Coming to you from 1976. This is a film that is guaranteed to warm your heart and get your toes tapping. Crimson Productions is re-releasing Heartworn Highways, a documentary from two generations ago that reminds us of how good outlaw music was and the role it played in our current country and western scene. This movie doesn’t have the polish of the later 2015 documentary The Wrecking Crew, but its down-home style complements the down-home style of the artists that it portrays.
Unless you are a country music fan already, most of the artists highlighted in this movie might not be familiar to you. David Allan Coe, Gamble Rogers, Barefoot Jerry. Maybe Guy Clark or Townes VanZandt will ring a bell, but you probably cannot recall a song to go with either of those names. Once these artists start playing, however, you’ll want to “rewind the tape” to hear the great picking and playing all over again.
In many ways, this documentary has the feel of a “home” project. There are no sophisticated intros or fancy sets. The first artist (Guy Clark) just starts playing guitar and singing a sweet and winsome song. Then comes Larry John Wilson. Wow – an amazing guitarist. No intro – just playing.
From place to place, we follow artist after artist as they do their rounds down country roads, past cows, horses, cool 70’s cars, and lots of snow – and smokes (even as they’re singing). The one interview we’re treated to is from singer Townes Van Zandt as he talks to 79-year-old Seamore Washington, the walking blacksmith. We get his best advice on how to shoe a horse – and to talk to the good Lord. Then, Van Zandt breaks into the chords of the first song he ever wrote, and Washington is overcome with emotion as he listens and thinks back over his life. Even from a distance of only 45 years, we feel like we’re stepping back in time to a simpler era.
From cafe to tavern, from school gym concert to Tennessee State prison, the music of these artists either moves people to tears or gets them up dancing. This documentary shows us both.
From the blacksmith, Washington and his horse-shoeing lesson, we move on to Guy Clark fixing a broken guitar and telling us the merits of ivory over bone, and bone over wood. I feel like I’m learning as I’m being entertained. And being reminded that life is hard and beautiful and can only be improved if you have one of these artists singing about it.
The movie ends with more snow, car headlights in the dark of the night, and the boys singing Silent Night. Watching this movie again the time of Covid, it portrays the dignity of humbleness and is disarmingly poignant. Most of the artists are gone now but once you’ve heard them sing and play they’ll be firmly implanted in your mind. You’ll be glad that this film was re-released. And you’ll be glad that you watched.
Heartworn Highways is available now on VOD.