It's no secret that Lee Hazlewood worked hard for his success, toiling away as a DJ, songwriter, and producer before striking gold with Duane Eddy and Nancy Sinatra. The narrative may be well-known, but Light in the Attic's 2019 compilation, 400 Miles from L.A. 1955-56, sheds light on a period that's been otherwise undocumented: Hazlewood's earliest years, when he was finding his way as a songwriter, heading from his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona to Los Angeles with a fistful of demos, hoping to convince a label to record his original material. Hazlewood didn't have success in Los Angeles, not back in the mid-'50s, but his determination eventually earned him a career in the music business. The songs on 400 Miles from L.A. are at the foundation of that career. Lost since their original recording, Light in the Attic discovered the material many decades later, then polished up the demos for a release where they're paired with his first collection of demos for the material that would become Trouble Is a Lonesome Town in 1963. The half of 400 Miles from L.A. devoted to Trouble Is a Lonesome Town undoubtedly contains the best songs, but in a way, the first half is a bit more fascinating. These 14 songs were recorded by Hazlewood alone with a guitar as he was learning how to write. Johnny Cash is certainly an influence -- "Five More Miles to Folsom" is an answer to "Folsom Prison Blues" -- but from the start, Hazlewood is a distinctive, peculiar songwriter. He doesn't hesitate to write a song about the dangers of debt ("Buying on Time"), he hums a kazoo on "The Country Bus Tune," and displays a cutting wit on "It's an Actuality." While those songs may be surrounded by some pedestrian love and folk tunes, it's the idiosyncratic flashes that make this collection more than an historical footnote.
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