‘Heartworn Highways’ Revisited

If country music had its own version of punk, it would have been Outlaw Country. The music had a rock and roll sensibility, with plenty of Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, but it also had more to do with much older iterations of country music than Top 40 Nashville country, which was far more pop, syrupy, and frankly, corny. Doug Bradley’s production was king. Everyone had strings and overblown sounds—which some artists took to and made some classic records, like George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Charlie Rich.

Nashville was a stifling place, creatively. Many artists felt boxed in. For example, Willie Nelson, whose Blue Eyed Stranger flew in the face of the redneck cosmopolitan Nashville style. Things were going to change. Waylon Jennings’ breakthrough Outlaw Country album was Honky Tonk Heroes. Heook a little Hank Sr., a little Chuck Berry, and a whole lot of Billy Joe Shaver (who wrote most of the album). It was a big Texas middle finger to the country establishment.

Willie and Waylon, though, were just the tip of the iceberg of a movement within country music that would extend from the 1970s into the ’80s, with Steve Earle appearing on CMT wearing a Guns ‘N Roses T-shirt. It continued into the ’90s, with punks rediscovering Outlaw and classic country and starting alt-country. It continues still, with string groups like Old Crow Medicine Show and The Dead South, both honoring their forefathers and confounding tradition.

Back in 1976, producer Graham Leader and director Jim Szalapski traveled between Austin, Texas and Nashville, Tennessee documenting this new strain of country music, the one that had nothing to do with the big Cadillacs, high-profile divorce cases, and sequin suits. The film, Heartworn Highways, focused on the two biggest names in that scene, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. Along the way Leader and Szalapski captured some has-beens, some almosts, and some never-wases.

They were the first to record Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell, and caught an early Charlie Daniels Band tearing it up to a packed house. They introduced the world to Gamble Rogers and Larry Jon Wilson, who otherwise may have not gone beyond being regional acts, and they joined David Allan Coe on tour and filmed him playing at the Tennessee State Penitentiary. The introduced audiences to a couple of old codgers whose own history stretches back almost a hundred years from today. One of them, a bar owner in Nashville, has one of the best lines in the film: “I believe Johnny Cash has shot his wad.” This was probably easy to believe in 1976.

In keeping with the title, Heartworn Highways is a film of a journey. It’s often on the road, stopping off for all night drinking, er, jam sessions. It offers some homespun philosophy and some old time religion. There are history lessons and even a lesson in shoeing horses. Sometimes it’s boring, especially if you’ve watched it about 20 times and you’re sick of fast forwarding through Barefoot Jerry, but this is such an important and lovingly crafted documentary. Guys like Van Zandt and Clark never really got their due in Nashville, even when far more famous musicians were covering their songs (the most famous of whom are probably Merle Haggard and Willie covering “Pancho and Lefty”). To me, as a music fan, one of the most precious scenes in any music doc would have to be when the film shows Van Zandt in his kitchen, playing “Waiting Around To Die,” while his elderly neighbor sits in the background with tears rolling down his cheeks.

MVD Visual has re-released Heartworn Highways on DVD after decades of being hard to find on VHS (I bought a copy from the video store I worked at almost 20 years ago and still hold it as one of my prized possessions). It looks and sounds better than I expected it to, especially after years of re-watching on an inferior format.

Unfortunately there are no extras on the DVD, which surprises me. A few years ago I had heard a re-release was imminent, and would include additional footage, including a lost performance from Steve Earle, but I don’t know what happened to that version, if it ever existed to begin with. That’s fine, though. As music docs go, Heartworn Highways is good regardless of those omissions. It’s a film that takes its time, has a conversational tone, and is as far from uptight as you can get.

Now producer Graham Leader has returned, 40 years after the original film, with director Wayne Price (taking over for Szalapski who sadly passed away in 2000) to meet a new generation of outlaws and revisit three of the originals: Guy Clark, Steve Young, and David Allan Coe. I have to say, I went into Heartworn Highways Revisited with a slight chip on my shoulder. In the late ’90s and early ’00s I was big into the Americana/Alt-country scene. I bought every issue of No Depression, and actively sought out albums the way I did when I first jumped into punk in my teens. But back then, and maybe it was me, it just felt like there was too much irony and too many hipsters. So I drifted to older and older versions of folk and country and then there were a slew of new and awesome metal bands to distract me.

Revisited, though, is quite an accomplished doc in its own right. I have to hand it to the musicians as well, they all seemed to really be living the life, because they’re following a calling and chasing a muse that is very real for them. These girls and guys aren’t dressing ironically. While some are hipper than others, I would be very hesitant to call any of them hipsters. These are good people with talent to spare.

So who are they? Let’s start with the bigger names first. Standing in for his daddy, with a bit more to say is Justin Townes Earle, son of Steve Earle, who has spent the last several years carving out a name for himself with an impressive body of work. Likewise, Bobby Bare, Jr. has long since stepped out of his daddy’s shadow. Then there are the younger people, with whom I was unfamiliar. There’s the husband and wife duo, Shovels and Rope, Johnny Fritz, John McCauley, Langhorn Slim, and Shelly Colvin, among others. Revisited plays out similarly to the original film, where the camera settles in as its subjects go about their daily lives. The interviews are casual and feel much more like shooting the shit with old friends than anything formal. Even if I didn’t 100 per cent like all the music, I was into the individual stories.

