A 1960s Songwriter’s Prophecy Fulfilled by Members of the Pixies and Modest Mouse
In 1963, singer and songwriter Lee Hazlewood, known mostly for his collaborations with 1950s guitarist Duane Eddie and singer Nancy Sinatra, for whom he wrote hits like “These Boots Are Made For Walkin;” released his first solo debut record Trouble Is A Lonesome Town. A narrative, cowboy-town concept album, it’s widely considered to be the first of its kind and has inspired other, more familiar creations (Sergeant Pepper, Tommy). For Lee Hazlewood, though, the record did no more than acquire a fandom of other songwriters. No hits came from Trouble, though they come from his duets and singles written for Sinatra. Obscurity enveloped the pulp tale and few music listeners are familiar with the fantasy western town of Trouble and its tragically eccentric inhabitants. Fast-forward fifty years, and Trouble has come back to life.
Producer and multi-instrumental Charles Normal (Guns n’ Roses, Grand Duchy) found a copy of Hazlewood’s Trouble in a thrift store while living in Oslo, Norway in the early 2000s. He became fascinated with the collection of witty, alt-country Americana tracks and the record replayed on his turntable for months. Hazlewood’s intention for the record had always been to inspire other writers in the hopes that the songs would be covered one day. Normal set out to do just that, but not alone. He spent years in the music industry producing and touring with some of today’s most colorful artists. So when Normal decided to take on the task of recreating Hazlewood’s closeted classic, he enlisted the help of some of his musician friends, bandmates and relatives to reenact the story.
Just as Hazlewood’s iconic baritone rambled and rolled over the melodies of the original, so do the characteristic vocals of some of today’s most identifiable voices. Francis Black (Pixies, Grand Duchy) sings on a few. Black’s son Julian, then eight years old, adds one of the record’s highlights on “Son Of A Gun.” You can’t mistake the voice of Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse on “The Railroad,” and alt-rocker Pete Yorn sings “Six Feet Of Chain,” a prison song with a great country-style lyrics. Quirky characters with quirkier names like Sleepy Gilreath, Red Barker, and Emery Zigfoose “Ugly” Brown are brought to life by The Dandy Warhols’ Courtney Taylor-Taylor, Normal’s wife Kristin Blix, and his brother, deceased Christian-rock God Larry Norman. And while the original is narrated by its author, Thriftstore’s version is told by Jerry, Normal’s mailman whose “gee, shucks” timbre sets the perfect tone for this American story.
Thriftstore Masterpiece may very well end up being a one-time collaboration by a group of artists brought together for a singular purpose. And if that’s the case, then Lee Hazlewood, who died in 2007, would be proud knowing that his idea has become a reality. Charles Normal does a beautiful job re-telling this musical tale with subtle but vivid production. The record feels like a Tarantino film with no screen. Who needs visual when the audio paints the perfect picture? And with the strength of Thriftstore’s musicianship, Normal’s production, and Hazlewood’s songwriting, your ears and imagination are all you need. If Trouble Is A Lonesome Town never achieved legendary status in the ’60s, it will now. And let’s hope Thriftstore Masterpiece, a collection of 2013’s most talented characters, decide to continue to collaborate in the tradition of musical story telling that they excel at here on Trouble Is A Lonesome Town.