When NME reviewed Lee Hazlewood’s 1973 album, ‘Poet, Fool or Bum’, the journalist famously wrote a one-word critique, ‘Bum.’
Sure, it’s not one of his best records, and although Hazlewood was arguably all three of those things at some time in his career, the moustachioed maverick US singer-songwriter and producer with the distinctive, whiskey-soaked baritone croon was also a genius who was responsible for some of the most influential americana and country-pop songs of all time.
The former DJ, who was born in Mannford, Oklahoma, in 1929, moved into songwriting and production in the ‘50s, working with rockabilly singer Sanford Clark, and creating a string of instrumental hits for guitarist Duane Eddy.
Hazlewood’s most famous song, ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,’ was a 1966 hit on both sides of the Atlantic for Nancy Sinatra, whom he went on to record a series of duets with, including the seminal and psychedelic ‘Some Velvet Morning’. In 2013, UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph voted it the greatest duet of all time, calling it “one of the strangest, druggiest, mostly darkly sexual songs ever written.”
The inspired and unlikely pairing of Hazlewood’s deep, doom-laden voice with Sinatra’s pop princess vocals has been much imitated since, by the likes of Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell, and Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue.
In 1967, he started his own label, LHI Records (Lee Hazlewood Industries) and signed the International Submarine Band, which featured americana and cosmic country godfather Gram Parsons in its line-up.
Hazlewood moved to Sweden in the ‘70s, recorded several solo albums, but then semi-retired from the music business. Thanks to the endorsement of alternative acts such as Nick Cave, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Tindersticks and Primal Scream, he became a cult figure and was seen as a big influence on the ‘80s and ‘90s indie/ underground scene. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2005 and died two years later – his final studio album, ‘Cake or Death’, was released in 2006.
Hazlewood’s legacy lives on in today’s americana music – barely a week goes by without a contemporary alt-country artist or band putting out a song that a reviewer describes as ‘Lee Hazlewood-esque’, or as sounding like Nancy & Lee.
So put on your boots, stroke your moustache, dig deep, and take a trip into the very special world of Lee Hazlewood, as we choose his top 10 essential songs.
Number 10: ‘Trouble Is A Lonesome Town’ from ‘Trouble Is A Lonesome Town’ (1963)
The title track of Hazlewood’s 1963 debut album, which is a concept record about a backwater town named Trouble. Speaking in 2000, he said: “I didn’t know it was a concept album. I wrote a complete story of a make-believe town.”
There was talk of making a TV show based on the album, but, sadly, nothing came of it. Instead, we can enjoy what would’ve been a great theme song for the series – it starts with a spoken-word introduction by Hazlewood.
Over Mexican-like, acoustic guitar flourishes, he tells us that Trouble is “a place to be born, a place to live and a place to die and be forgotten.’’ He is joined by a ‘clip clop’ rhythm and wailing harmonica, for this americana lament about wanting to leave a town where everyone knows your name.
Number 9: ‘The Night Before’ from ‘Cowboy in Sweden’ (1970)
Smalltown boredom and frustration is a common theme in country music, as is the downside of alcohol – on ‘The Night Before’, from his superb 1970 album ‘Cowboy in Sweden’, a hungover Hazlewood has woken up on a Sunday morning, “with my mind all in a haze.”
He has tear stains on his pillow and makeup on his face and is gazing at accusatory empty whiskey bottles and records scattered on the floor. From the next room he hears crying, and then he remembers the night before… We’ve all been there.
A brilliantly languorous song, with sultry strings, Tijuana brass, groovy organ and laidback, funky electric guitar, this is up there with Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ as a contender for one of the best songs ever written about waking up after a heavy session.
Number 8: ‘Souls Island’ from ‘A House Safe For Tigers’ – original soundtrack recording (1975)
A song taken from the soundtrack to ‘A House Safe For Tigers’, one of seven TV movies Hazlewood made with director Torbjörn Axelman during his period living in Sweden in the early ‘70s, ‘Souls Island’ is a dream-like, lushly orchestrated ballad featuring the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Sweden. Richard Hawley must’ve been taking notes when he first heard it – its influence on his sound is uncanny. Hazlewood croons over rich, velvety strings and takes you away to somewhere truly magical.
Unavailable for a long time, the soundtrack album was reissued by the label Light In The Attic in 2012. The film was a “semi-documentary” featuring Hazlewood and his friend Axelman looking back at childhood and contemplating the meaning of life. “It’s strange – very strange,” Hazelwood said “But we meant it to be strange.”
Number 7: ‘No Train To Stockholm’ from ‘Cowboy in Sweden’ (1970)
One of the last tracks written for the album ‘Cowboy in Sweden‘, which was the soundtrack to a cult film of the same name starring Hazlewood, ‘No Train To Stockholm’ is a protest song: “Received my invitation to the war, I sent it back, so please don’t send no more.”
