The annual vinyl-lined Caligula’s den that is Record Store Day is often packed with unique offerings that we may or may not actually need. But for lovers of outlaw country and retro roots-rock, there isn’t likely a previous RSD release that can top the upcoming Heartworn Highways 40th Anniversary Edition Box Set in terms of sheer mouthwatering anticipation. The gritty documentary, filmed in 1976 and released in 1980, traverses a great deal of the country music map as it pays visits to central Texas, Nashville and the white-line-dotted highways in between. Starkly unadorned interviews and performances from a gun-wielding Townes Van Zandt, a young Steve Earle-mentoring Rodney Crowell, and prison-performing David Allen Coe are but a fraction of the behind-the-scenes style highlights.
Limited to only 1,500 copies, this goody-stocked set, complete with a whiskey-colored sound-track double LP and a restored DVD version of the film, will undoubtedly be one of the rare RSD issues that will actually be even more rare after the April 16 early morning bum rush. Adding to the relevance and allure of the 40th Anniversary Edition release, this spring we’ll see the release of a sequel, Heartworn Highways Revisited. The new film, directed by Wayne Price, features some of the original players such as Guy Clark, along with a bevy of insurgent contemporary artists who well fit the mold created by the original film including Robert Ellis, Johnny Fritz, Nikki Lane, and Shovels and Rope. Many of the latest generation of Southern-bred boundary pushers have cited the authenticity and rawness of the original film as a major inspiration for their own artistic visions.
There are plenty of splashy names and beloved tunes to draw you in and sit you down for a bit, but there’s so much to take in and possibly rediscover throughout the film that lies just below that legendary surface. Here are five reasons Heartworn Highways is essential viewing.
5.) Big Mack McGowan and Glenn Stanger – “The Doctor’s Blues”
These two old-school cats steal the show on a couple of occasions with their stumbling but hilarious banter. Stanger displays some of the comedic chops he surely gained from his days performing with Grand Ole Opry legend Uncle Dave Macon, and McGowan opines on the way that the modern country music of the time just isn’t as good as it had been back in his day. But the duo really goes in for the kill with a brown liquid-fueled take on a hilariously ribald “The Doctor’s Blues.”
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4.) “L.A. Freeway” Opening Sequence / “Skinny Dennis” Tribute
As the film begins, the viewer is immediately informed of the gravity this documentary carries. As Clark’s iconic “L.A. Freeway” delicately rolls, a picture of “Skinny Dennis” Sanchez, the bass player who died in 1975, shortly before filming began, and who Clark says in the song is “the only one I think I will miss” appears on the screen. We’re shown the film is dedicated to Sanchez’s memory, and even the lighter moments of the film feel all the more special and all-too-fleeting.
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3.) Gamble Rogers – “Black Label Blues”
While storytelling is certainly still alive thanks to great modern roots and folksingers, it’s not hard to hear stories aren’t being currently conveyed in the way Gamble Rogers does in this film. Rogers, who died trying to save a drowning man’s life in 1991, is clearly a master practitioner of linguistic gymnastics and a literate lover of spun yarn. The pre-song monologue is so enjoyable that, oddly enough, when Rogers finally begins the actual song, it’s hard not to feel a touch let down.
2.) Larry Jon Wilson – “Ohoopee River Bottomland”
Shortly after the dramatic opening tribute sequence, we’re taken to a dark recording studio, magnificently draped in old-school wooden paneling. With a tight group of players, Larry Jon Wilson, complete with burning cigarette in hand, diligently works through a few takes of the ass-shaking song dedicated to the “Georgia gator hole” he was born near. The deep-down soul of the groove-intensive tune is only out-classed, if slightly, by his slow drawl and the effortless cool emanating from the “Mmm-hhhmmm” he bellows to begin each take.
1.) The Gloriously Varied Country Music Landscape
As much as it is anything else, this film is a celebration of the massive ground that country music’s great umbrella has long covered. The name of the film says a great deal. We see plugged-in rockers in the studio, folkies at home and outlaws on the stage. Sure, having Van Zandt and Clark in the same film makes sense, but who knew that throwing Rogers, the Charlie Daniels Band and Steve Young into the mix would still feel so damn seamless? So many artists all living for the sake of the song, regardless of what that song may sound like or where that song is played, makes for a wonderfully cohesive statement.