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CD Review: Various Artists – Heartworn Highways

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I wrote recently about Hank Williams III‘s quest to rescue country music from a faded modernity of computerized backing tracks and lycra-clad artists and return it to the rough and real place it came from. But Hank Williams III’s is only one interpretation of country history. Back in the mid 1970s, Austin and Nashville were home to a crop of young songwriters with rural roots and the heads of poets, songwriters who staged a quiet revolution against the cookie-cutter genteelness that was country’s stock in trade at the time. Their names have gone on to renown in some circles: Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, David Allan Coe, Townes Van Zandt, Gamble Rodgers, and John Hiatt, to name a few.

All these people are a little grey and a little grizzled now, and the sound they pioneered – the immediate predecessor to what we now call Alternative Country or Americana – has been around for so long it’s hard to remember there was a time when it was brand new.

Fortuitously, film director James Szalapski was in Austin at the time and was moved to preserve this emergent alt-country scene in a 1976 documentary he called Heartworn Highways. This film has become over the years a cult classic, little seen but much revered, and it has now been cleaned up for a 30th anniversary DVD release by HackTone and Shout! Factory.

The labels have also put together a soundtrack to the film, a companion piece intended to build upon and embellish the documentary’s musical narrative. Drawn from the original full session tapes, the soundtrack is a rambling 26-track compilation of intimate performances, entertainingly inebriated stage patter about whiskey and music, and some very good songs played by some very talented folks.

Of historical note is the fact that the album contains the very first recordings by alt-country icons Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, and John Hiatt. If like me you only know these artists by their later work, Heartworn Highways is a bit of a revelation. Though a little rough and maybe a little less accomplished than their later stuff, the songs here belong unmistakably to their creators. John Hiatt’s sharp lyrical poetry, Rodney Crowell’s gift for atmosphere for melody, and Steve Earle’s scrappy defiance (and leftism) are already in full view. But these treasures are only the smallest part of what makes Heartworn Highways worth a listen.

The song that kicks off Heartworn Highways, “L.A. Freeway” by the great and reclusive Guy Clark, sets the tone for the album. Clark’s plaintive song conjures a laid-back atmosphere that, like most of the recordings here is Most of the tracks here are really intimate – living room intimate, front porch intimate. More than that, “L.A. Freeway” serves as sort of a mission statement for the album as a whole with its theme of leaving the urban life behind and getting back to one’s roots.

The homey, homespun vibe continues straight through until the last notes of the closing song, a Christmas Eve jam on “Silent Night” with Clark, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Steve Young, Susannah Clark (guy’s wife), and Richard Dobson. Along the way, chairs creak, whiskey is sipped, audience members have important questions for whoever’s singing, microphone stands make noise, and people come and go.

Guy Clarke contributes three other songs to the album, including an early version of his classic “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train,” about “a man who was kinda like my grandfather, but was really my grandma’s boyfriend.” It is a perfect song about how this man helped raise him, with lyrics as sharp as a knife and scenes as sharply drawn as any ever have been, and it is made even stronger by the care the producers have put into sequencing the record. You see, just before “Desperadoes” is a wonderful David Allan Coe song called “I Still Sing The Old Songs” which closes with a few lines from “Red River Valley.” “Desperadoes” opens with a mention of the same song. Rather than seeming gimmicky, touches like these elevate Heartworn Highways from a mere compilation to a statement about what country music meant to some of its future saviors.

It should be clear by now that I am not so much reviewing this album as falling in love with it. This was not a sure thing – I don’t always have patience for confessional living-room singers and their confessional living-room songs. Performances like these live or die on the quality of the writing. But despite the fact that these are songwriters still learning their craft (Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around To Die” is actually, so he claims, the very first song he ever wrote), there really isn’t a single dud, outright cliche, or bit of hokey filler here. And although the homespun authenticity of the whole thing sometimes feels a little studied, a little put-on, that’s a minor sin to commit in the making of music this good. I could try to run down more highlights from this album, but the truth is, you’re either going to dig all of it or none of it, and I wouldn’t feel right choosing this Steve Earle song over that Townes Van Zandt when they are all pretty much gold.

If Hank Williams III’s most recent album is his Moby Dick, a strenuous and difficult work about struggling with forces beyond his control, Heartworn Highways is more like Lake Wobegon Days, an intelligent, smart, and unpretentious album of people singing songs about living the way they want to, and what it means to them. Heaven and hell don’t seem as close as friends, whiskey, and the velvet black of a Tennessee night, and all these geniuses love each other’s company. It’s just a little sad that all these artists who showed so much promise in 1976, who were kicking hard against the rigid conformity of Nashville’s establishment, still remain marginal (if highly respected) figures in the scene they tried to topple. Still, whatever happened after, and whether or not their revolution succeeded and on what terms, Heartworn Highways is a fine chronicle of a great time in country music history.

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