Lee Hazelwood – 400 Miles From L.A. 1955-1956 – Light In The Attic Records LITA176 double vinyl
(Lee Hazelwood – guitar, vocals; Al Casey – guitar)
In 1955, the emergence of the singer songwriter phenomenon was limited. In country music, there were breakthroughs with artists like Hank Williams. Rock ’N’ Roll was beginning to take hold, but only a few artists like Johnny Cash and Buddy Holly were recording their own compositions. Pop music songwriters like Carole King and Neil Diamond were part of an assembly line working in office buildings. If you wanted to make it in the record business, an artists would head to New York, Los Angeles or Nashville and hustle. Often these musicians would take staff writing jobs, become a session musician or work in production. It was not an easy task to climb this mountain, very few did!
In Phoenix a disc jockey and fledgling songwriter Lee Hazelwood headed to Los Angeles to pitch songs to record labels. He played guitar and sang. Later Hazlewood would write and produce songs for Nancy Sinatra including “These Boots were Made For Walkin’” and “Sugar Town”. As a performer, he teamed up with her to record “Some Velvet Morning” and “Jackson”. This sound was the origin of cowboy psychedelia. Hazelwood started his own label and produced an album with pre-Byrds Gram Parsons. He worked with Duane Eddy, wrote music soundtracks (Tony Rome) and produced a #1 hit, “Something Stupid” for Frank and Nancy Sinatra”. He continued to record sporadically for three decades.
Light In The Attic Records has released a vinyl pressing of Hazlewood’s “audition” tapes. 400 Miles From L.A. (1955-1956). This archival retrospective (which is recorded like a demo tape) is a deep glimpse into the essence of a songwriter. With guitar and vocals, Hazlewood delves into the art of storytelling with simplicity and pathos. Side One has seven brief, but evocative songs. “Cross Country Bus” relates a tale of love as experienced on a bus trip. The couple progress in their relationship as they head East, marrying in New York. Hazelwood’s affable baritone (not as deep as the psychedelic cowboy stage) is effective. “The Woman I Love” (2 takes) is a lament to lost love (“…Took my sunshine and she gave me rain…”) with a purer country flavor. On “Five Thousand And One” the listener gets to experience the introspection of a bullfighter. Hazlewood excels on country/western material. “Lonesone Day” is unadulterated country blues with a cleverly articulated “l-o-n-e-s-o-m-e day”. Switching to rockabilly, both “A Lady Called Blues” and the train cadence prison-themed gem “Five More Miles To Folsom” feel like standards, not obscure unrecorded songs. In troubadour style, “Fort Worth” is talking folk, reminiscent of Woody Guthrie. The introspection continues on Side 2 with “The Old Man And The Guitar”. Low-keyed strumming and heartfelt singing sell this one. “Peculiar Guy” is a wry observation on success and tragedy as opposing forces. A certain highlight is “Long Black Train”. A classic story of best friends ending up on different sides of the law is a distinct part of Western culture. Hazelwood brings a weary fatalism to this moving song. In a rare display of higher-register singing, “I Guess It’s Love” is a jaunty ditty with restrained jubilation. A pair of comic takes on life, “It’s An Actuality” (which showcases some clever word play) and the honky tonkin’ “Buying On Time” (with harmony vocals) are a change of pace. An odd instrumental with 50’s pop riffs “Bus Tune” is difficult to categorize.
Sides Three and Four represent an “early draft” of Hazelwood’s 1963 album, Trouble Is A Lonesome Town. It appears to be a sort of conceptual aggregate of country & western songs. Each song is preceded by a short explanatory spoken intro and repeat musical refrain. The album centers on a town called Trouble in what appears to be around late 1870’s or early 1880’s. He reprises “Long Black Train”, but with more tempo and fuller guitar. The sound is more polished. The juxtaposition of good and bad contexts permeate the lyrics. “Run Boy Run” is a cautionary tale about a young fella that “shot a man for nothin’” and now must forever be on the run. The ominous presence of the Marshall “Big Joe Spade” is talking country blues in a 3/4 time signature. Hazelwood voice deepens, reflecting the impending doom for anyone messing with this lawman. On “Son Of A Gun”, the legacy of being an outlaw’s son is sadly portrayed with deft vocal phrasing. In a populist notion, “Georgia Chain Gang” recounts the doomed life of a crooked politician with visceral imagery. Most of the songs are arranged with a more accessible up tempo. Hazelwood’s engaging storytelling injects elements of irony (“Look At That Woman”) with a bluegrass twist. He shares the awareness of traditional music (like a Pete Seeger) on “Railroad Song”. There is an overall stoicism on the album, He invokes family blood feuds and prison (“Six Feet Of Chain”) with a melodic drone like Leonard Cohen. The finale has a concise gospel direction as Hazlewood sings the title cut with plaintive resonance.
Lee Hazelwood – 400 Miles From L.A. (1955-1956) is a fascinating examination of a musical career setting a course!
Side One: Cross Country Bus; The Woman I Love; Five Thousand And One; Lonesome Day; A Lady Called Blues; Five More Miles To Folsom; Fort Worth
Side Two: The Old Man And His Guitar; Peculiar Guy; Long Black Train; I Guess It’s Love; It’s An Actuality; Buying On Time; The Country Bus Tune
Side Three: Long Back Train; Run Boy Run; Big Joe Spade; Son Of A Gun; Georgia Chain Gang
Side Four: Look At That Woman; Peculiar Guy; The Railroad Song; Six Feet Of Chain; Trouble Is A Lonesome Town
More Information at Light In The Attic Website.