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Trouble Songs

Jeff T. Johnson

 cat power lee hazlewood


Trouble is a Lonesome Town, Lee Hazlewood


Trouble can keep you from home, and trouble can be home. A country concept album—or a concept country album—about a town called Trouble, this 1963 debut LP links its songs with Hazlewood’s resonant narration. The album is an evocation1, summoning the atmosphere of Anywheresville through the ether of western Americana. The cover art is a rust-orange map overlaid with the script, “You won’t find it on any map, but take a step in any direction and you’r [sic] in trouble.” Next to that is a snapshot of Hazlewood sitting on train tracks that recede into the distance.2 He casually embraces a guitar case as he prepares to light a cigarette. He is clean-cut, if more Bogart-faced than fresh-faced, and has not yet cultivated his trademark shaggy hair and mustache as the Sonny Bono of country (in looks, if not aesthetics). The album is an amiable radio show of country tropes and cowboy humor, a cartoon drama of good and bad (if not good and evil). The spoken interludes are so low-toned and deep-voiced as to be pointillist, providing the listener with a warm buzz that carries over into the po-faced but bouncy tunes. It’s easy to imagine profane, late-night, non-LP versions of just about every song, to the extent that the album sounds like a sanitized version of what the singer withholds.

The album ends with Hazlewood singing trouble with heavy reverb emerging from the harmonica that operates throughout the album as the call of the train. We are now leaving Trouble...

“Troubled Waters,” Cat Power

They surround “Kingsport Town” on one side. Unrecognizable on the other side is the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” which has no chorus to call it by. The roughness LeRoi Jones ascribes to untutored blues is there in Chan Marshall’s delivery, and she knows it, just like Karen Dalton knew it. They are interlopers and appropriators or genuine sufferers or just good singers, another kind of authenticity to pack with listening hard at the songs. Do you remember me / I remember you quite well, Marshall concludes in “Kingsport Town,” shouting across registers to complete David Bowie’s “Blue Jean” thought,3 before announcing herself as “the devil’s daughter” while she bridges the gap into “Troubled Waters.” She sounds farther off than the previous song, because she must be, as she tells us. She has descended below the surface of the song. She has sunk below the cover. She will drown, nearly as an aside, in that “troubled water.”  We barely hear her whenever she confronts the troubled water in which she’ll subside. She tells us again, in case we missed it, because we missed it. That’s all she says, because the song is over. Only after she has drowned does she emerge “Naked If I Want To.” After her “Sweedeedee,” she will disappear in her own “In This Hole,” and that’s all for side one, but it’s not all the trouble on The Covers Record.4



Jeff T. Johnson’s poetry is forthcoming or has appeared in 1913 a journal of forms, Boston Review, Slope, and Forklift, Ohio, among other publications. Critical essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Coldfront, Fanzine, and Kitchen Sink. He lives in Brooklyn, is Editor in Chief at LIT, and is an editor at Dewclaw. He is Music Reviews Editor at The Rumpus. His pieces in this issue of TNY are from a manuscript in progress, Trouble Songs. For more information, visit



1      or a charter, a claim to stylistic territory or format (which Hazlewood would revisit and rework as a heartbreak sequence eight years later on Requiem for an Almost Lady, which also featured narrative interludes).

2      We expect Johnny Cash’s Orange Blossom Special (1965) cover to appear in that distance, catching a light.

3      That is, to answer his song.

4      “Troubled Waters” is song three on side one. On side two’s third song, “Red Apples,” she goes down to the river in the first line, re-enacting her descent to the devil’s (troubled) waters on the other side. As in a chorus, she repeats herself. She goes down to meet the widow, and she is the devil’s daughter.