In which a crate-digging expedition in a Norwegian record store yields artistic gold for producer/musician Charles Norman (pictured above). Guest-starring Frank Black, Isaac Brock, Pete Yorn, Eddie Argos and others.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
The used vinyl bins at most thrift stores nowadays serve as home to grandma’s old Steve and Edie records and Kenny Rogers’ entire back catalog, but every now and then you strike gold – if only in your eyes.
For musician and producer Charles Norman, he hit pay dirt a dozen years ago in an old thrift store in Norway.
Digging through the crates, he came across a weathered 1963 copy of Trouble is a Lonesome Town, a record from Lee Hazlewood, a pop and country songwriter and producer best known for his work with Nancy Sinatra and Duane Eddy. Though he did put out some albums on his own, he was best known behind the scenes, having had a hand in everything from “Peter Gunn” instrumental and “40 Miles of Bad Road” to “These Boots Are Made for Walking” and “Summer Wine”.
That slab of vintage vinyl Norman found would eventually serve as inspiration and the template for Thriftstore Masterpiece’s Presents Lee Hazlewood’s Trouble Is a Lonesome Town (SideOneDummy), a re-creation of that forgotten classic with vocals from Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse), Frank Black (The Pixies), Pete Yorn, Eddie Argos (Art Brut), Courtney Taylor-Taylor (The Dandy Warhols) and Kristin Blix (Guards of Metropolis) – not to mention his brother, late producer/Christian rocker Larry Norman, with whom he’d collaborated at various points in the past.
Norman (aka “Charles Normal”) spoke recently about the impetus for the record – which is out on both CD and limited edition colored vinyl – as well as getting people on board and what he was doing in Norway at the time.
BLURT: Let’s start out by talking about this find, the Lee Hazlewood record. You found it in a thrift store right?
Yeah, in Oslo, Norway.
How long ago did this happen and were you looking for this particular record?
It was either 1999 or 2000. It was in a used comic book and record store and I was just looking through the records and I saw this name Lee Hazlewood and realized, hey that’s the guy who wrote “These Boots Are Made for Walking” and all those other Nancy Sinatra hits, and I just looked at the album and thought why not? But I didn’t have a turntable at the time, so I left it at a friend’s house. A couple of weeks later I was over there and he was playing some records and he put on this one record and I was really getting into it and said “Whoa, what is this?” He said, “This is the Lee Hazlewood record you bought.” I was pretty happy to make the double-discovery; I bought it once, forgot about it, and discovered it again. It was a pretty cool record.
Obviously you knew he wrote for Nancy Sinatra, but were you pretty familiar with the stuff he had written for other artists?
No, I don’t think so. I knew “Some Velvet Morning” and “These Boots Are Made for Walking” and I knew that he was known in Norway – he lived in Sweden for a while and had TV specials there that were also shown in Norway – so people there knew who Lee Hazlewood was more so than average American.
What were you doing in Norway at the time?
I’d been going to Norway for years. I had been signed to Warner back in ’94 and had a hit album over there and had really great conversations with strangers, the girls were knock outs, so I thought I’m going to stay here.
Good call. So when did you get the idea of pulling some musicians together to re-record these songs? Did you have the idea immediately or did it happen over time?
Well, I’m a guitar player as well, so I was sitting around one day with a guitar and just started playing one of his songs – it was “The Railroad,” I think, the song Isaac Brock sings on – and I realized there’s only two chords in this song. I wondered if the other songs are just two chords as well and listened again and realized it was a whole album of two and three chord songs. I started thinking I’d like to record one or two of these songs… and that’s what led to the thought of just re-recording the whole thing and getting some friends to sing on it.
Back then I didn’t know some of the guys who are on (the record) now. I knew Frank Black and my brother Larry Norman, obviously. Over the years I started meeting with more of these people. I met Isaac Brock in Belgium at some festival I was playing at and he and I just started talking and I mentioned the Lee Hazlewood thing and he said “That’s funny; he and I share the same birthday.” And he said “I actually met Lee Hazlewood, we did a gig together in Sweden and hung out.” So I asked if he wanted to sing on this album and he said “Yeah, sure.” It kind of came about like that. There was no goal or deadline, no budget. It was more of a hobby thing that I would eventually get around to and finally I did. (Above: the producer with Frank Black; below, with Isaac Brock]
So you just collected the recordings as they came around until you had enough for the full album?
Yeah, it was sort of serendipity. Art Brut ended up staying at my house in Oregon for about a month when they were recording an album and you know Eddie Argos, the singer? His girlfriend plays in a band and was visiting and we sat around drinking beer one night and I said, “You want to give these vocals a crack?” and he said “Yeah.” We did it in one take and we were cracking up the whole time. You can hear his voice cracking a bit as he’s starting to laugh. There was no process; it was just kind of random occurrences. Friends would be visiting and I’d say, “You want to sing?” It was the funnest album I’ve ever made. There was no concern about record companies, A&R guys coming down and saying, “Can I hear what you have?”
Was there anyone you really wanted to get on this record, but for whatever reason it just didn’t happen?
Yeah, I was looking for a narrator and I first wanted to keep it local – people from the area I live in, in the Pacific Northwest – people from Oregon. Isaac Brock lives here, Courtney Taylor-Taylor lives here… Did you ever watch McHale’s Navy when you were a kid?
Well, I found out Ernest Borgnine lived in a small town near here and I thought that would be awesome to have him narrate the record. So I actually contacted his management and his wife called me and said “You know Ernest is really sick and we’re going to be moving down to LA, to be near a hospital there and he was so flattered that you wanted him to do this record, but he’s just not in any shape to do it.” So that was the only logistical problem. That would have been bizarre. [Ed. note: Jerry “The Mailman” Albertini wound up doing the album’s narration.]
Lee Hazlewood died some time ago. Did you have to reach out to his family at all to use these songs? Do you know if they know about this record?
There are compulsive licensing laws, so once someone performs a song it doesn’t become part of public domain, but you can make covers of it without having to get permission from the artist. Hazlewood had two different publishers for these songs, so I just called one of them and we didn’t need to ask permission, but since he had just died the year before I know it’s nice to get the blessing of the family. The closest I got was talking to the publisher.
You’re obviously pretty close to these songs, having worked on this record for years. Are there any that really stand out to you as being favorites?
The one I think is the coolest is the one Frank Black sings on. I was at his house and just brought my little mobile recording equipment and we were just sitting in his living room and when we got to that song “Son of a Gun” he said, “Do you mind if my boy Julian sings the first verse?” And I thought well that’s a little weird, but they lyrics fit perfectly and it turned out charming. I wouldn’t normally say, “Hey, let’s get a little kid to sing.” But that was very cool. And I like the song “Look at That Woman” that Courtney Taylor-Taylor sings because that was the one I spent the most time orchestrating.
Selected photos courtesy the Thriftstore Masterpiece website. Additional details, plus ordering info: http://www.thriftstoremasterpiece.com Below, check out some of the audio from the album courtesy Isaac Brock, Frank Black and Courtney Taylor-Taylor.