Stop Cutting Hits: The Story of Lefty Frizzell’s “The Long Black Veil”

Brady Vercher | March 12th, 2008

Lefty Frizzell

Lefty Frizzell rivaled and might have been bigger than Hank Williams in 1951, placing four songs in the top ten at the same time, a feat that’s never been matched. Like Williams, he led a turbulent life, mostly due to his own bad habits, but it was his friend Hank who was immortalized by an early death while Lefty lived to struggle against the incoming Rockabilly era and to eventually become mostly forgotten. His influences have lived on, though. Nudie the Rodeo Tailor fashioned a shirt with an “L” and an “F” on the yoke and filled them with blue rhinestones, starting a trend among country artists of wearing flashy Nudie suits. Merle Haggard, who derived inspiration from Lefty’s music, called him “the most unique thing that ever happened to country music,” and you can’t listen to Randy Travis without catching a glimpse of Lefty Frizzell. It was this month in 1959 when Lefty Frizzell recorded one of his signature songs. The story goes something like this…

Lefty Frizzell’s latest hit, “Cigarettes and Coffee Blues,” was fading when he headed to Nashville with his brother, David, for a recording session. He brought along a song he co-wrote with Eddie Miller called “Sin Will Be The Chaser For the Wine” and still needed three more to fill the usual four-song recording session. So, along with producer Don Law, he put the word out that they were looking for songs and set up a listening room in Law’s suite in the James Robertson Hotel.

The suite soon filled with pickers and songwriters pitching their songs. With only a couple of hours left before the recording session, Marijohn Wilkin showed up at the suite, representing the interests of the Cedarwood publishing company. After listening to a few of the tunes being pitched, she pulled Don Law aside and told him, “Danny Dill and I have a song better than any of these.”

Danny Dill had worked on the song over the course of a few months before the pieces finally fell into place. He pulled the different elements from a few incidents, as he later recounted, “There’s three incidents I’ve read about in my life that really please me. There was a Catholic priest killed in New Jersey many years ago under a town hall light, and there was no less than 50 witnesses. They never found a motive. They never found the man. Until this day, it’s an unsolved murder. That always intrigued me, so that’s ‘under the town hall light.’ Then the Rudolph Valentino story’s always impressed me–about the woman that always used to visit his grave. She always wore a long black veil–now there’s the title for the song. And the third component was Red Foley’s ‘God Walks These Hills With Me.’ I always thought that was a great song, so I got that in there, too. I just scrambled it all up, and that’s what came out.”

The morning after Dill completed the song, he took it to Wilkin and tossed it on her desk and said, “I wrote this thing last night. I don’t know if it’s any good or not. If you like it, why, put a tune to it. If you don’t, why, throw it in the wastebasket.” Wilkin sat down at her piano and as she began playing and singing, the melody just flowed out. She pitched it to Lefty Frizzell and Don Law later that same afternoon. Law wanted to hear a demo of the song, but Wilkin admitted that it had just been written, so she lead Law and Lefty to the kitchen and sang it to them a cappella. They both immediately agreed that it was the best song they had.

Without a demo tape, though, they couldn’t teach the song to the studio band, so Law hired Wilkin to play the piano and behind her lead, the producer and studio players worked out a sparse arrangement consisting of a couple of acoustic guitars to carry the song forward and Don Helm’s steel guitar to add an ethereal element. David Frizzell, who witnessed the recording and was stunned by his brother’s inspired work, later declared that “magic happened that night.”

When “The Long Black Veil” started to break out on pop stations, the head of Columbia sent Don Law a telegram, begging him, “For god’s sakes, stop cutting hits. We can’t promote them all.” Over a ten week period, Law had produced numerous hits, including Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans,” Stonewall Jackson’s “Waterloo,” Marty Robbin’s “El Paso,” and Ray Price’s Heartache By The Numbers.” Without the backing of Columbia, “The Long Black Veil” failed to crossover, but even-so, it eventually landed at number six on the country charts and became one of Lefty Frizzell’s signature hits.

** Paraphrased from Lefty Frizzell: The Honky-Tonk Life of Country Music’s Greatest Singer by Daniel Cooper and Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy by Dorothy Horstman

Comment on this post with a valid email address before March 14, 2008 (CST) and we’ll send you a digital download (through iTunes) of Lefty Frizzell’s “The Long Black Veil” for free.

4 Pings

  1. [...] his innocence in “Long Black Veil.” You’ll also want to check out Brady’s story behind the song feature from back in [...]
  2. [...] Danny Dill, one of the songwriters behind Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil” and Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City,” passed away on Thursday at the age of 83. If you’re not familiar with “Long Black Veil,” read the story behind the song in Stop Cutting Hits: The Story of Lefty Frizzell’s “The Long Black Veil.” [...]
  3. [...] Read the story of Lefty Frizzell’s “The Long Black Veil” Julkaisupaikka [...]
  4. Long Black Veil « Songbook
    December 11, 2011
    [...] found on the song’s creation and how it revived Left Frizzell’s flagging career is Stop Cutting Hits: The Story of Lefty Frizzell’s “The Long Black Veil,” by Brady Vercher as published on 12 March 2008 on the popular country music blog The [...]
  1. Stephen H.
    March 12, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    Very interesting read. Very informative.

