Charles Normal chanced across Lee Hazlewood’s 1963 country record Trouble is a Lonesome Town in a Norwegian second-hand store. To the Californian musician and producer, the album must have seemed as much a pleasant reminder of home as a cheeseburger or a watery beer.
“I pictured cactuses growing on the outskirts of town, a rough-and-tumble cowboy western town,” he says. “About the most exotic thing I could imagine with four feet of snow outside.” He took that album to a friend’s house, then promptly forgot about it. Weeks later, when his friend popped it on, Normal didn’t even realise what it was at first. Still, the combination of Hazlewood narrating the town of Trouble’s story and singing about its quirky characters captivated him. Later, he’d put it on at parties, watching it have the same effect on others.
When he learned that Hazlewood initially recorded the songs as demos intended to be played by others, it put an idea in his head. Why not get his musician friends together and do just that? “I was touring Europe with Frank Black – the guy from the Pixies – I was playing guitar with him, and I said ‘Hey, would you be interested in singing one of these Lee Hazlewood songs?’ I gave him a copy of the album and he got back to me and said, ‘Actually I’d like to sing these three if that’s possible.’”
Over the course of years working as a session musician and producer, Normal had made a lot of musical friends like Black, as well as Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse. Plus, his brother Larry Norman (Normal changed his surname as a teenage punk in a band called Executioner) was about as famous as you can get in Christian rock. All Normal had to do to get a bunch of names to join him in recreating his Thriftstore Masterpiece was pick up the phone book. “It was gonna be Frank Black, my brother Larry and Isaac Brock,” says Normal. “And it was gonna be – I quickly dropped this idea because it was gonna be too cornball – I thought it would be funny to have them dress like mariachi guys, like they’re the Three Amigos.”
The group started work in 2007, but in February of 2008 Larry Norman tragically died of a heart attack. Understandably, his brother almost abandoned the project. “It was just too weird to play guitar and engineer it and solo his voice and comp his vocals, ’cause there was like maybe three or four takes and it was just a little too intimate listening to my brother’s voice solo. Frankly, I would get pretty upset.”
Later, Normal visited his friends in Modest Mouse while they were rehearsing and was inspired by hearing their new songs, as well as spending most of the night talking to Brock, who told him “there’s no birth without pain.” The motivational conversation convinced him to get back to work, finishing off the record with extra help from guest vocalists including Art Brut’s Eddie Argos and the Dandy Warhols’ Courtney Taylor-Taylor. Now that his Thriftstore Masterpiece is complete, the oddball album he loves is ready to be rediscovered.
“I didn’t construct this, I decorated Lee Hazlewood’s album,” he says. “It’s a good story. It’s a good concept album, which came out before Sgt. Pepper’s did, which is pretty awesome too. Sgt. Pepper’s wasn’t the first concept album by any means, but pretty forward-thinking of Hazelwood to make this whole movie on a record. I hope people experience it in greater chunks than just one song here or there.”
BY JODY MACGREGOR
Trouble is a Lonesome Town out now through SideOneDummy/Shock.