Saturday, December 18, 2021

Holiday Gift Guide ’21: Heartworn Highways

It is the perfect DVD gift for all the tramps, ramblers, and hobos on your Christmas list. The artists it documents would probably be okay with that characterization. They were the performers associated with the early development of the “Outlaw Country” school of Country & Western music. The movement’s biggest stars (like Willie Nelson) eventually filed off their rough edges, but the many of the most talented outlaws achieved cult fandom and status as country musicians’ country musicians. Those were the sort of artists James Szalapski recorded in performance throughout his 1976 documentary Heartworn Highways, which has now been restored and is available on DVD and BluRay from Kino Lorber.

Technically, there are talking head segments in
Heartworn, but they feel more like chill hang-out sessions. People talk to each other rather than the camera. They drink too, which contributes to the idiosyncratic vibe. Szalapski also often marries up the music with impressionist footage of the highways and roadhouses that make up a traveling country artist’s world.

Frankly, those who have preconceived notions probably should not think of tunes like Guy Clark’s “That Old Time Feelin,’” Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting’ Around to Die,” David Allan Coe’s “I Still Sing the Old Songs,” and Steve Young’s “Alabama Highway” as country songs at all. Consider them Americana roots music, because they tap into deep, archetypal sources. They are profoundly felt and cut to the bone.

In some ways, the film confirms a few Country cliches, in that many of these tunes very definitely address God, booze, patriotism, and prison. Yet, there is also Van Zandt serenading to tears his friend and neighbor, “Uncle” Seymour Washington, the so-called “Walking Blacksmith,” who was known for supporting both black and white musicians. The truth is, all those New York and Beltway writers who churned out think-pieces wondering “how can we ever understand those Red States” should listen to tunes like “I Still Sing the Old Songs.”

Szalapski’s film appreciated in reputation over time, because he had the good fortune to catch a number of artists on the way up. Even though Van Zandt was a supporting character in Ethan Hawke’s
Blaze, probably the biggest attraction, then and now, would be the Charlie Daniels Band. Yet, it is instructive to see how they were still operating outside the supposed mainstream. It looks like their concert performance takes place in a large school gymnasium, but the place is truly packed to the rafters.

Of course, not every tune is culturally and artistically transcendent. Coe’s “Penitentiary Blues,” appropriately performed during a prison show, is most notable for biographical monologue. However, his follow-up, “River” really packs an emotional kicker.

In fact,
Heartworn makes for fitting Christmas viewing, because it ends with Steve Earle and his friends performing a slightly boozy but very sincere “Silent Night.” Again, it is too bad Leon Russell kept Les Blank’s A Poem is a Naked Person bottled up for so long, because it would have made good pairing with Szalapski doc for repertory screenings, both musically and stylistically. It is a terrific film that showcases American roots music at its earthiest. Enthusiastically recommended, Heartworn Highways is available on DVD and BluRay.