Lee Hazlewood and his DIY career path have inspired a sometimes small but always dedicated musical cult, one that stretches back through the last several decades. The last domestic reissue program, via Steve Shelley's Smells Like Records, started strong in 1999 with the U.S. debuts of some of Hazlewood's European-only '70s discs, but shortly fizzled out. It's taken another decade-plus, but Light in the Attic is here to save the day with a new reissue program, now four releases deep and already looking like a winner. The latest release goes back to the beginning of songwriter/producer Hazlewood's career as a recording artist hisownself with an expanded edition of his debut solo LP, Trouble is a Lonesome Town.
Released originally by Mercury Records in 1963, Trouble is a Lonesome Town was a fitting opening shot for Hazlewood's unique, oblique canon. Ostensibly a concept piece about a small town, the loose storyline is largely carried by between-song narration by Hazlewood. The songs are a group of character sketches in Hazlewood's plainspoken style, and it's easy to assume they weren't necessarily created with a theme in mind since there are numbers dating back at least as far a pair of Sanford Clark B-sides ("Son of a Gun" and "Run Boy Run") from 1959.
John Dixon's liner notes provide a bit of explication, as he unearthed a Billboard blurb from 1960 discussing an upcoming folk album from Sill-Hazlewood Productions with "narration and vocals" ... by Sanford Clark. Fast forward a few years later, after the dissolution of his partnership with Lester Sill, and Hazlewood had his own demo version of the project in hand. It caught the ear of Mercury's Jack Tracy, and the label apparently issued the demo just as it was. Dixon's notes also recount that the demo was tracked at Western Recorders, but unfortunately exactly when that took place isn't explained. It would be interesting to know if an earlier version involving Clark ever got beyond the idea stage.
Looking back with some historical perspective, the album's original issuance on the eve of Beatlemania ended up being a good time for this disc to get lost and quickly disappear, which is exactly what happened. The spare production style of Trouble ... was not going to fly as rock music, and was also probably not ornate enough for a C&W scene succumbing to countrypolitan's syrupy charms.
Mercury clearly wasn't sure what to make of it; a sub-headline on the back cover proclaims diffidently "Narrated and sung in a manner which will give you a unique half hour of enjoyment." Project supervisor Tracy was much more prescient in describing the album as "Americana" in the original liner notes, a few decades before that descriptor became common parlance. The logical assumption is the label must have been hoping for some folkies to catch on.
While Hazlewood die-hards might already have Trouble is a Lonesome Town in some form (it was among the 1999 Smells Like Records reissues), the new version is the first time the superior mono mix has re-emerged since its original issuance in the '60s. The sound quality is top notch throughout, and on this copy there's no pressing issue of the sort (non-fill) that plagued at least some copies of the previous LP release, A House Safe for Tigers.
Light in the Attic's two-LP edition also significantly ups the ante by delving backwards even further into Hazlewood's archives. There are three demos from his initial Arizona recording forays in 1955-56, as well as both of Hazlewood's singles issued as Mark Robinson and one under his own name with the "Duane Eddy Orchestra." Also included is a promotional EP done in the style of Trouble's narration, with Hazlewood recounting his biography in his laconic, inimitable style, backed by guitar improvisation from Billy Strange.
There are some very interesting songs among this early material, the singles sides of which find Hazlewood trying out a few contemporary pop guises (rockabilly, teener, crooner). The demo "It's an Actuality" is a song that could only come from Hazlewood; nobody else would come up with a couplet like "We're all proud of my friend Mort/He illustrated Kinsley's (sic) report." And surprisingly, "The Girl on Death Row" lives up to its title as one of the most distinctive and least silly takes on the teen death ballad ever waxed.
The biographical EP may not be something one wants to spin every time this album comes off the shelf, but I'm glad it's included for a bit of Hazlewood's backstory straight from the mustache's source. A limited number of copies of the LP ordered directly from Light in the Attic are available with a reproduction of a script for a proposed television series based on the album, from later in the '60s at the height of Hazlewood's fame, so act fast! (Light in the Attic, 2013)