A couple of years ago, while interviewing an Austin, Texas musician, the guy told me what should have been good news: a colleague of his had just scored a fat recording contract with a big label.
But instead of sounding happy about his friend’s good fortune, the grizzled guitarist seemed pensive. “The first thing the record company did,” he said, “was hire the guy a personal trainer.”
As falls Nashville, so falls country music. Once a musical haven for common man, modern C&W has transformed itself into billion-dollar industry where the gleaming good looks of its pop practitioners far outweigh musical significance. It makes us long for the fabled days of rhinestones, sequins, big-hair and big addiction problems.
But you won’t find any glossy dental work in Heartworn Highways. No rounded biceps. No Venetian Blind-like abs. Such equipment might be vital to the trade these days, but those trappings are refreshingly absent in this raw and riveting look back to the Nashville music scene, circa 1975. Just reborn on DVD, director James Szalapski’s rarely-scene documentary pays a visit to a far more reckless and ragged time in Music City, offering an intimate and prescient look at a handful of hungry artists who were about to shake things up once and for all.
Captured here are early 16 mm glimpses of such legends-in-the-making as Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Townes Van Zandt, David Allen Coe, Steve Young, Charlie Daniels and John Hiatt. Meanwhile, hanging around in the background is a scruffy and slightly-dangerous looking Steve Earle (who is so fresh to the scene that he doesn’t even rate mention on the movie’s opening credits.)
A good deal of the camera time is spent in nicotine- and Wild Turkey-tainted jam sessions and barrooms, although Van Zandt gets outside long enough to give the camera crew a playful tour of his Austin, Texas spread and brag about his nine-cent royalty checks. The late Van Zandt’s spiraling demise is the stuff of legends. We know he played Russian roulette with fate for years and lost and we know he was an insufferable bastard to those around him. But in this time capsule, we see none of that morbid subject matter. Hell, the guy comes off here as easy-going and optimistic as a Roger Miller tune, even while he’s rotating a whiskey bottle, a Coke can and a BB gun from one hand to the next and telling stories about his glue-sniffing days.
Just as refreshing is a glimpse into the world of a young Guy Clark, who invites the cameras into his workshop as he carefully rebuilds a damaged guitar, applying the same craftsman-like technique to the task that he brings to his best songwriting.
But it’s the music that dominates the movie and the disc is worth buying just to hear Clark’s heartfelt rendition of “LA Freeway” that opens the movie, Steve Young’s stunning cover of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” or the wine-fueled group recital of “Silent Night” that closes the film. Even better—and possibly more important—are the restored outtakes, which run nearly an hour and provide a fly-on-the-wall look at a couple of cozy picking sessions, such as the one where a slightly-reluctant Earle delivers an early draft of “Mercenary Song” (which leaves Clark shaking his head in awe) as well as a scorching rendition of the never-released “Darling, Commit Me”.
At the time, these fringe-dwellers were mavericks bucking the Old Guard and barely scrapping out a living in the then-increasingly corporate country music scene. (One old timer in the film decries how Nashville has gotten “snobby”, suggesting that even Johnny Cash has “shot his wad.”) No one knew that these Young Turks were about to turn the industry back on itself and salvage a music that had been hijacked from their heroes. We can only hope that similar guerilla-tactics are being plotted these days.