Heartworn Highways Revisited Features New Outlaw Country

Heartworn Highways Revisited (2017)
Directed by Wayne Price
MVD Visual, 86 minutes, Not rated.

In 1981, documentarian James Szalapski (1945-2000) released Heartworn Highways, which he made
in 1976. It gathered rave reviews for its fly-on-the-wall look at "outlaw" country musicians, those who wanted nothing to do with industry formula and sought to recover the unpretentious simplicity of earlier generations. His cast of characters included Guy Clark, David Allan Coe, Steve Young, Steve Earle, and Townes Van Zandt.

These days, country music is slicker than ever, making it practically inevitable that a new generation of outlaws would emerge to challenge booted poseurs. Wayne Price directed Heartworn Highways Revisited in 2015, and it didn't gain immediate release, which is its own statement about industry control. The film follows a new breed of musicians who chose to say no to industry clichés, generic production, and safe messages. We toss around labels like "Independent" and "Americana," but it's not easy to make a living when you're outside the country music system. Today's crop of outlaws draws inspiration from–—you guessed it—the folks Szalapski filmed forty years earlier. Price's film could be subtitled "The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same," and it's all the more poignant in that that both Guy Clark and Steve Young were in the last years of their lives, and David Allan Coe was bankrupt, memory-challenged, and in poor health. (All three show up in moving cameos and you wouldn't need a degree in medicine to diagnose that Clark was at death's door.)

Heartworn Highways Revisited isn't a shot-for-shot remake, but it's 100% faithful to Szalapski's approach and structure. That is, it doesn't advocate, preach, or judge; in fact, there is no external commentary at all. Price simply points the camera, rolls the film, follows the musicians, and allows viewers to draw their own conclusions.

Of those he films—including John McCauley III, Jonny Fritz, Shelly Colvin, Langhorne Slim, Nikki Lane, Phil Hummer, Andrew Combs, and Bobby Bare Jr.—most are not household names. Probably the only ones you might know are Shovels and Rope, Justin Townes Earle, and McCauley's band Deer Tick. But if you follow the musical links at the end of the article, you'll probably wonder why these folks aren't headliners.

 One of the conclusions you are likely to draw is that there are two Nashvilles: the one that's a monument to the industry, and the scrape-by city of those who make music because they must, not because they think they can make a lot of money. Many of today's outlaws have contempt for folks like Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith. Fritz jokes, "What's the difference between a country music concert and an Americana music concert" Answer: "There are no Republicans at an Americana concert!"

McCauley and Fritz play roles akin to that of Clark in the original film in that they are often the pivots around which things happen in the outlaw subculture. You can decide for yourself whether these folks are heroes or fools, but let's return to the continuity theme. Price does as Szalapski and allows images to speak for themselves. If you've seen the original, you will recall Townes Van Zandt's ramshackle DIY homestead; in this film, you will see several analogs: mold-covered houses, shabby interiors, urban farmyards, and tool-and-debris-strewn properties. Price juxtaposes official Nashville—auditoriums, tourist traps, glitzy lights, and posh clubs—with strip mall streets, roadhouses, sweaty bars, fried food, grit, and life on the margins. Everyone in the film seems to be overly tattooed, clouded in cigarette smoke, and working their asses off to stay afloat. Shovels and Rope play more than 150 gigs a year, and you will see that it buys them a very modest lifestyle. In fact, only Shelly Colvin and Justin Townes Earle appear to sustain a standard of living that is remotely middle-class.

Whether or not you approve of their choices—and who are we to judge—outlaw musicians exude a raw honesty that is indeed lacking in mainstream country music. I'm not even sure it is country music. Deer Tick is often a damn good alt.rock band, and the balladry embraced by others could just as easily be called "folk" music. The outlaws are absolutely correct to note that what you see on Country Music Television is as processed as Cheese Whiz. In that spirit, let me offer a listener's guide to this film. Check it out and then download the film. My favorite songs are marked with an asterisk.

Rob Weir

            1. "Ashamed" * and "In Our Time" by John McCaulley III and Deer Tick

            2. "Fever Dreams" by Jonny Fritz

            3. "Visit Me in Music City" by Bobby Bare, Jr.

            4. "Birmingham," by Shovels and Rope

            5. "Back to the Wild" * by Langhorne Slim and Kristin Weber

            6. "Am I That Lonely Tonight" *  by Justin Townes Earle

            7. "Tour Song" * by Robert Ellis

            8. "Gone, Gone, Gone " * by Nikki Lane

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