The other night, up late again listening to old records, I came across a song by the country singer Lefty Frizzell that, so far as I know, I had never heard before. It was the title that got my attention: “There’s No Food in This House.” I imagined Lefty, in his most vexed falsetto, leveling the words at a cheating lover who, in a final act of defiance, blows the week’s grocery money on a trip to the salon. He had other songs to this effect: “You’re Humbuggin’ Me,” “Always Late (With Your Kisses),” “Run ’Em Off,” “You Want Everything But Me.” Merle Haggard called Lefty “the most unique thing to ever happen to country music.” He was, among other things, a kind of hillbilly Falstaff, Nashville’s great minstrel of aggrieved accusations.
Lefty was a leading figure in the country movement called honky-tonk, which adapted the genre—previously the province of barn dances, bandstands, and festivals—to the beer hall. Rock ’n’ roll was an influence. Hollywood was too. Lefty’s publicity photos for Columbia Records in the early fifties channel black-and-white film stills. In a classic shot from 1951, he wears a fringed western shirt and a bandanna scarf, looking like Edward G. Robinson doing his best Davy Crockett.
Honky-tonk music could, at times, be scandalous. Heavy drinking and infidelity were recurring themes. Webb Pierce, one of Lefty’s contemporaries, had big hits with “There Stands the Glass” and “Back Street Affair,” the former an ode to the cathartic powers of whiskey, the latter a sentimental defense of sleeping around that led Kitty Wells, the queen of country music, to answer with a song of her own. “You didn’t count the cost,” she sang in “Paying for That Back Street Affair.” “You gambled and I lost / Now I must pay with hours of deep despair.”
To the pairing of bottle and bedroom, Lefty added a third member, the empty pocket. In his first chart-topping single, 1951’s “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time),” he played a carousing cheapskate angling to paint the town (“we’ll have fun, oh boy, oh boy”) on his sugar mama’s dime. In his last chart-topping single, 1964’s “Saginaw, Michigan,” he tells the story of a poor Midwestern fisherman who, in a bid to win the blessing of his true love’s father, travels to Alaska to pan for gold. The dig comes to nothing, but the fisherman is unwilling to concede defeat, and so he mails a letter back to Saginaw claiming he’s made “the biggest strike in Klondike history.” The father believes the lie, offers his daughter’s hand and, having convinced his son-in-law to sell his Alaska claim, sets out to collect. “The greedy fool,” Lefty sings in the smarting final verse, “is looking for the gold I never found.” The new couple, meanwhile, becomes “the happiest man and wife” in the Midwest.
A rags-to-riches fantasy, “Saginaw” doesn’t seem, on first listen, to fit with Lefty’s songbook, an otherwise singular catalogue of pique and letdown. But the song is up to more than it announces. I don’t think Lefty buys the message he’s peddling for a second. The specious letter on which the narrative turns might just be an analogue for the song itself, only the intended recipient isn’t a father looking to protect his daughter from life in the poorhouse but a listener looking to popular music for blessed assurance. It’s as if Lefty is saying, I’ll play you the mush you want to hear, but don’t blame me if in the end your golden dreams about romance and riches come to sawdust.
Lefty used vocals to complicate lyrics rather than letting lyrics instruct how he sang. A comparison to Hank Williams, the dean of honky-tonk singers, is apropos. Hank tapped his thin, tremulous voice to reify the emotional register of his songs. In “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” he sounds just so. In “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle,” he taffy pulls the word lonesome into a lolling five-syllable yodel that somehow channels both a train and the hills across which its whistle blows. What Hank was after was candor. “You ask,” he once told a reporter, “what makes our kind of music successful. I’ll tell you. It can be explained in just one word: sincerity.”
