Remembering Lefty Frizzell, Still an Important Influence on Many Artists Who May Not Really Know Him

In “What Am I Gonna Do,” the opening track on Chris Stapleton’s current Higher album, a broken-hearted man revels in a barroom jukebox that incessantly plays “That’s the Way Love Goes.”

That song celebrates two anniversaries this month: 50 years since Johnny Rodriguez topped Hot Country Songs with his version on Feb. 16, 1974, and 40 years since Merle Haggard took it to No. 1 on Feb. 11, 1984. In fact, Haggard’s performance netted the only solo Grammy Award of his career.

It’s a good bet that many country fans — and, perhaps, a few current country artists -— don’t actually know “That’s the Way Love Goes.” It’s an even better bet that fewer know much about one of its writers, Country Music Hall of Fame member Lefty Frizzell, who nonetheless is inarguably one of the architects of the classic male country sound. His influence has filtered down to some members of the present generation of artists, even if they’re not aware of it.

“They could have got it from [Randy] Travis or [Johnny] Paycheck,” says Country Hall of Fame and Museum senior writer-editor Michael McCall. “A lot of the phrasing that he did is so common in country music, but they may not know why they phrase that way or where it started.”

Frizzell is likely best known for the first single — and biggest hit — of his career, the 1950 release “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time.” A brisk, rousing honky-tonk number, it spent three weeks at No. 1. Willie Nelson also earned a No. 1 single with his 1976 cover, and the tune eventually joined the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. 

But it’s just one of several Frizzell songs that earned significant updates through the years. John Anderson’s version of “I Love You a Thousand Ways” charted in 1981, Dwight Yoakam’s reworking of “Always Late With Your Kisses” hit the top 10 in 1988, Irish band The Chieftains enlisted Mick Jagger for the title track of the 1995 album The Long Black Veil, and Keith Whitley delivered a key remake of “I Never Go Around Mirrors.” For the latter song, Whitley — who usually blasted Frizzell’s music in the back of his bus before he took the stage — persuaded Frizzell’s “Mirrors” co-writer, Sanger D. “Whitey” Shafer (“All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” “I Wonder Do You Think of Me”), to compose a second verse.

“Keith was such a huge Lefty fan, he actually went that morning to Lefty’s grave and read the verse over his grave before he went to the studio to cut it,” recalls Whitley’s former steel guitarist-road manager, producer Carson Chamberlain (Zach Top, Billy Currington). 

Frizzell was an innovative country singer, and his performance of “Always Late (With Your Kisses)” perhaps best reveals the three techniques that set him apart from his competitors when he arrived on the national scene. The most obvious change he introduced was the curls and bends that embellished an occasional note. But he also wrote many of his songs with a melody that dipped into his rich lower range just enough to make a statement by showing the breadth of his voice. The most subtle of his three techniques came in his phrasing; Frizzell would, at times, start a line at a loud volume before trailing off by the end — not because he had run out of breath, but because it captured the mood of that particular thought.

“I don’t remember him ever really singing the same song the same way twice,” says his younger brother, David Frizzell, who is working on a documentary that’s likely to be released this year. “He always had a little different curl here than he did the last time, or a little different way of pronouncing or singing a line, or taking a word and making it three or four syllables. So no matter what he sings, he came off Lefty.”

Haggard, Anderson, Nelson, Whitley, Travis, Gene Watson, George Strait and George Jones were among those who incorporated at least one of Lefty’s techniques into their own performance style. Moe Bandy, for whom Lefty wrote the 1975 hit “Bandy the Rodeo Clown,” acknowledged the genre’s debt to Frizzell by singing “There’s a lot of Leftys now with different names” on his 1980 single “Yesterday Once More.” Ironically, Bandy was heavily influenced by Frizzell, but didn’t actually sound much like him.

“I had my own style, and I didn’t like it,” Bandy says. “I wanted to sound like Lefty and all those people — but I finally got used to it, and I liked it. But at first, I was trying to do all that stuff that Lefty and Hank and all them people were doing. Finally, I found out no matter what I do, I come out as Moe Bandy.”

In the decades since then, plenty of artists took cues from Haggard, Travis and Jones, et al, and borrowed some of the techniques others had developed by emulating Frizzell. Josh Turner, Trace Adkins, Tracy Lawrence, Garth Brooks, Dylan Scott, Toby Keith, Joe Diffie, Daryle Singletary, Scotty McCreery and Cody Johnson are just some of the singers to whom parts of Lefty’s approach have been bequeathed.

“He inspired all these people that didn’t even know they was inspired by him,” notes Bandy. “It’s funny how music passes down.” 

New artist Ryan Larkins sees himself among the beneficiaries. His debut single, “King of Country Music,” cites Saginaw, Mich., in its opening verse as an oblique homage to Frizzell, whose last No. 1 single was the 1964 release “Saginaw, Michigan.” He mines his lower register in a manner that Frizzell would likely have appreciated.

“Lefty is one of those guys, I don’t think about him as much I should,” Larkins says. “You can’t really put it into words just the way he would bend some of those notes and draw out certain words. I feel like nobody else would sing it that way.”

Larkins detects Frizzell’s influence in the enunciations of bluegrass-tinged Shawn Camp and the low notes of Blake Shelton, who illustrates the hand-me-down nature of Lefty’s skills. “Lefty was very influenced by Jimmie Rodgers, like the yodeling kind of thing, and I can hear that,” says Larkins. “It’s funny how every generation takes something from the last one, and to think that Blake Shelton is being influenced by Jimmie Rodgers in a roundabout way — it’s an interesting thought.”

Nicknamed for a fierce punch he delivered as a schoolyard scrapper, Frizzell’s life was a tough one, some of the hardship self-inflicted. He was imprisoned at age 19 for statutory rape, signed a series of bad contracts that cost him as much as 50% of his income and developed a persistent alcohol problem. And his significant creative influence haunted him, as he heard his style approximated by so many other artists through the years. He died in 1975 at age 47 from a stroke, never really receiving full credit for his innovations during his lifetime.

Decades later, his style continues to have a faint, but surprising, impact on the genre through the vocal approach of a younger generation that doesn’t actually know he’s a significant source. “He had his own way of doing it,” David recalls. “He just was so different than anybody else that I’ve ever been around.”

He was different until everybody else became a little bit like Lefty. That’s the way love goes. 

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