Digging up the roots of a psychedelic country icon

Lee Makes the Flowers Grow

by Mitch Gilliam

West of Sand Springs, Oklahoma, on old Highway 51, past the grounds of the razed Hissom asylum, stand two stoplights. Between them lies the bulk of Mannford, a ripple of a town at the edge of Tulsa. Lee Hazlewood’s ode to Mannford, which claims, “When you’re born in Mannford, Oklahoma, there ain’t no up in your cup, there’s just down,” is near the bottom of contenders for town theme song. His name with locals only gets blank stares. That’s because the Mannford that Hazlewood grew up in isn’t there. He hopped a long black train before the town went underwater.

A pre-statehood crossing point on the Cimarron River, the town’s mid-century population grew to 400. In 1963 the entire town was flooded to build the Keystone Dam. Instead of dispersing, the town relocated, and has since octupled its pre-flood head count.

Born in Mannford, Oklahoma, in 1929, Hazlewood spent his youth there. The grandson of a mule skinner who laid the first roads in Tulsey Town, Hazlewood laid his own roads in the budding scene of rock ‘n’ roll.

After time in the Korean War, Hazlewood was the first DJ in Arizona to play Elvis Presley on air. With guitarist Duane Eddy, Hazlewood helped define the sound of “twang” in the late ‘50s. In the ‘60s, his work with artists like Gram Parsons and Nancy Sinatra shaped the sounds of country-rock and psychedelia. It was through his solo work, though, that he produced one of the most prolific, indefinable, and enduringly influential discographies in pop.

New Mannford rests sleepily in its lakeside hills, and shreds of Old Mannford clutter the sloping topography. A mural of the ghost town decorates an optometrist’s building, antique shops pepper Highway 51, and down a long dirt road, through some brush and over a fence, Old Mannford rises from the lake. The concrete grid of the town remains, snaking invisible houses and sidewinding into Keystone’s mouth. Apart from the crumbling roads, only overgrown picnic tables bare mankind’s thumbprint.

A gnarled blister of steel guards Mannford’s town museum. Supposedly a car, it was a souvenir from 1984’s tornado. “If closed call Bill,” read a sign on the museum’s door. “He can probably let you in.” Bill Alsip answered my call and told me that, although his wife was making supper, he’d be happy to show up in 30 minutes. A quiet and extremely polite man about 10 years Hazlewood’s junior, Alsip arrived as promised and patiently explained every detail of the museum to me.

Musical instruments, clothing, toiletries, and tools from all eras of Mannford were under, and also outside of, glass cabinets. Bibles, novels, and yearbooks were on display, and I thumbed through photo albums as old as 1890. Almost every minute of both New and Old Mannford seemed to be represented, but any mention of Hazlewood’s name caused Alsip to place his hands in his front pockets, stare at his (brand new shoe hero) shoes, and shake his head in consternation.

After Anna May Harris’s one-eyed dog inspected me, she invited me inside her home and introduced me to her sister, Pat Crosier. A first cousin to Hazlewood, Harris found my name in the museum guestbook after Alsip asked her if she knew any Hazlewoods at church. The two sisters grew up with the man they call “Barton Lee”—his name never leaves their lips shortened. When asked what he was like as a child, Harris replied, “He was an ornery little shit!”

One of Hazlewood’s orneriest moments was when his father took him along to see Coonrod, the only banker in town, to whom Mr. Hazlewood was in debt. “There were a group of men standing around, and when the banker kneeled and asked little Barton Lee how he was doing, he said, ‘I don’t like you, you old one-eyed son of a bitch,’ ” Harris chuckled. The banker, trying to save face in a crowd of his peers, reached in his pocket and gave the younger Hazlewood 50 cents. He would continue to give Hazlewood 50 cents every time he saw him, up until the day his family left Mannford.

The sisters also recalled Hazlewood’s earliest stab at show business. He and a childhood friend would drape a sheet off their front porch and charge neighbor kids to peek inside and watch variety shows. According to Harris, Hazlewood got his sense of showmanship from his mother, who knew “more dirty jokes than anyone could hope to hear.” Learning the jokes from hitchhiking sailors, “Aunt Evie,” as the sisters call her, stood in stark relief to Hazlewood’s father, Gabe. “He was a sad sack,” Harris said. Apart from organizing town dances early in Barton Lee’s life, Gabe Hazlewood’s biggest influence on his son may have been his morose disposition.

