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Sometimes, a documentary maker is present at precisely the right moment to capture lightning in a bottle. It happened with essential punk doc THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION, it happened with Dylan’s DON’T LOOK BACK and Chet Baker’s LET’S GET LOST — and it happened with 1976’s HEARTWORN HIGHWAYS.
The iconic performance documentary saw filmmaker James Szalapski travel to Texas and Tennessee to capture the radical country artists reclaiming the genre via an appreciation for its heritage in folk and bluegrass and a rejection of the mainstream Nashville machine. Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Steve Young, David Allan Coe, Steve Earle and many others appeared on both screen and soundtrack, where musical highlights include Clark’s brilliant “Desperados Waiting For A Train,” Young’s stirring “Alabama Highways,” and Van Zandt’s emotional “Waiting Around To Die.”
The hard living — and hard partying — lifestyles of outlaw country’s figureheads are played out on screen as we visit Van Zandt’s Austin trailer, see Coe play in Tennessee State Prison, join the gang in Nashville’s notorious Wig Wam Tavern, and witness a liquor-fueled Christmas at Clark’s house. No wonder the film’s original tagline read: “The best music and the best whiskey come from the same part of the country.”
Outside of a couple festival screenings, the movie remained unreleased for five years after its completion, finally hitting screens in 1981 and finding a cult audience ever since. Restored from the 35mm negative. (Synopsis from Light in the Attic)
“Musically, it’s almost impossible to pick highlights but Guy Clark’s ‘That Old Time Feeling’ is a husky delight and when Seymour Washington, a friend of Van Zandt’s (born 1896!) hears him sing ‘Waitin’ ‘Round To Die’ he can’t prevent teardrops from rolling down his cheeks; neither will you.” —David Harvey, Record Collector “HEARTWORN HIGHWAYS is that rare music documentary that captures a scene and its practitioners at the height of their youthful vim and artistic powers. The intimate footage of its subjects here is priceless." —Andy Beta, NPR “We wanted the whole film to be like a song. Everything had to do with feeling. What feels right to be next, until finally we have something all together that took you along on an emotional and musical trip, and you can come away feeling like you’ve met some people. And not to be overly corny about it, but maybe you’ve met some friends.” —Phillip Schopper, HEARTWORN HIGHWAYS editor “I’ve seen this probably a hundred times – still makes my liver hurt.” —Father John Misty “One of the richest films about music ever made.” —Colin Greenwood (Radiohead) “Essential viewing.” —Mark Lanegan