First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2007, Volume 14, #11
Written by John Metzger
Thu November 29, 2007, 06:45 AM CST
While Jim Szalapski was busy making his plans to document the outlaw country movement in 1975, the genre not only came into full-swing, but, led by the breakthroughs of Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and Waylon Jennings’ Dreaming My Dreams, it also crossed into the mainstream. By the time that his movie Heartworn Highways finally debuted on the big screen in 1981, the hoopla had subsided considerably, and many of the scene’s biggest stars had cashed in on their fame and fortune by joining the establishment in Nashville, which they originally had sought to subvert.
Instead of focusing upon the rise of the genre, however, Szalapski opted to utilize Heartworn Highways to emphasize the works of the lesser-known, up-and-coming artists who were continuing to toil away as they traveled America’s back roads in search of the next saloon. Filmed over a three-week span that began in December 1975 and ended in January 1976, Heartworn Highways was filled with grit, warmth, and humor. It was a depiction of a new breed of cowboys who sat, not around a campfire under the stars, but rather around a kitchen table on Christmas Eve, generously sharing their songs, their stories, their talents, and a bottle of whiskey. Similarly, the intimacy of its settings, which ranged from a homespun tour of Townes Van Zandt’s Texas ranch to the workshop in which Guy Clark rebuilt his damaged guitars, only enhanced the "everyman" realism that Szapalski was trying to convey.
Of course, the heart and soul of Heartworn Highways was its music. Its recently reconfigured companion album restores the performances that had been used in the movie to their full-lengths, while adding some other remarkable moments that the film makers were forced to abandon because they didn’t fit within the scope of the project. Everything that Szalapski recorded was performed specifically for Heartworn Highways, and he went out of his way to make sure that the settings in which the artists worked were natural and comfortable. Consequently, everything on the set — from Guy Clark’s casual delivery of L.A. Freeway to David Allan Coe’s emotional reminiscence on I Still Sing the Old Songs to Rodney Crowell’s spirited rendition of Blueberry Wine — is first-rate. The highlights of Heartworn Highways, however, come from Van Zandt, who hauntingly delivers two of his now-classic cuts Waitin’ ’Round to Die and Pancho and Lefty.
Still, there’s little doubt that the events of the past 30 years have reduced, if not the relevance, then at least the potency of the music on Heartworn Highways. In 1981, the movie undeniably played an important role in bringing attention to a ragtag group of artists who unjustly were being neglected. Today, in hindsight, the music sounds like a lost artifact because anyone who is interested in the genre already is familiar with the material that the collection contains. After all, while the likes of Crowell, Van Zandt, Clark, and Coe — along with Larry Jon Wilson, Steve Young, Gamble Rogers, John Hiatt, and Steve Earle might not be considered superstars — they currently do enjoy far better name recognition than, perhaps, they otherwise would have. In a sense, the soundtrack to Heartworn Highways is a victim of the film’s cult-like success among musicians, critics, and fans, though the fact that its contents still have the power to inspire and touch the soul also is a testament to its durability. ½
Heartworn Highways is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box