Alongside humor, heartbreak is the largest element in Hazlewood’s discography, their pairing best displayed on his first solo album, Trouble Is a Lonesome Town. Minimally composed and narrated in Hazlewood’s rumbling baritone, Trouble is a partial auto-biography of Hazlewood’s Okie childhood. Harris brought out her copy of the album and laughed at all the familiar names dotting the lyrics with her sister. Zickafoose, a rare surname, but one of the most common in Mannford, was tacked onto Emory Zickafoose Brown, a man so ugly that if he was the only person to run for Mr. Universe “the best he could hope for would be fourth place.” Harris’s own name made its way onto the album as the prettiest girl in Trouble, as Anna May Stillwell. Another big name in town, Gilreath, was loaned to Trouble’s undertaker.

Sleepy Gilreath’s song, “We All Make the Flowers Grow,” is a theme for the reaper set to flamenco guitar. In it Hazlewood declares, “Short men and tall men / And all the rest / Please don’t blame me, I didn’t start this mess / Some of us stay, some of us go / Sooner or later, we all make the little flowers grow.” The song’s flippant treatment of its grim subject is an early example of Lee Hazlewood-ism. A unique blend of romanticism, psychedelia, and gallows humor: it was this character that would endear him to artists in the fringe genres of alt-country, goth, indie rock and heavy metal. Perhaps his most popular song, besides “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” was “Some Velvet Morning,” a duet with Nancy Sinatra that has been covered by artists in every conceivable genre. His place in the realm of high weirdness was solidified when Art Bell chose this song for bumper music on his Coast to Coast AM conspiracy program.

Like Mannford and the greater public, Hazlewood’s cousins lost track of him after his time with Nancy Sinatra. Mannford rebuilt itself after flood, tornado, and 2012’s wildfire, and Hazlewood underwent several retirements and rebirths himself.

After the Duane Eddy “twang” years, Hazlewood retired, citing the new genius of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as proof his services were no longer needed. Coaxed out of retirement to mentor Ol’ Blue Eyes’ daughter, his success with Sinatra gave way to his solo career. He retired again at the end of the ‘70s, and it wouldn’t be until the ‘90s that interest in his sought-after records pulled him back onto stage and album.

During the late ‘60s and ‘70s, Hazlewood moved to Sweden, mainly to prevent his son from being drafted into the Vietnam War. It was there he produced several albums, increasingly bizarre and singular in nature, and two films of equal novelty. The albums and films were successes in Sweden, but due to distribution issues, were nearly unheard of elsewhere. His time in Sweden is a mystery to his family, who knew nothing more than that he had “one very pretty little Swedish girlfriend.” When he brought her to a family reunion in a time when “shacking up” was unheard of, Hazlewood and his Scandinavian gal pal were offered his Aunt’s bedroom—evidence to his cousins that “Barton Lee was always the favorite.”

The two sisters marveled so much at trivia concerning their cousin that I feared they might not know he had passed. Thankfully I didn’t have to inform them, as Crosier told me, “You know, he died an absolute pauper.” The last time either sister had seen Hazlewood was when their parents renewed their vows for their 50th wedding anniversary. News of his death, and remarkable life abroad, was brought to them by newspaper headlines.

In a state so enamored with its heroes, it’s bewildering to see Hazlewood go uncelebrated. A hole Sid Vicious punched in a wall is framed in the Cain’s Ballroom office, a booth Waylon Jennings ate at is reserved at Hank’s Hamburgers, and the George Kaiser Family Foundation built a museum for Woody Guthrie, a man who spent minimal time in Tulsa and would probably hate the banker’s guts. The likeness of the man who helped break rock ‘n’ roll, invented “cowboy psychedelia,” and wrote “Tulsa Sunday” is eerily absent. Tulsans in search of a tribute to Hazlewood have to trek a couple thousand miles away to Seattle’s Hazlewood bar.

But, Hazlewood never was one for press. Remaining a child behind a curtain for most of his life, his contributions to music are more felt than seen. When Mannford relocated in ‘63, city leaders envisioned the new town as a lakeside tourist stop. Now a sleepy blip on a map, the ticket to such a distinction may lay in the recognition of its forgotten son.

Originally published in This Land: Fall 2015.