If your last name is Frizzell, you may or not be country music royalty. But if your last name is Frizzell AND your brother’s name is Lefty, chances are you’re a crown prince.
Such is the case of the subject of this issue’s Rhythm of the Road column — David Frizzell.
David Frizzell was born in El Dorado, Arkansas, in 1941, just three months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The family later moved to Greenville, Texas, and Frizzell’s father, an oilman, went off to join the war in Europe, leaving his eight children at home.
During this time, the oldest Frizzell, Lefty, was busy making a name for himself and growing in popularity, touring and playing gigs in Arkansas, New Mexico, Texas and even Las Vegas. Young David was no slouch, either: By the age of 9, he had his own radio show in Kermit, Texas.
Soon, Lefty had his first No. 1 hit, “If you got the money (I’ve got the time).” By late 1950, the younger Frizzell joined Lefty at his home in Sulphur Springs, Texas. Three years later, David joined Lefty’s band and hit the road. From the early 1950s through the mid 1960s, the Frizzell brothers could be found on stages, radio shows and television broadcasts across America. By the time David joined the U.S. Air Force in 1966 and was shipped to Vietnam, Lefty was a bona fide country music superstar. Unfortunately, Lefty was also nearing the end of his career — an end largely brought on by his alcoholism, personal demons and a generally disagreeable nature when it came to working on Music Row.
But stardom still awaited younger brother David.
Following his stint in the Air Force, David signed a contract with Columbia Records in 1970. He soon charted his first Billboard hit with “L.A. International Airport” and later had a Top 40 record with “I Just Can’t Stop Believing.” Largely still making a living off his brother’s name, Frizzell spent the early 1970s making regular appearances on “Hee Haw.” He was eventually dropped by Columbia Records and re-signed with Capitol.
But for David, real success remained fleeting, and as a “crown prince” of country music, it just made sense to team up with a country music princess to gain success. That’s just what he did. In 1981, he joined country superstar Dottie West’s daughter, Shelly West, in the recording studio, and the pair produced the aptly named album “Carryin’ on the Family Names.”
During the session, the duo belted out Frizzell’s first No. 1 hit, “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma.” The song, about two lovers separated by different dreams, became a lasting success for both singers. It garnered awards, including Song of the Year from the County Music Association, as well as a Grammy nomination. It also led to the Academy of Country Music awarding Frizzell and West with the Vocal Duo award in 1981 and 1982. Finally, the song made its way to Hollywood and was featured in Clint Eastwood’s movie “Any Which Way You Can.”
With a blockbuster hit under their belts, David and West followed up on their success with 11 more singles over the next four years, including the Top 10 “A Texas State of Mind,” “Another Honky Tonk Night on Broadway,” and “I Just Came Here to Dance.” By 1985, the duo stopped recording together, ending the early 1980s as one of country music’s most popular duos.
But David had not planned on making a career as a singer on duets.
Soon after his success with “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma,” David released a solo hit, the No. 1-charting “I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home.” The song has been infamously noted as country music’s 17th-best drinking song ever recorded.
However, after a couple more Top 10 songs, David’s career waned. By 1984, his solo songs fell out of the Top 40 and only a handful were released as singles for the rest of the decade. By 1990, he was essentially a has-been — but his fate bested that of his brother Lefty, who had died 15 years earlier from alcoholism and with a career and personal life fraught with distress.
From 1993 to 2014, David released several compilation albums, including the trio of “Frizzell and Friends.” None of them scratched the country charts in the U.S., but they kept Frizzell at the forefront of country music in Great Britain.
During the best years of his career, David never released a trucking song. But in 2003, his song “18 Wheels Hummin’ Home Sweet Home” appeared on a compilation album. Had it gained popularity, it could have gone down as one of several trucker’s “anthems,” as the song covers a variety of issues to which drivers can relate. David sings of a lost love in Texas who left “us” (the “us” referring to the driver and his truck). Now, “this lonely truck’s the only thing I know … Sometimes I overwork her,” he sang, “but I never would desert her.”
Frizzell and his truck certainly seem to have had a close relationship.
“It ain’t the latest model and it can’t take much throttle,” the song goes. But “them shiny rigs ain’t been where this one’s gone, and we ain’t in a hurry — we lope along, with 18 wheels a humming home sweet home.” Whether the old truck and driver ever reach “home sweet home” and what they find there is left to the imagination.
Until next time, remember: Your brother’s shadow may not be as bright as the spotlight, but then again, the spotlight’s rays won’t fade your rhinestone-studded Nudie suit. RIP Lefty Frizzell. Fortunately, we have the career of David Frizzel to look back on after we lament the potential you left behind.
Since retiring from a career as an outdoor recreation professional from the State of Arkansas, Kris Rutherford has worked as a freelance writer and, with his wife, owns and publishes a small Northeast Texas newspaper, The Roxton Progress. Kris has worked as a ghostwriter and editor and has authored seven books of his own. He became interested in the trucking industry as a child in the 1970s when his family traveled the interstates twice a year between their home in Maine and their native Texas. He has been a classic country music enthusiast since the age of nine when he developed a special interest in trucking songs.