Heartworn Highways Relives 1970s Outlaw Country Music

Directed by Jim Szalapski
MVD Visual, 92 minutes, Re-release of 1981 original.

In the United States, anything that isn’t classical, opera, or jazz gets lumped into the category of “popular music.” For now I’ll ignore the fact that such distinctions are looser than old elastic. Many film buffs would say that the greatest "popular" music documentaries of all time are Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (1976) and Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense (1984). If either film has a flaw, it is that each is simply a concert film—glorious ones shot in path-breaking ways, but there wasn’t a whole lot of script work to be done. Let’s add another to the list of top popular music films, Jim Szalapski’s Heartworn Highways. It was shot in late 1975 and early 1976, but wasn’t released until 1981. That’s rather fitting, as many of its country music subjects didn’t attract a lot of notice until around then.

Heartworn Highways is also script-challenged, but its visuals reveal volumes. Scorsese and Demme sought to iconize The Band and The Talking Heads, but they were already famous. That was not the case of those in Szalapski’s film: Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Larry Jon Wilson, Steve Young, Gamble Rogers, David Allan Coe, and an unrecognizably young Steve Earle. Back then, even the Charlie Daniels Band filled high school auditoriums, but not big arenas. They folks were “outlaws” in that their brand of country music evoked old-time country music, especially its balladic traditions. To put matters in perspective, they were the contemporaries of chart toppers such as Glen Campbell, John Denver, Merle Haggard, Ronnie Milsap, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, and Tanya Tucker. Not to take anything away from them, but theirs was a country music defined by big labels, mass markets, and image-makers. It was not necessarily what made the heart sing down at Big Mack McGowan’s Wigwam Tavern, the kind of place where really good (and really awful) players came together to sing old-style country. It’s also where you’d find Glenn Stegner, who once played with Uncle Dave Macon.   

The folks in Heartworn Highways are those hanging out in the dirt-poor back roads of Texas and Tennessee. There’s no context or explanation in this loosely structured film, but we infer they’re all connected to Guy Clark. We visit Van Zandt at his Austin trailer, where dogs, chickens, rabbits, and squalor surround him. We drop in on Wilson in the recording studio the morning after he had partied the night away, watch Clark rebuild his guitar, witness one of Rogers’ stand-up good ‘ole boy comedy routines, and join Coe as he pilots his bus towards a gig at the Tennessee State Prison—a place where his daddy spent most of his life and Coe also did time. Check out Coe’s concert duds; by contrast they make Vegas Elvis, Gene Simmons of KISS and Alice Cooper look like GQ covers. There’s hardly a scene in which we don’t see the men with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. The women are mostly in the kitchen or putting up with small barbs from their men, a reminder of how different the world was before second wave feminism trickled down. You might even be tempted to dismiss all of these guys as deplorable—until they sing. There’s an amazing encounter between Townes Van Zandt and his black neighbor, 79-yeard-old Seymour Washington. Van Zandt rambles incoherently and Washington holds forth on the virtues of moderation. (Wrong audience!) Then Townes picks up the guitar, sings “Waitin’ Around to Die,” as Washington washes the tears from his face. It’s a helluva song and a tender moment that reminds us that these country outlaws drew from streams watered by hard times, the blues, heartbreak, folk music, and pain. It’s impossible not to be moved by songs like “Ohoopee River Bottomland” (Wilson), “Bluebird Wine” (Crowell), or “Alabama Highway” (Young). Above them stood Clark, who sings with ease and writes with grace. He zings off a masterpiece like “L.A. Freeway” and just put down the guitar. Everyone of these folks could/can pick a guitar like a demon—their connections to African American country blues evident in each finger movement.

Szalapski’s camera work is on par with the music. You might often wonder who is on screen as there are no title boxes to inform you, but it doesn’t matter. Szalapski uses montage, collage, rapid sequences, and artful shots—like those of trucks shedding sheets of water during a downpour—with slow pan shots that bathe us in life among the other half and it’s a more effective lesson than any sociologist could teach. Contrast all of this with the airbrushed glitz of Dollywood and you’ll know what made them outlaws. Listen to today’s country music with its blistering guitar work and the willingness (of some) to tackle social issues, or the very renown now held by Charlie Daniels and Steve Earle, and you’ve got you answer about why these rebels mattered. Guy Clark, in my opinion, remains one of the most underappreciated geniuses of our time.

This is not your average documentary. It lets image and song tell the story and expects viewers to fill in the gaps. It is truly remarkable film and we should be thankful that DVD Visuals has made it available again.

Rob Weir

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