Obsession is a great motivator and perhaps the greatest form of appreciation. However, that may be no more than making a virtue out of necessity. The German label, Bear Family Records has made a career of being obsessed in providing a complete accounting of American Music. Previous to this 20-CD box set, An Article From Life -The Complete Recordings was the essential At The Louisiana Hayride Tonight (2018). That collection was a great snapshot of the development of American Music. But Bear Records has a great propensity to be Don Quixote tilting at windmills and their love for country music pioneer Lefty Frizzell is a case in point. An Article From Life is not the first retrospective of the musical career of Frizzell, it is the third, and this time the definitive one.
In 1984, the label released the 14-LP set, Lefty Frizzell: His Life and Music and then, in 1992, came the 12-CD box set, Life's Like Poetry. Now the label has assembled Frizzell's complete oreavur in a fully-appointed 20-CD boxed set fit for a comprehensive overview. This is the most definitive collection of the work of a single artist in the Bear Family Catalog. I am curious how many of the present listeners of what is considered "country music" would know who Lefty Frizzell is. I learned of Frizzell when graduating from high school I began covering Willie Nelson's treatment of "If You've Got the Money Honey, I've Got the Time" from the sessions that produced From Willie to Lefty (Columbia, 1977). Went on to perform the song a bazillion times, as well as, other Frizzell staples like Jimmy Buffett's "Railroad Lady" and the first recording of "The Long Black Veil" (Columbia, 1959) Then I discovered John Prine and left Frizzell behind. That was my loss.
While Frizzell may be considered almost a household name, he was never famous as his contemporary Hank Williams. That said he well may have been as influential or more than Williams on country music performance. An Article From Life: The Complete Recordings bests Lefty Frizzell: His Life and Music and Life's Like Poetry in a variety of way that include the fact that it houses the definitive set of Frizzell's work; every 45, 78 and LP track Frizzell recorded and released and includes all available that were never issued, demos, non-session recordings, and radio transcriptions, all newly produced and remastered.
The sound of these recording is much improved (as would be necessary with the evolution of technology) over the original releases. Frizzell charted 15 Billboard Top Ten country hits between 1950 and 1954, when the sonics of the recordings reflected the technology available. The new mastering reveal a multitude of historic charms, be they questionable tuning or low-quality pianos. Frizzell's early releases were populated with simple melodies and uncomplicated language, sounding old-timey on one hand and uniquely authentic on the other. lyrics that give these recordings a do-it-yourself vibe, something more authentic than the slick ideal of the era. This early music focuses on innocent desire and traditional values; those country elements of post-war America. The drinking songs came later.
By the mid-1950s, Frizzell's appeal began to wane. Frizzell tried out lots of styles during this period: honky tonk thumpers like "I Just Can't Live That Fast," slow waltzes such as "The Waltz of the Angels," Dixieland rags like "Sick, Sober, and Sorry," Blues such as "Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues," and torch songs like "The Torch Within My Heart." Frizzell had always performed in a variety of styles and in the past had found an audience for all of them. However, popular music was experiencing a seismic shift with. Bill Haley and the Comets Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and other new music titans. Frizzell remained a keeper of the flame; he was a purist in the most real sense. The singer and his music were increasing considered quaint and old fashioned, a judgement, to be fair, that happened to the genre until the Rolling Stones reacquainted America with its forgotten treasure of country music.
In 1959, Frizzell recorded the first example of was the first to record "The Long Black Veil," written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin. The song went on to be covered dozens of times by a legion of famous artists, including most notably Johnny Cash,, Joan Baez, the Band, Dave Matthews Band, Nick Cave, Jerry Garcia, and the Chieftains with Mick Jagger singing lead. That said, Frizzell's was the first and the touchstone. in the early 1960s Frizzell low-charted a few songs that hit the bottom of the charts in the early 1960s, and then had the biggest hit of his career in 1963 with the "Saginaw, Michigan," which spent an impressive of 23 weeks on the Billboard Country chart. for the remainder of the 1960s, the singer found less and less popularity, in spite of the fact that he did produce some exceptional music during the period. By this time, Frizzell's music took on a much more darkly hued, timeworn tone. Frizzell continued to record into the 1970s, occasionally charting a song like "Watermelon Time in Georgia,," "You, Babe," and "I Never Go Around Mirrors." Frizzell died of a massive stroke, July 19, 1975 in Nashville, Tennessee at the age of 47.
The first nine CDs are devoted to Frizzell's chronologically arranged commercial recordings. Discs ten and eleven contain demos and private recordings from the the mid-1940s through the '60s. What emerges is an evolution of both style and technology. It is easy to hear both the improvements in Frizzell's playing and style as well as the better sonics. Eight of the CDs are devoted to the singer's brother, David, narration of his brother's story I Love You In A Thousand Ways (Santa Monica Press, 2011). While this may be a bit much for the casual listener, it is a treat for Frizzell purists wanting it all. Also included is a record-album size, 264-page hardcover book with the story of Frizzell by Charles Wolfe (updated and revised by Daniel Cooper and Kevin Coffey) and a plethora of photographs, memorabilia, and a detailed discography that sets the bar high for future such collections. So when is it just too much.
When is everything more than necessary? An Article From Life -The Complete Recordings exists as a monolith, an entity complete in itself. It represents a love and dedication to an artist deemed important enough for all of the recordings made over 25 years to be located, assembled, ordered, and cataloged with a librarian precision. At a time when our narratives are ingested in discreet photonic bundles, a collection like this forces one to stop and consider a long view of things. Before listening to the entire box, I played Frizzell's earliest and latest commercially released recordings several times. That made the set title, An Article From Lifemakeperfect sense to me. Perfect in title, content, and subject.