    (Hopefully I don’t need to be very verbose in order to qualify for the download.)

  2. Kelly
    March 12, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    There’s NO WAY it is better than Dave Matthews Band’s version……

  3. Hollerin' Ben
    March 12, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    really super cool read Brady. Especially the comparison to Hank to help contextualize Lefty and his stature in country music.

    well done.

  4. Hollerin' Ben
    March 12, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    oh, and Kelly, I assume you’re joking.

    though The Band, and Johnny Cash both have versions that I think approach the original.

  5. Kelly
    March 12, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    I am joking, and the fact is, I already felt bad about even joking like that…..

  6. Hollerin' Ben
    March 12, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    haha, well I’m glad I gave you the opportunity to set the record straight on that count.

  7. Lucas
    March 12, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    He’s a legend, but I don’t think he would have beat out Hank.

  8. Roger
    March 12, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    4 songs in the top ten at once…amazing….Danny Dill still shows up at writer’s nights here in nashville on occasion to sing this classic!

  9. ccf
    March 12, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    Lefty is my favorite. I finlly bought the Bear Family Box set. I found it on ebay new from a Bear family dealer for $170.00. It is worth the money.

  10. corey
    March 12, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    I’m hoping this download can lead me to learn more about Lefty and his music. I admittedly am not very knowledgeable about country music before the 1960s.

  11. Paul W Dennis
    March 12, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin actually tell their story on Joe Sun’s 1978 album OLD FLAMES. Their story serves as the set up for Joe’s own excellent rendition of “The Long Black Veil” (and yes, “Old Flames” is the same song that Dolly covered – and ruined – two years later)

    I would argue that in some ways, particularly influence on vocal styles, that Lefty ws more important than Hank Sr. In addition to the singers previously cited (Randy Travis, Merle Haggard), Lefty was a major influence on John Anderson

  12. Steve
    March 12, 2008 at 6:58 pm

    One of my favorite Country songs of all time. I loved Johnny Cash’ version also. However, I like Lefty’s version better than all the others. Lefty was one of a kind.

  13. Alex
    March 13, 2008 at 6:16 am

    Very interesting story–I’d heard of Lefty Frizell, and I knew the song via the Johnny Cash version, but I never knew the connection before now.

  14. Ryan
    March 13, 2008 at 6:51 am

    I have to admit that I came here looking at the site design, and that I know of this song from the Dave Matthews Band version from the Johnny Cash version. I’m not a country fan for the most part, but this isn’t bad.

  15. Chris A
    March 13, 2008 at 9:13 am

    My favorite cover is by John Anderson. When Merle Haggard comes in for his verse, it’s almost as chilling as when he comes in on “Pancho and Lefty”.

  16. Tim Jenkins
    March 13, 2008 at 9:20 am

    I first heard of Lefty’s music after becoming a fan of Keith Whitley, who often spoke of the influence Lefty had on him.

  17. Reg Matthews
    March 13, 2008 at 10:22 am

    The oldies were and always will be the best. Thanks, Brady.

  18. Brady Vercher
    March 13, 2008 at 10:52 am

    Glad you guys enjoyed it. I did one with Hank Williams last year, but thought it’d be cool to make it a more regular feature. I have some more Lefty stories, but I’ll mix ‘em up a bit.

  19. Kirk
    March 13, 2008 at 10:52 am

    This type of story really digs into what the hisotry of country music is all about. Country is so special that way. Also, this writing also has a side note to it in that it showcases the talents of Don Law. From my readings, Law allowed the artist do their thing and be there own self. Carl Smith, Ray Price, Marty Robins, Johnny Cash, Jimmy Dean, and well the list goes on and on of legends that Law worked with.

  20. jo
    March 13, 2008 at 8:29 pm

    My favorite is John Anderson’s cover, it sends chills up and down my spine!

  21. Lucas
    March 15, 2008 at 11:48 am

    John Anderson has one of the best voices in country music.

  22. Paul W Dennis
    March 15, 2008 at 10:53 pm

    The “Long Black Veil” is such a strong piece of material that it’s hard to mess up. I’d rank the versions thusly:

    1) Lefty Frizzell
    2) John Anderson
    3) Joe Sun
    4) “Cajun” Dave Becnel
    5) Johnny Cash

  23. nell
    March 15, 2008 at 11:40 pm

    i grew up with this song it was one of my mother favorite i give it a ten

  24. J.R. Journey
    October 27, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    Excellent read. I learned a lot.

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