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Reissue CDs Weekly: Heartworn Highways | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Heartworn Highways

Reissue CDs Weekly: Heartworn Highways

Soundtrack of the important film documenting country music as it redefined itself

Townes Van Zandt and his canine companion Geraldine in ‘Heartworn Highways’

Although Heartworn Highways was a unique document of a collection of country singer-songwriters who had rejected the Nashville establishment in favour of following their own paths, hardly anyone saw the film after its completion. Initially titled New Country, it was first seen at a Los Angeles film festival in 1977. Renamed Outlaw County, it was then screened in Muncie, Indiana and Flint, Michigan.

In May 1981, as Heartworn Highways, it was shown over a week at a Greenwich Village cinema. Critic Pauline Kael devoted three pages of The New Yorker to it. From this point, the reputation of the film was assured.

Directed by James Szalapski and filmed in Tennessee and Texas between late 1975 and early 1976, Heartworn Highways caught Guy Clark, David Allan Coe, a fresh-faced Steve Earle (pictured below left), Townes Van Zandt and Steve Young as they redefined country. It was rough, with a verité style showing the boredom and stresses of life on the road, the repetition of studio recording, home life and hard drinking. A pivotal section centred on celebrating Christmas at Guy Clark’s house. There was no glamour and none of the gloss of Nashville’s establishment country scene.

Heartworn HighwaysThe film bore a strong resemblance to the rough-and-ready work of documentarian Les Blank and, as such, with its fly-on-the-wall style remains compelling and thrilling. Szalapski, who died in 2000, never made another full-length feature but later worked on special and visual effects for films as disparate as the 1980 fantasy musical Xanadu and the 1985 historical thriller Ladyhawke.

With Heartworn Highways, the director documented a loose grouping of the like-minded who were almost off the radar of the music business and, by capturing it in one feature, defined the film’s participants as representing a scene. One which could be called outlaw country but could also be seen as made up from free spirits with distinct indentities embracing country with an attitude akin to that of the singer-songwriters who had emerged towards the end of the Sixties.

Although the film became better and better known, it did not have a soundtrack album until 2006 when the Hacktone label brought the music together after issuing it on DVD in 2003. That was a no-frills release. This new version of the soundtrack adds a lengthy but uncredited contextualising chapter-by-chapter overview of the film and its prime movers. It is as definitive a package as it’s going to get.

Heartworn Highways Steve EarleSongs like Guy Clark’s "L.A. Freeway" and Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” are familiar as they have been widely covered. Considering his subsequent fate, Van Zandt’s “Waiting 'Round To Die” assumes a poignance. There are nods to an earlier maverick with Steve Clark’s interpretation of Hank Williams’ “I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry”. This and a Rodney Crowell-led “Silent Night” are the only cover versions. The all-original material comes across as though any influences from the entire first three-quarters of the 1960s have been erased. (pictured left, Steve Earle in Heartworn Highways)

Crowell released his first album in 1978. Steve Earle did not issue one until 1985. Guy Clark’s first came out in 1975, the year filming Heartworn Highways commenced. Relatively, Steve Young and David Allan Coe were veterans as their debut albums had both been issued in 1969. No one heard or seen had a discography stretching back to the pre-hippy era. If a soundtrack album had been issued in 1976, it would have defined a generation of singer-songwriters which had found their voice in the wake of the upheavals of the 1960s.

The soundtrack is a snapshot of musical flux, when the music business take on country was being rejected by those as informed by tradition as what surrounded them. For this alone, Heartworn Highways is terrifically important. But more than this, the soundtrack album brings the opportunity to hear these individualists at their most unvarnished.

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