Don't look for any glossy dental work on Heartworn Highways. No rounded biceps. No Venetian Blind-like abs. These days, such equipment is as vital to up-'n'-comin' country stars as big hats, but such trappings are refreshingly absent in this raw and riveting look back to Nashville music circa 1975. Just reborn on DVD, director James Szalapskis documentary revisits a far more reckless and ragged time in C&W, providing an intimate and prescient look at a handful of hungry artists who were about to shake things up.
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Captured here are early 16-millimeter glimpses of such legends-in-the-making as Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Townes Van Zandt, David Allen Coe, Charlie Daniels and John Hiatt. 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.)
Most 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 9-cent royalty checks.
But the music dominates and the disc is worth buying just to hear Clark's soulful rendition of "LA Freeways" that opens the movie or the wine-fueled group recital of "Silent Night" that closes the film. Even better are the restored outtakes, which put you inside a couple of cozy picking sessions, such as the one where a reluctant Earle sings an early draft of "Mercenary Song" as well as a scorching, but never-released "Darling, Commit Me."
At the time, these fringe-dwellers were mavericks bucking the Old Guard (one old timer decries how Nashville has gotten "snobby" and that Johnny Cash has "shot his wad.") They were about to salvage a music that had transformed into an industry. We can only hope that similar guerilla-tactics are being plotted these days.