400 Miles from L.A.: Phoenix, Arizona was the birthplace of Lee Hazlewood's professional career. The future writer of "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" was well-acquainted with the Greyhound bus between Phoenix and Los Angeles, making frequent trips in the hopes of selling his songs. Though he was a successful DJ in Phoenix, Hazlewood wanted more, and songwriting seemed to be his means of attaining it. Lee wrote his first songs, it's believed, in 1953; the following year, his first songs appeared on records. Then, in 1955, he founded the small Viv label in Phoenix on which he released eight singles from local artists. None of them were successful, but in 1956, he cut his song "The Fool" on Sanford Clark and it was released on the MCI label. Lee had his first top ten hit, and the rest is history. But in between, during 1955-56, Hazlewood was prolifically demoing his songs. These recently-discovered recordings are at the heart of Light in the Attic's stellar new addition to its Lee Hazlewood Archives series. 400 Miles from L.A. (available on CD and LP) features 24 demos recorded at Ramsey's Studio in Phoenix, shedding new light on the artist's earliest days.
Most strikingly, Hazlewood's deep, low voice wasn't quite so deep and low yet, and he hadn't yet settled into his wry cowboy persona. These simple voice-and-guitar demos (some with additional guitar accompaniment from future Wrecking Crew guitarist Al Casey) showcase Hazlewood as a budding songwriter comfortable in country and folk idioms. He was already a compelling storyteller, sharing the tale of love upon a "Cross Country Bus" and the eve-of-execution song "Five Thousand and One." Hazlewood conjured vivid characters in the lovelorn "The Woman I Love" and the train song "Five More Miles to Folsom," with the expected chug-a-lug rhythm. The tune and lyric to the latter bear similarity to Johnny Cash's famous "Folsom Prison Blues" ("Shot a man in Dallas/He made a fool of me/Thought they'd never catch me/How wrong can one guy be?") which The Man in Black wrote in 1953 but didn't record until 1955. The date of Lee's composition isn't known with certainty, but even if he was aping Cash, it's clear that both men were drawing from the same well of inspiration.
The drawled, languid lament "Lonesome Day" could almost be a satire of a country song, and indeed, lightness and humor were part of "I Guess It's Love", "It's an Actuality," and the jaunty "Buying on Time." ("It's an Actuality" is one of three songs from these demo sessions destined for the artist's classic, oft-reissued 1963 concept album Trouble Is a Lonesome Town, along with "Long Black Train" and "Peculiar Guy.") Another highlight is "A Lady Called Blues," a Lee Hazlewood title if there ever was one. The songwriter showcased his moving side on the character study "The Old Man and His Guitar," and dabbled in rock-and-roll with the peppy band instrumental "The Country Bus Tune."
The initial fourteen tracks would make for an exciting album in and of themselves, but Light in the Attic has gone further. Adding to the excitement, the label has uncovered an "early draft" of Trouble Is a Lonesome Town recorded in Phoenix around 1956. Also recorded at Ramsey Studios with Al Casey, these rough demos also feature members of Hazlewood collaborator Duane Eddy's backing band. A couple of tracks ("Long Black Train" and "Peculiar Guy") are featured in unique versions to those in the first segment of this collection.
Though raw and unvarnished, the Trouble tracks play like an alternative version of the familiar album. Through ten stories and songs, the surprisingly confident Hazlewood introduces listeners to the town of Trouble's colorful denizens, much as he would do on the final album. The draft of Trouble has its spoken narration and sung connective tissue; Hazlewood clearly envisioned Trouble as one conceptual piece from the get-go even if he didn't know it was a "concept album." He noted, "I wrote a complete story of a make-believe town."
A couple of the tracks didn't make the cut for the re-recorded LP: the story of the fearsome Marshal "Big Joe Slade," and the first-person account of a convict with twenty years on the "Georgia Chain Gang." Both would have fit seamlessly into the final sequence.
400 Miles from L.A. is a persuasive journey back to the roots of Lee Hazlewood as a producer, songwriter, and artist. The master tapes for these long-lost sessions must have been in remarkably good condition based on the superb sound here; all credit is due to Mark Wilder at Sony's Battery Studios for tape transfers, and Peter Reynolds for mastering. (There's a dropout in the Trouble Is a Lonesome Town version of "Long Black Train," but it's a small price to pay for having everything else in such stellar, clear quality.)
The digipak contains a thick, 32-page black-and-white booklet with liner notes from Hunter Lea and an interview with Arizona music historian and Hazlewood expert John Dixon. Both the essay and interview help put these fascinating tracks in the proper perspective. Light in the Attic has hit another home run in its Hazlewood series; one looks forward to the next Archive excursion from this quintessential, quirky troubadour.