Warmth, intimacy, easeful repose, resigned longing — it’s easy enough to describe the world imagined by Lefty Frizzell’s signature vocal style, but far more difficult to identify the source of its power. Though his physical gifts are readily apparent, Frizzell’s vocals seem deceptively easy, casual, almost offhand. Yet they’re governed by an active intelligence; the singer lingers over words, fascinated by their physicality, their shape and texture, their bend and lift. His singing creates subtext and dimension, working in and around the simple “meaning” of the printed lyric.
As Frizzell liked to recount, his unique style was the result of an inspired compromise. Despite hours of study as a young man at the altar of the family Victrola, he was unable to reproduce Jimmie Rodgers’ blue yodel. Instead, Frizzell adopted a slurring, sliding draw, finessing the peaks while indulging his honeyed middle range. Sensing something of a kindred spirit in his childhood idol, Frizzell leveraged his early-’50s successes to pay homage to his storied inspiration. The resulting album stands as one of country music’s finest tributes.
The son of an itinerant oil driller and a live-for-the-moment rambler in his own right, Frizzell was intimately familiar with Rodgers’ rounder persona and inhabited the latter’s work like a comfortable pair of well-traveled boots. The selections are split evenly between tales of failed love and life on the road — several borrowing from both. Uniformly mournful and lonesome, Rodgers’ songs are leavened by Frizzell’s gentle, even tone and the minimalist, lightly swinging accompaniment of producer Don Law’s crack session unit.
The album’s one shortcoming is a consistency of tone and pace that imparts a certain degree of anonymity to individual selections. Only the single, “Travelin’ Blues”, and “Treasure Untold” announce themselves as discrete tracks as well as parts of a greater whole. Still, the album’s consistency is of a remarkably high order. And, in a loving nod to his predecessor, Frizzell belies the printed legend by assaying a more than passable yodel.
Songs Of Jimmie Rodgers functions as a de facto concept album linking country’s past, present and future; it acknowledges Frizzell’s musical debts while building upon his inimitable yet unprepossessing legacy. Clocking in at a tight 34 minutes, the record has no fat; it is an unassuming joy and comfort.