Lefty Frizzell

By: David Smay
March 31, 2010

LEFTY FRIZZELL’s (1928-75) early, genre-defining honky tonk hits confused cash and desire like a buckskin Shylock: “Money goes from hand to hand, and your baby goes from man to man.” How’d he get so hard so young — and yet sing about it with such ungilded glee? Might’ve been that Lefty was already a veteran of the fairgrounds and roadhouses by the time he was eighteen; might’ve been that six months in jail for statutory rape. But jail’s where he wrote his first hits, including his aching ode to his wife, “I Love You a Thousand Ways.” Late in his career, after several long droughts on the charts he managed one last masterpiece, “Long, Black Veil” — a song that sounds as dire and perfect as a Scots ballad. It took him a while to drink himself to death at 47, but you could see it coming a long way off. It’s not like Lefty had a monopoly on the dissipated country genius myth, but I’d bet he was the touchstone for Horton Foote’s Tender Mercies and Thomas Cobb’s Crazy Heart. Unlike Hank, Johnny, or Willie, Lefty doesn’t transcend the country music genre; instead, like his followers Merle Haggard and George Jones, he defines the core for the true believers. For a guy that’s maybe the fifth best songwriter in country music’s history and no better than its second greatest singer, Lefty achieved a very rare and specific kind of immortality. Let’s call it The Inescapable Exemplar syndrome, which he shared with Billie Holiday and Marlon Brando. Anybody after Lefty was obliged to sing like him: he was that good, that undeniable.


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What do you think?

  1. Thanks, Luc. He apparently had a fine left hook, and after he decked a kid on the school yard he got the nickname.

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