In the winter of 1975, filmmaker James Szalapski arrived in Nashville to document the burgeoning Outlaw Country movement. The result was Heartworn Highways, the cult favorite music documentary that laid the blueprint for the next two decades of country singer-songwriters. The film captured Townes Van Zandt playing “Waitin’ Around to Die” in a kitchen in his Texas home and Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell playing and singing at Guy Clark’s house. It symbolized what it means to be part of the country music songwriting community.
Nashville has changed in many ways since 1975, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the artists who eat, sleep and breathe songs. It’s those artists who are front and center in the newly released film Heartworn Highways Revisited.
For the Sake of the Song
After seeing the original Heartworn Highways, director Wayne Price set out to capture a new generation of Nashville songwriters who were carrying on the legacy, nearly 40 years after release of the original film.
The film features interviews and performances from Joshua Hedley, Robert Ellis, Nikki Lane, Shovels and Rope, Bobby Bare, Jr. Andrew Combs and Jonny Fritz, among others. Like those that came before them, they’re all “outlaws” in the sense that they value lyric-driven songs and a return to substance. They’re the descendants of the denizens of Guy Clark’s kitchen table, living and writing — in the words of Townes Van Zandt — for the sake of the song.
Heartworn Highways is first and foremost a performance film, and it’s a beautiful one. The documentary shows that music is everywhere in Nashville, from backyards and front porches to dive bars and the stage of the Mother Church of country music. Everywhere is a performance space. Andrew Combs performs “Month of Bad Habits” in an Airstream trailer. The husband and wife duo Shovels and Rope belt out the autobiographical “Birmingham” in their backyard. Nikki Lane and Shelly Colvin harmonize on Lane’s “You Can’t Talk to Me Like That” at a house party.
Heartworn Highways Revisited lives up to its name, revisiting the cast of characters from the original film. David Allan Coe, the late Guy Clark and Steve Young all perform in the film. The outlaw legends collaborate with the younger generation, leading to a humorous moment in which Fritz reminds Coe of a song he’d forgotten he’d ever written.
Collaboration and mutual admiration and respect among the songwriting community is at the center of Heartworn Highways Revisited. In one of the film’s most endearing moments, Joshua Hedley, who recently joined the ranks of Margo Price on Third Man Records’ impressive country roster, recounts the first time he discovered Clark through the original Heartworn Highways.
“That’s where I found out about Guy Clark,” Hedley said. “‘Oh Susannah, don’t you cry babe/love’s a gift that’s surely handmade.’ It’s like, alright, yeah. You wrote that. You did that. That’s a perfect song.”
Later in the film, Hedley accompanies Clark on a performance of “L.A. Freeway.” By the time the chorus kicks in, the whole room of friends, artists and comrades have joined in on singing a perfect song that will live on forever.