It was interesting checking in with the older guys, too. Guy Clark had lost his wife Susana a few years earlier to cancer and she had been his constant companion from 1972 to 2002. You could feel his pain when he talked about her last days. Steve Young was featured much more heavily than he was in the original; in both cases he drops in for a song and is in the background a bit. He and Guy both passed away the same year the film was shot. They both kept playing right up to the end.

Then there’s David Allan Coe, who almost stole the show in the original, driving his own tour bus, playing a state penitentiary in a ridiculous rhinestone suit, telling wild stories about breaking out of a boys’ home and stealing a car, and later spending his own time in jail, where he beat (killed?) a fellow inmate who tried to rape him in the shower. When Price catches up with Coe at his modest home in Nashville, he’s still the ‘”ong Haired Redneck,” just a bit slower, hard of hearing, and can’t quite remember his own songs. (I’ve got some more to say about Coe at the end, that I can’t let go unsaid.)

Bare talks about the divide between the Kenny Chesneys and Toby Keiths on the other side of town and how they don’t hang out with Bare and his pals. That’s a poignant distinction to make, for any potential viewer who thinks two country music documentaries may not be their thing. In fact, Revisited could hardly be more removed from the gross, over-produced, corny, commercial chart whores Nashville has been churning out for decades. Or as Bare tells it, in his story of meeting Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander at a festival, “he (Zander) said I finally understand the difference between Country and Americana; the music is the same, but there’s no Republicans.” Perfect.

Revisited could hardly be a more worthy follow up to Heartworn Highways. Hopefully, these MVD releases will reach and inspire a whole new generation of singers and songwriters to carry on these fading traditions.

And now some notes on David Allan Coe.

If there’s anything we’ve learned about celebrities in the last few years (as if we never knew), is that some of them are truly terrible people or have at least done terrible things. David Allan Coe was a real rags to riches story. He grew up in boys’ homes after his parents decided they didn’t want him (as he describes it) and he wound up in prison later, before making it as a singer and songwriter in Nashville. He has had his songs recorded by some of the biggest names in country: Johnny Cash, Tanya Tucker, George Jones, Tammy Wynette.

In 1978 he was a known guy, respected as a songwriter, but then he went and recorded a profane, pornographic “underground” album, full of misogyny and homophobia. You could only buy the album out of the back of Easy Rider magazine. Then in ’82 he made it worse by recording another one of these albums, which included a song called “N- Fucker.”

Coe has always maintained he was writing from a certain character’s point of view and that he himself is not racist at all; in fact, his drummer at the time was black. Well, fuck all that. You can’t say you’re not a rapist when you’re forcing yourself on someone and you can’t say you’re not a racist when you’re using the n-word. And I’m not saying people can’t change or don’t deserve a second chance. Nor am I taking this as an opportunity to start demanding Wal-Mart remove his albums from their shelves.

I just believe in not white washing history. We have to talk about these things, not hide them or pretend they didn’t happen. One positive note, from these albums; they contain the song “Fuck Anita Bryant” who was a singer, beauty queen, and for three years in a row, Good Housekeeping’s most admired woman; she was also a vile homophobe who actively fought Gay Rights. So Coe did good attacking her, I guess.

These songs might have disappeared into obscurity had it not been for frat boys and rednecks giving them a second life with file sharing in the late ’90s. Muddying the waters even more, there were other, even more vile, racist songs wrongly credited to Coe. (If you want an in-depth look at the history of racist songs in country music, check out Nick Tosches’ amazing book Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll.) I don’t know how Coe came back from even trying to record these albums, but in the last 20 years or so, he’s enjoyed a resurgence, touring with Kid Rock and Hank III, and appearing in a Pantera video. And yes, he disavows those albums and maintains he was never a racist. But. He still sells them as a single CD on his website for nearly $50 to beat the bootleggers, but without his name anywhere on the disc. To me, that’s talking out of both sides of your mouth. If Coe really wanted to disavow these recordings, then he never should have sold them to begin with. Who cares if the bootleggers make money off them? It’s dirty money and would you really want that on your conscience?

I’m not telling anyone what to do with this information; please make up your own mind. I thought these albums were an urban legend too ridiculous to exist, but when I found out they were real, I sold my two “best of” albums and that was it. The fact is, there are a lot of people who still support the man; I guess they just see the underground albums as folly of youth? I don’t know. I still recommend both films, but I don’t think it should ever be forgotten or excused that Coe recorded the racist track above. As for the misogyny and homophobia? Well, what do we do with all those comedians from the ’80s? Eddie Murphy, anyone? Sam Kinison? Andrew Dice Clay? Even Bill Hicks said some pretty cringeworthy things.

Enough of this, for now. I hate to end with negativity, especially when there’s so much positivity to celebrate within these two great films. So go enjoy something good.


Leave a Reply