Heartworn Highways (2021)

Townes Van Zandt in a scene from James Szalapski's newly-restored 70s documentary "Heartworn Highways" (image: Kino Lorber)  

Review

HEARTWORN HIGHWAYS (2021)

Guy Clark, David Alan Coe, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, John Hiatt, Gamble Rogers, Townes Van Zandt, Larry Jon Wilson, Charlie Daniels, Peggy Brooks, Seymour Washington

Directed by James Szalapski

In 1975 filmmaker James Szalapski took a road trip to Texas and Tennessee to capture a group of country musicians who weren’t happy with Nashville’s mainstream direction. You could say he captured lightning in a bottle with “Heartworn Highways” which was released 5 years later in just a few theaters. The documentary which features live performances by Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and David Alan Coe found its audience after rare bootleg VHS tapes began circulating before it eventually wound up on DVD in 2000. Thanks to Kino Lorber’s reissue, audiences can now revel in one of the most important country music documentaries featuring then-unknown performers who went on to become some of the genre’s biggest selling artists.

There’s no doubt that country music has changed over the last 45 years. Its folk and bluegrass roots have been abandoned for a contemporary sound that blurs the line between western and pop with artists that include Lady A, Florida Georgia Line, Dan + Shay, Kane Brown, and Maren Morris among others. Szalapski's invaluable documentary takes us back to country music's roots with live performances, candid interviews, and archival footage. 

Guy Clark opens the documentary with “L.A. Freeway” performed in a makeshift studio. He comments “A little loose” while taking a drag off a cigarette after performing the acoustic number. Cut to a professional recording studio where we join Georgia native Larry Jon Wilson as he lays down the track "Ohoopee River Bottomland" a real barn burner of a song. It's great watching Wilson’s facial expressions as the harmonica is overlaid on the track. Wilson never had any big hits, but he released four acclaimed country albums during the 70s before taking a three-decade hiatus from the industry, returning in 2008.

For those not familiar with these country music pioneers it may be hard to keep up as Szalapski segues from one artist to the next without any introductions or title cards, although I’m sure most will recognize Charlie Daniels as he performs a rollicking show in a high school gym. But “Heartworn Highways” is a real treasure thanks to the behind-the-scenes footage and live performances. It’s also captivating just listening to Wigwam Tavern owner Big Mack McGowan and Glenn Stanger discuss the Grand Ole Opry before an impromptu performance of “The Doctor’s Blues” or Guy Clark discussing his philosophies on guitars while repairing one.

Other highlights include Townes Van Zandt performing “Waiting Around to Die” from his Austin home while his 79-year old neighbor Seymour Washington is moved to tears and then there’s David Alan Coe, who wrote the chart-topping hit “Take This Job and Shove It” for Johnny Paycheck, seen driving his tour bus eastbound and down on the way to his next gig at the Tennessee State Prison, “Breaker 1-9, this is the Rhinestone Cowboy looking for a front door” he calls out on the CB radio as if he’s an extra in “Smokey and the Bandit.”

There’s plenty of tobacco and whiskey in “Heartworn Highways” as these country outlaws live hard and party harder while creating some of the best folk and bluegrass, songs that come from the soul. Szalapski’s documentary belongs in the country music archives and thanks to Kino Lorber this snapshot of a different era can now be enjoyed by fans of the genre who are in for a real treat.

(3 ½ stars)

Now showing via Virtual Cinema benefitting The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. To purchase a pass to view the film, visit http://bit.ly/3bcj34V

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. 

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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