All it takes is listening to really talented artists turn in not-quite-right versions of Lefty Frizzell’s “Always Late (With Your Kisses)” to start a girl to wondering what exactly Frizzell is doing in this song that is so hard to replicate in any kind of satisfying way. I mean, when Dwight Yoakum, Merle Haggard, and Willie Fucking Nelson can’t quit scratch your itch for this song, you know there’s something going on in the original you need to pay closer attention to.
Let me just admit, up front, that “Always Late with Your Kisses” is a deceptively cheesy song. The piano is kind of going “oompa oompa” in the background and the lyrics are kind of corny and repetitive in that way that makes it hard for non-country music fans to get into country music.
But, like I said, this is a deceptive song. Let’s set aside Frizzell’s delivery for a second and just listen to what’s going on in the background. You might have to turn it way up, but listen to how the guitar comes in under his voice, and then the piano, both kind of discretely showing off. You can hear it more clearly once Frizzell stops singing and every instrument is given a chance to shine, but I would just point out that nothing going on during the official solos is nearly as interesting as what the guitarist and pianist get up to in the background after that interlude. It’s a little like thinking you’re going to eat a Quarter Pounder and biting into a steak.
(And I know someone I listen to regularly has quoted liberally from what the fiddles are doing in this song, but I can’t for the life of me place it so it’s driving me a little crazy.)
But the fiddles are a good place to listen to get a good sense of what Frizzell is up to vocally, too. The fiddles are each doling out notes that clang together in really lovely dissonance. You can hear it in parts of the steal guitar parts, too. Notes that don’t sound good next to each other somehow sound great next to each other in this song.
Frizzell is doing something like that vocally, too, I think. It’s genius for conveying the irksome frustration the speaker feels. But more than that, if you listen closely, it sounds to me like Frizzell’s whole range in this song is maybe five notes (with the exception of the few times he goes way high or way low), but within that condensed range, he’s hitting an enormous range of tones.
I’d love to see this transcribed–not how he wrote it but how he actually sings it, because I bet it’s like note, note-sharp, note-sharp-sharp, note-sharp-sharp-sharp. I mean, they’d have to invent notes to indicate how he sings tones that lie between regular notes (They’re almost like blue notes, I think).
It’s interesting to listen to the other guys, because these are talented singers, and each of them succumbs to the temptation of singing a broader range. And, to me, it sounds like each of them are changing key at least once, but does Lefty? I don’t think so. Even where it seems like the song should naturally go much higher, “How long do you think I can wait, when you know you’re always late,” Frizzell doesn’t. That “late” and the next “always” are either the same note or fraternal twins.
I’m really frustrated with my lack of ability to talk about what Frizzell gets at with this song that most artists don’t, but here’s another thing. Nelson and Yoakam both start out with vocals. Frizzell’s version starts out exactly the way it ends, with the steal guitar. Nelson’s and Yoakam’s versions are set up like a story–you start some place, it builds, you trail off someplace else. Frizzell’s goes no place. It just opens, delights, and closes again.
I wonder how deeply Frizzell was influenced by what was going on in bluegrass at the time. His vocal delivery really puts me in mind of what a bluegrass vocalist might get up to, but usually with one or two other people joining in. And something about the ways the musicians approach both their respective solos and their accompaniment when Frizzell is singing reminds me of it, too.
Here’s Bill Monroe for you to hear what I’m talking about (and you Cowboy Junkies fans, prepare to be tickled):
Anyway, Frizzell. I think you can also hear the yodeling influence (of Jimmie Rodgers!!!!) on this song. With a good yodel, you can, of course, showcase your ability to hit notes in a wide range, but you can also showcase your ability to make a lot of different noises in between two notes, which, obviously, Frizzell does.
I’m going to keep harping on this, but only because I think this is genius.