13 was born.

The album’s origins might arguably skew toward the dubious side, but its content makes a pretty convincing case for itself. 13 is an excellent — if uncanny — addition to Hazlewood’s eclectic body of work, a fascinating document for devoted fans and curious newcomers alike. It’s Lee Hazlewood covering Larry Marks covering Lee Hazlewood, but the source hasn’t degraded from all the pivoting. In fact, the sober yet playful quality of Hazlewood’s vocal delivery takes on a different energy in this new context, giving these 13 songs a manic brightness that’s uniquely propulsive.

“Tulsa Sunday”, one of the brightest in the bunch, holds the singular greatness of Hazlewood’s songwriting and the bliss of Marks’ soul-heavy arrangement in each hand. Here, Hazlewood waxes on the vast open skies of Oklahoma (“Don’t it make you wanna get high?”) while trumpets punch a staccato rhythm around the unhurried drawl of the melody. Other tracks, like the effervescent “Ten or 11 Towns Ago” and the sultry blues of “Rosacoke Street”, hit a similar sweet spot as the two halves of the recording hang together with both breeziness and command.

If there’s a through-line of a problem on 13, it’s that a front-to-back listen can have a bit of a pummeling effect. The album’s runtime is brief, but the production (compelling as it may be) tends to go a long way. Then there is the bizarre choice to leave Larry Marks’ vocals on the closing tracks, like the positively dinky “Drums” and the Cowboy in Sweden classic “Cold Hard Times”. It’s a curtain-raising exit that throws the album’s movement out of whack, but considering Hazlewood’s proud history as a thumb-biting agitator — the Okie of the opium den, patron saint of draft-dodging cowpokes — it feels like an appropriate ending to a record that wasn’t supposed to be.

RATING 7 / 10