Ter­rell’s Tune Up

Steve Ter­rell pays trib­ute to singer Ted Hawkins

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

When I first heard about a trib­ute al­bum in the works for Ted Hawkins, my re­ac­tion was, “About damn time!” And when I heard Cold and Bit­ter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins, my two-word sum­ma­tion was, “Well done.” Un­for­tu­nately, your re­ac­tion while read­ing this might be “Ted who?” So I guess I bet­ter give my Ted talk.

Hawkins was a busker — a street mu­si­cian who did some of his best work singing for tips at Venice Beach. He was born in Mis­sis­sippi, spent too much time in jail, and had a voice that sounded like a grit­tier version of Sam Cooke’s. He was dis­cov­ered and re­dis­cov­ered a couple of times by show-biz heav­ies. And he died just months af­ter the release of his first ma­jor-la­bel al­bum. If you be­lieve in signs from the uni­verse, con­sider this: He died in 1995 on New Year’s Day. Died on New Year’s Day, like Hank Wil­liams and Townes Van Zandt.

Cold and Bit­ter Tears is mostly pop­u­lated by alt-coun­try singers, many of them from Texas. Like most trib­ute albums, most of the songs don’t com­pare — and shouldn’t be com­pared — with the orig­i­nal ver­sions. But there are some real gems here.

Gruff-voiced Jon Dee Gra­ham cap­tures the spirit of “Strange Con­ver­sa­tion,” while Sunny Sweeney, who I’d never heard be­fore, makes you won­der why “Happy Hour” didn’t hit the coun­try charts. And Shinyribs (Kev Rus­sell of The Gourds) turns “Who Got My Nat­u­ral Comb?” into a crazy soul rave-up.

Mary Gau­thier nails “Sorry You’re Sick,” com­plete with slinky, swampy gui­tar. The re­frain of this tune, “What do you want from the liquor store/Some­thing sour or some­thing sweet?” is jar­ring. Af­ter promis­ing to do what­ever it takes to heal a se­ri­ously ail­ing lover, the an­swer can be found at a liquor store? But as Gau­thier re­cently told the Los An­ge­les Times, “There is noth­ing to me as heart­break­ing or com­pelling as one ad­dict’s com­pas­sion for an­other who is dy­ing of ad­dic­tion.”

The finest track on this trib­ute is sung by Hawkins him­self. Judg­ing by the tape hiss, “Great New Year” is from some lon­glost home­made record­ing. It starts off as a typ­i­cal nos­tal­gic hol­i­day tune, with the singer fan­ta­siz­ing about his fam­ily gath­er­ing around and the chil­dren open­ing presents just like the old days. But re­al­ity starts re­veal­ing it­self with the singer con­fess­ing that this fam­ily scene prob­a­bly won’t hap­pen, and prob­a­bly didn’t hap­pen even in the good old days. Hawkins won­ders if his kids even re­mem­ber him and sings, “I was cruel, mean and self­ish/I didn’t show no fa­therly love./Now they’re all with their mother/Giv­ing her all the love.”

It stings. Just like Hawkins’ best tunes. The al­bum is avail­able at www.cd­baby.com/cd/coldand­bit­tertears­the­son.

Also rec­om­mended:

▼ Bren­nen Leigh Sings Lefty Frizzell. I’m most fa­mil­iar with Texas song­bird Bren­nen Leigh by way of a couple of duet albums with male singers — 2014’s ex­cel­lent Be­fore the World Was Made, which she per­formed with Noel McKay, and Holdin’ Our Own and Other Coun­try Gold Duets, which she made in 2007 with Austin coun­try crooner Jesse Day­ton. On her new al­bum, Leigh has a silent part­ner, the late Wil­liam Orville Frizzell, bet­ter known as “Lefty.”

