Lefty Frizzell is one of the great names of country music, a major influence on Merle Haggard and many others, and he used to be spoken of in the same terms as Hank Williams. But increasingly he seems to be just a name to younger artists, so it is a particular pleasure to see his legacy granted this kind of tribute. Brennen Leigh is a fine singer-songwriter in her own right, with a folky and slightly quirky edge. Tackling these classic tunes shows her to be a fine singer as well, who has improved since she made her last record. Lovely authentic arrangements redolent of the 1950s and 60s show how since a project this is.
One deliberate choice which (for me) detracts slightly from Brennen’s treatment of some of the songs is her refusal to change any of the gender specific words. This is most intrusive in the classic story song ‘Saginaw, Michigan’. Brennen sings the song beautifully, and she sounds great, but she just doesn’t convince as the poor boy who is the protagonist. The lesser known ‘My Baby Is A Tramp’ is another man’s song, about a cheating woman from the wrong side of the tracks who the protagonist loves anyway:
Friend you better treat her like a lady
How I love this tramp that I call baby
Her daddy’s doing life in a pen in Illinois
Her mama had eleven most unwelcome girls and boys
She was born by accident, raised in the slums
Surrounded by hustlers, rushers and bums
Yeah my baby is a tramp and a cheater
She can’t change no matter how I treat her
And even though I know she’ll always be
No one had better call her that but me
‘You Don’t Have To Be Present To Win’ is a ballad in which the (male) protagonist relaises that his beloved is still hung up on her ex. It’s a fine song, although I found the backing vocals a touch intrusive, and the key may be a little bit lower than ideal for Brennen’s voice. The charming ‘You Want Everything But Me’ chastises a lover who is more interested in material goods, and the gender switch works well, apart from the purchase of dresses.
Some songs work perfectly. Brennen’s version of Lefty’s first #1, ‘I Love You A Thousand Ways’ is just lovely. One of my favourite Frizzell songs, the sweet but not saccharine tribute to loving parents, ‘Mom And Dad’s Waltz’, is also gorgeous. The stripped down ‘When It Comes To Measuring Love’ also about parental love.
The melancholic ballad ‘How Far Down Can I Go’ is another highlight, a sad tale of someone felled by the combination of lost love and drink. ‘Don’t Stay Away Til Love Grows Cold’ is, perhaps, a little old fashioned for some listeners, but is a very nice love song.
Raising the tempo, ‘Mama’ is western swing with a Christmas setting. ‘You Gotta Be Putting Me On’ has a jazzy feel and wry lyric as the protagonist politely declines to take back an errant spouse:
I even left the key where it oughta be
But you forgot your way back home
You say you went down south to see your rich uncle
Trying to get us a loan…
Well it’s strange to me
I can’t see why you didn’t use the phone
It just cost you a dime to ease my mind
And let me know when you would be back home
“The phone was busy every time you called
I was always gone
And you were thinking ‘bout me constantly”
Well, you gotta be putting me on
‘Run Em Off’ is about jealousy and possessiveness; it is treated playfully, but the lyric is actually a little threatening. ‘What You Gonna Do Leroy’ is slightly odd, with an ethereal lead vocal and retro backing vocals and effects which didn’t quite work for me.
Overall, though, this album is a labor of love which I loved.