[14 March 2006]
People condemn whiskey, but they have no right to. Because when g-d created the heaven and earth, he created all things. He also created barley, rye, and if he didn’t think that was good for man, he wouldn’t let those things grow, really You don’t have to drink a barrel of whiskey because you see a barrel sitting there. Drink a little bit of it and stop. And ask g-d to give you the knowledge to do that.
—Unattributed quote from an unnamed old man preaching inHeartworn Highways
During the mid-‘70s Texas saved country music from becoming a bad parody of itself. California country (re: The Eagles and their soft-bellied compadres) ruled the charts with swill like “Lyin’ Eyes” and “Best of My Love”. Southern country rock (re: Lynyrd Skynyrd and their hard-rawking Dixie confederates) made mindless, stoopid anthems. (What the hell did “Now Watergate does not bother me/ Does your conscious bother you” mean anyway?) Nashville’s Music Row continued to turn out polished turds, best satirized by the appropriately named 1975 Robert Altman movie, Nashville.
However, the Lone Star state served as the proving ground for a movement of singer-songwriters who composed gritty, literate songs that about working-class people, their pleasures and problems, and the places they lived. Some like the outlaws Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, went on to superstardom and prominent careers. The documentary movie Heartworn Highways (1976) focused on a lesser known but just as important group of Texas artists from the era who frequently hung out together and seemed to be on the edge of making it big. A few of these talents have become the subjects of legends and cult status, such as Townes Van Zandt and David Allen Coe. Several have gone on to create some of the best damn records of the last three decades, such as Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, and John Hiatt. And even the lesser-known musicians here, such as Guy Clark, Gamble Rogers, and Steve Young are well known within alt-country circles as some of the genre’s best songwriters and storytellers.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the film Heartworn Highways, Hacktone Records has restored and remastered the original tapes and released a soundtrack to the film for the very first time. The producers have included several tracks from the original recordings not included in the flick and added snippets of dialogue to produce a standalone disc that offers an engaging audio portrait these Americana artists. As a whole the recording also suggests these guys did a lot of drinking, which certainly led to Van Zandt’s early demise and negatively affected the career of the others. The most successful survivors of this era (Earle, Crowell, and Hiatt) have had to clean up their alcohol and substance addictions.
That said, some of the best songs here directly pay tribute to alcohol, like Rogers ode to Jack Daniels’s sour mash whiskey, “The Black Label Blues” and Crowell’s paean to sitting home and getting sauced with his main squeeze, “Bluebird Wine”. Other cool tunes are set in taverns, like Van Zandt’s story of a man he met in a bar, “Waitin’ Around to Die” and Clark’s ardent toast to the woman he loves, “One For the One”. The soundtrack offers first-rate versions of these songs, partially because the music has been remixed and remastered to a crystalline shine, but also because of the spontaneous nature of the performances. For example, the late great Townes not only grumbles in an aside that “Waitin’ Around to Die” was the first song he ever wrote, but as he sings one can hear dogs yapping in the background and other appropriately ambient sounds. Hell, a tune about a lowlife drifter, boozer and thief just sounds better with a naturalistic aural setting. And the acoustic quality of the recording reveals every ache and croak in Van Zandt’s voice.
Not all the good songs are about drinking. Clark’s ode to eatin’, “Texas Cooking” is guaranteed to make one’s mouth water. Clark also contributes a few other powerhouse performances, including a heartfelt, solo acoustic version of his classic tune about an old man, a kid, and the passing of time, “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train”. Coe mines similar memories of his elders in his wryly nostalgic “I Still Sing the Old Song,” while others offer tunes about real “desperadoes” like Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” and Earle’s “Mercenary Song”.
From a narrative perspective, Roger’s tale of poverty and lust (“Gamble’s Story”) provides the disc’s highpoint. He tells the story of a girl taking her clothes off to a juke box that repeatedly plays Peggy Lee’s “Fever” witnessed by a crowd of horny farmers in such vivid detail that like Rogers, one wants to grab the closest one-eyed waitress and raise a pup tent in the parking lot. Sadly, Rogers died tragically in 1993 while trying to save a man from drowning. This disc should generate renewed interest in him and Van Zandt, as well as to stimulate listeners to check out what the living members of that generation of singer songwriters have been up to lately.