In the early ‘70s, Hazlewood and his son moved to Sweden to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War. This gorgeous, country-tinged ballad has a Cash feel – “One night Johnny sang the truth to me / On a northbound train from Nashville, Tennessee” – and features some great, atmospheric organ. Speaking at the time, Hazelwood, who saw combat during the Korean War, said: “My son was about 16, and the Vietnam War had been going on with no end in sight. I said: “This war is not gonna take my one and only son – no sir!”
Number 6: ‘Pray Them Bars Away’ from ‘Cowboy in Sweden’ (1970)
Another choice cut from the ‘Cowboy in Sweden’ album, this song, which opens the record, is a melancholy orchestral country lament, which finds Hazlewood languishing in prison, counting down the days until he is released: “Four years down and twenty one to blow / Ten thousand more breakfasts to go / Fourteen million seconds of living this way / And I guess it’s time I started to pray them bars away.”
Over dramatic strings and folky guitar, he tells us: “Sometimes I miss the women and miss them all I do. Sometimes I miss the whiskey and I miss the good times too. Sometimes I miss my mama – I saw her Christmas Day.” Let’s raise a glass to him and pray he gets out of jail sometime soon.
Number 5: ‘Hey Cowboy’ from ‘Cowboy in Sweden’ (1970)
Anyone for some Scandi-themed, cowboy Easy Listening? A duet between Hazlewood and Swedish singer, Nina Lizell, this is great fun, with Lizell asking her male companion: “Hey cowboy, where did you get the clothes you wear? Hey cowboy, where did you get the funny hair? Hazlewood retorts: “I may not look right but I sure do feel fine. You hang around me and I’ll undo your mind.” Cheeky, Bacharach-style brass only serves to add to the horseplay.
Number 4: ‘Sand’ from ‘Nancy & Lee’ (1968)
Nancy Sinatra’s personal favourite of all the duets she did with Hazlewood. Like a lot of their songs, this was first recorded by Hazlewood and his then girlfriend, pop, folk and country singer, Suzi Jane Hokom. A tale of a wandering man in a strange land, who seeks the love of a young woman, it’s atmospheric, mysterious and romantic, and also weirdly psychedelic, thanks to the backwards Beatles-style guitar solo that sounds like it came straight off Revolver.
Number 3: ‘Summer Wine’ from ‘Nancy & Lee’ (1968)
Hazlewood had a knack for writing songs about tall, dark strangers who finds themselves in unfamiliar places with alluring women – this is one of his best. A duet with Nancy Sinatra, our cowboy hero walks into town on “silver spurs that jingled to a song that I had only sang to just a few.” He soon becomes intoxicated by summer wine, given to him by a mysterious lady, and wakes up to find his silver spurs and all his cash gone, and his head pounding from a hell of a hangover. Will he never learn?
One of the most haunting and cinematic country-pop songs ever recorded – just listen to those magnificent ‘James Bond’ strings and horns – this is a truly stunning record. Once you’ve experienced it, you’ll be craving for more. Just like that damned summer wine.
Number 2: ‘Some Velvet Morning’ from ‘Nancy & Lee’ (1968)
From super-strength booze to serious drugs… ‘Some Velvet Morning’ is narcotic cowboy psychedelia – a bizarrely brilliant duet with Sinatra that’s darkly delirious and shimmers with sexual frisson: “Some velvet morning when I’m straight, I’m gonna open up your gate.”
In August 2006, music critic Rob Mitchum placed the song at #49 on Pitchfork’s list of the 200 greatest songs of the 1960s, saying “Even after thousands of listens, I still don’t know quite what to make of this bizarre, creepy song. A country-outlaw singer drowning in a pool of reverb, constantly interrupted by dazed-hippie interludes, and haunted by a storm cloud orchestra.” That pretty much nails it.
Number 1: ‘My Autumn’s Done Come’ from ‘The Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood’ (1966)
Hazlewood was only 37 when he recorded the ultimate retirement song, ‘My Autumn’s Done Come’, in 1966. It’s sad but darkly humorous, as he reflects on his twilight years: “Let those ‘I-don’t-care-days’ begin / I’m tired of holdin’ my stomach in” – over weepie strings, perfectly evoking an autumnal mood.
He asks the listener to “Bring me water short and Scotch tall – a big, long black cigar that ain’t all / Hang me a hammock between two big trees / Leave me alone, damned! Let me do as I please.”
Hazlewood was 78 when he died in 2007. At the time of his death, Richard Hawley wrote a tribute to him for The Guardian. He cited ‘My Autumn’s Done Come’ as his favourite Hazlewood song, saying: “The sound of his voice was like a death knell. Apart from Lee, only Paul Robeson could sing that low and get away with it. It’s not soaked in whiskey, it’s drowned in whiskey.” This song is one to truly savour.