She’s hardly the first to pay homage to this coun­try mu­sic ti­tan. Merle Hag­gard did a trib­ute al­bum, as did Wil­lie Nel­son. This might be the first by a woman, how­ever. And if you’re fa­mil­iar with her albums with McKay and Day­ton, it should be no sur­prise that she stuck to a good, clean honky-tonk sound, which suits her sweet, sexy voice as much as it suits Frizzell’s songs.

Leigh cov­ers many of the lofty Lefty’s best-known songs — “Sag­i­naw, Michi­gan,” “Mom and Dad’s Waltz,” etc. But my fa­vorites are the lesser-known nuggets from the Lefty cat­a­logue, songs like “Run ’Em Off,” “My Baby Is a Tramp,” and “What You Gonna Do, Leroy?”

In­ter­est­ing fact: Lefty Frizzell served some time in New Mex­ico. At the age of nine­teen he wrote one of his great­est songs, the first song on the Leigh trib­ute, “I Love You A Thou­sand Ways,” in 1947, while locked up in the Roswell jail on a statu­tory rape charge. “The song was a plain­tive apol­ogy to his wife, Alice, for his mis­deeds,” mu­si­cian Deke Dick­er­son wrote in his liner notes for a Frizzell box set on the Bear Fam­ily la­bel.

And, ac­cord­ing to Dick­er­son, Lefty landed in the pokey only eight days af­ter the fa­bled UFO crash near Roswell. Co­in­ci­dence? You tell me! Get to know Leigh at www.bren­nen­leigh.net. ▼ Walk on Jin­dal’s Splin­ters by Jello Bi­afra and The New Or­leans Raunch and Soul All-Stars. This is a live New Or­leans con­cert by for­mer Dead Kennedys front­man Bi­afra that re­port­edly was done on a dare. Team­ing up with a rootsy but rau­cous band (in­clud­ing a horn sec­tion), the West Coast punk lord blasts his way through a bunch of Big Easy R& B clas­sics in­clud­ing “Ooh-Poo-Pah-Doo,” “Mother-in-Law” and “Work­ing in a Coal Mine.” Jello puts his stamp on Rockin’ Sid­ney’s zy­deco an­them, “(Don’t Mess With) My Toot Toot,” does an in­tense version of “House of the Ris­ing Sun,” and pays trib­ute to the late Alex Chilton, a New Or­leans res­i­dent, with “Bangkok.”

My fa­vorites in­clude a prop­erly spooky, near13-minute version of Dr. John’s hoodoo-soaked mas­ter­piece “I Walk on Guilded Splin­ters” and a wild romp through “Judy in Dis­guise (With Glasses),” orig­i­nally done by John Fred & His Play­boy Band.

The whole al­bum is down­right in­sane. And I can’t get enough of it. You can get it here: www.tinyurl.com/Jel­loJin­dal. ▼ Blood­shot Six Pack to Go: Work­ing Songs for the Drink­ing Class. Speak­ing of The Dead Kennedys, you’ll find not one but two songs orig­i­nally done by that group on this new Blood­shot Records com­pi­la­tion. Banjo picker Al Scorch does a version of the DKs’ “Six Pack,” which sounds a lot closer to Jello Bi­afra than Earl Scruggs. Mean­while, El­iz­a­beth Cook does a coun­tri­fied take on the Kennedys’ sig­na­ture “Too Drunk to [ex­ple­tive].” It’s a beau­ti­ful thing.

The com­pi­la­tion is avail­able as seven 7-inch vinyl records or as dig­i­tal down­loads. There also are songs by Texas honky-tonker Dale Watson, Ban­di­tos, Bobby Bare Jr. and a cred­itable cover of The Pogues’ “If I Should Fall from the Grace of God” by Deer Tick. Find it at www.blood­shotrecords.com.

Ted Hawkins; photo Jeff Sed­lik

Ted Hawkins was born in Mis­sis­sippi, spent too much time in jail, and had a voice that sounded like a grit­tier version of Sam Cooke’s.

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