Lefty, on the other hand, called sincerity into question. His subject wasn’t candor so much as its projection. The dynamic found expression in his name. Born William Orville Frizzell, Lefty picked up the moniker, so the story goes, boxing southpaw in south Arkansas, where his father worked in oil. On stage, though, Lefty wasn’t a lefty at all. He played a flattop Gibson guitar with his right hand. The name attested to his craftiness as a performer, a characteristic that found a corollary in his singing style. His thick voice, an organ board of concomitant pitches, stayed a touch punch-drunk with itself. Lubricated, slightly esophageal, he sang like a man knowingly going through the motions.
In his love songs, the results could be comical. Covered by Hank Snow or Jim Reeves, “I Love You a Thousand Ways,” another early hit, could pass for a litany of sweet nothings. But Lefty, who wrote the song for his wife after getting caught fooling around, coos affirmations—“I’ll be true,” “Darling, you’re the only one,” “I’ll love you every day”—with a voracity that evinces suspicion.
The same quality of connivance that kept Lefty’s love songs from curdling and lent the ones about heartache their fortifying self-awareness is also present in “There’s No Food in This House,” though the subject matter couldn’t be more different. For starters, there is no incredulous husband involved. Rather, the song, which appeared on the same album as “Saginaw, Michigan,” is rendered from the perspective of a child. “Sister says she’s hungry,” the song begins. “Brother says he’s hungry too / if daddy don’t get a job real soon / I don’t know what we’re gonna do.” The boy’s age isn’t given, but we gather he’s too young to work, too young for school. Despite his youth, or perhaps because of it, he is undistracted. He knows his family is in trouble, that his father has been laid off, that the store has cut off their credit line, that the cupboards, never that full to begin with, are empty.
Times have been hard, the boy says, for “two months and a day.” The precision of the count stresses the severity of the dilemma as well as its merciless lag. A couple of months isn’t all that long in the grand scheme of things, but you know right away what he’s getting at—two months and a day might as well be forever.
“The aim of every artist,” Faulkner said, “is to arrest motion, which is life.” What moves the song is the boy’s worried appraisal: of his parents’ reactions, the way his father seems to have given up hope, the way his mother is in denial. His older brother and sister are starving; as he discloses in the one-line chorus, “there’s no food in this house.”
In Lefty’s handling, the chorus becomes a question masquerading as statement of fact. The narrator isn’t confused about why the family can’t afford groceries. That, he knows, has to do with his father’s layoff. We suspect that even if the father’s fortunes were to turn tomorrow, if he were to find a way to cobble together enough odd jobs to restock the shelves, the boy wouldn’t be satisfied, not anymore.
It’s as if he’s started to wonder why unemployment and hunger should exist in the first place, as if he’s begun to suspect that the human condition is one of want instead of comfort and that the ache in his belly points to a hole in the heart of things. In the final verse, when help does finally arrive in the form of a meal offered by neighbors from the local church, he is grateful yet wary. “It’s strange,” he says, “the way the Lord does move.”
In the decade after he recorded “There’s No Food in This House,” Lefty’s health and career declined. He neglected his voice, succumbed to alcoholism, and fought with his record label, which cut him loose in 1972. He died from a stroke three years later, at the age of forty-seven.
For all their setbacks, Lefty’s final years yielded beautiful songs. In “I Never Go Around Mirrors,” he rattles off the types of characters he can’t stomach (unshaven men, men with wine on their breath) only to reveal, in one of the most chilling turns in country music, that the character he has in mind is Lefty Frizzell. Delivered in little more than a whisper, the song refuses his old honky-tonk shtick. Lefty collapses the knowing remove that marked his early work and embraces sincerity to devastating effect.
Unlike “I Never Go Around Mirrors,” “There’s No Food in This House” isn’t autobiographical. We have no reason to believe that Lefty was once the kid in the song. Still, it’s not hard to imagine the kid growing up to become a man like Lefty: curious, undeluded, discontented in and out of love, never forgetting his hunger, never forfeiting his grievance but wringing from each a genuine music that goes on moving because it is life.
Drew Bratcher is a writer from Nashville.