The best music and the best whiskey come from the same part of the country.” You don’t find taglines like that very often. Then again, you don’t come across movies like Heartworn Highways that often either.
First released in 1976—available Feb. 5 at CU-Boulder’s International Film Series via virtual theaters from Kino Lorber Repertory—Heartworn Highways documents the rise of outlaw country from Texas to Tennessee.
Outlaw country, a reaction to mainstream country popular out of Nashville studios and radio stations, blended elements of the ’60s counter-culture, blues, and rockabilly. Even psychedelia and glam rock seem to be elements—at least as far as David Allan Coe was concerned. Check out his rhinestone getup, complete with spangle earrings, when he plays for the Tennessee State Prison inmates. The New York Dolls could have been the opening act.
The eye behind the camera capturing Coe on stage: James Szalapski, a documentarian in the vein of Les Blank. Szalapski doesn’t so much film his subjects as he chronicles them on celluloid, whether it’s the Charlie Daniels Band lighting up the stage or Townes van Zandt showing Szalapski around his farm: Loaded gun in one hand, Coca-Cola in the other. Bottle of whiskey tucked under his arm.
They drink a lot of whiskey in Heartworn Highways; talk a lot about it too. Gamble Rodgers sings a song about it, and while he does, Szalapski shows the bottling line at Jack Daniels in action. It’s not the only time Szalapski indulges his cinematic interests, be it footage of buildings and cars cut together like a cubist montage or the flashing lights of a recording studio. But the movie works best when Szalapski captures quiet moments, like when an old blacksmith, Seymour Washington, is moved to tears while van Zandt plays. Or Larry Jon Wilson in the studio, still feeling the effects of a hard night of good times. Not to mention the two old-timers cutting up over the counter in the middle of the afternoon; an open bottle passed back and forth.
You’ll find similar passages in other music docs from the time, be it Bob Dylan and Donovan in Dont Look Back or the Rolling Stones in the impossible to see Cocksucker Blues. These docs have a delightful shagginess to them: A rough around the edges aesthetic that matches their subjects beautifully. A shame our current musicians aren’t documented in warm, grainy 16mm—it presents an intoxicating image that is somehow kind to both the person operating the camera and the person in front of it. It’s the exact opposite with digital. All you see are flaws.
The only thing flawed about Heartworn Highways is the people, and they’re so likable you’ll quickly look past their less desirable qualities or notions. No one’s perfect, and they don’t have to be. They just have to be human. And outlaw country music is nothing but human.
Heartworn Highways (1976)
Written and directed by James Szalapski
Produced by Graham Leader
Starring: David Allan Coe, Guy Clark, Peggy Brooks, Rodney Crowell, Charlie Daniels, Steve Earle, Wayne Moss, Gamble Rogers, Glenn Stagner, Townes van Zandt, Seymour Washington, Larry Jon Wilson, Steve Young
Kino Lorber, Not rated, Running time 92 minutes, Virtual theaters.