Lee Hazlewood- 400 Miles From L.A. 1955-56 review

Lee Hazlewood 400 Miles From L.A. 1955-1956 Light in the Attic

True story, I swear: One of the most painful nights of my life was spent with a table of my wife’s workmates and various associated acquaintances in a pub in north Red Deer.

The only thing that was memorable about the eve was that, when a song came on over the sound system, someone queried, “Who’s this singing.” Having said next to nothing all night, likely sulking a little at being so obviously an outsider, I piped up, “Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. The song is “Summer Wine.”

I would like to remember that the pub, having fallen silent at the dropping of the initial gauntlet in those pre-smart phone days, rose upon a wave of rapturous accolade, heaping considerable and righteous praise upon my demonstrated skill and wisdom. Instead, I got a, “No, that’s not her—I know her voice from ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking,” as folks turned back to their warming beer and congealed nachos, ignoring my obviously ready retort that Hazlewood had actually written…

Such is the fortune of an under-appreciated music geek.

Even today, most folks know Lee Hazlewood—if they know of him at all—as the songwriter of “These Boots Are Made For Walking” or, more rarely, as the co-writer of “The Fool.” Sometime during the last twenty years, Hazlewood has become a familiar name within Americana and associated circles, revered for this songwriting and production talents, and his identifiable, spoken-sung voice: if open to such, listening to him just once is enough to spark a desire to delve deeper.

Cowboy in Sweden, Lee & Nancy (from which “Summer Wine” was harvested), and Coke or Death are three of his finest recordings, but despite these successes his initial release remains the Hazlewood hallmark, at least in my opinion. Trouble is a Lonesome Town is a concept album, a song-cycle rarity within country music completely superseding genre limitations. It was released in 1963, years after Marty Robbins’ More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, an obvious comparison piece.

With spoken-word vignettes linking ten songs sketching the inhabitants and happenings of a town—set in some indefinable time back when. Trouble is the sort of little town with folks good and bad, but where “most of the people are good and bad most of the time…and don’t have much to look forward to.” It is a pretty remarkable album, populated with terrific songs like “Long Black Train,” “Ugly Brown,” “Six Feet of Chain,” and “Peculiar Guy.” The characters and stories resonate with anyone who appreciates cinematic story, keen songwriting, and the troubadour tradition. The title track brings it all together, every small town you’ve ever (or never) known, a place ‘to die and be forgotten,” where you can “take three steps in any direction, and you’re there.”

Hearing Trouble Is A Lonely Town forty, fifty, and now fifty-six years after its release, one remains astounded at how much the melodies and lyrics continue to resonate. And here’s the thing: we didn’t know the half of it.

Uncovered among boxes of surplus recordings from Viv Records (Hazlewood’s self-owned Phoenix label) were demo recordings not only of Trouble Is a Lonely Town—in almost its eventual published entirety—but nearly an album’s-worth of additional demos. Just when one thought the tale of Trouble Is A Lonely Town was complete, along come these gems featuring Hazlewood, guitarist Al Casey, and the occasional uncredited session musician.

And here is the freakiest part: the recordings are comprehensive, fully realized as concept and songs and date from…1955/1956, a full four and more years before Robbins unleased what many consider to be the first country concept album. Hazlewood was sitting on these demos before submitting a later version to Mercury for consideration in 1963.

The provenance of these recordings is minutely detailed in the extensive (and somewhat repetitive) notes including an interview with current owner of Viv Records, John Dixon. For those of us who need to know the story behind recordings, these satisfy.

The tracks themselves contain less echo than heard on the original album, there are fewer production effects and the songs are necessarily sparser. And they work ideally in this format, and perhaps are even elevated. Whereas the well-known versions sound dramatic and are artfully constructed, these drafts appear genuine, personal, and authentic. Natural, perhaps. One is particularly grateful that none of the many labels and singers to whom Hazlewood pitched the songs bit. Had they, we might never have heard the original album, and certainly would most likely not have encountered these sixty-plus year-old demos.

Also included in his new package, beyond the Trouble demos, are additional Hazlewood demos. Among the finest of these are “Fort Worth,” a moody, introspective piece, and “Cross Country Bus,” a languid tale of a relationship where nothing too much happens, and the exercise is all the stronger for this lack of tension; Hazlewood’s voice is incredible here. Even better are “The Woman I Love,” “Five More Miles to Folsom,” and “The Old Man and His Guitar.”

I don’t know if Guy Clark was influenced by Hazlewood’s writing—my copy of Clark’s biography is currently in another’s hands—but I hear connections: a sense of pacing that refuses  to be hurried, a love of natural rhyme and rhythm, a mastery of accessible vocabulary giving depth to the most apparent of emotions and situations.

I am no Lee Hazlewood scholar. I own only a handful of his albums, and my ability to identify the singers of “Summer Wine” fifteen years ago during a cold central Alberta night had more to do with timing than deep scholarship: I had only weeks prior purchased—on a whim—the album via download. Serendipity then, much as these recordings—ignored for more than sixty years in a forgotten crate—have found their way to the world late this summer of 2019.

Absolutely brilliant, and well-worth purchase: I predict they will become favourites within your Lee Hazlewood collection. What? You don’t have a Lee Hazlewood collection! Well, now you know where to start.

Review based on provided CD.

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