“Heartworn Highways,” a remarkable documentary about the country music outlaws of Austin in the 1970s, is getting new life as it starts streaming again at the Violet Crown and Austin Film Society.
It comes as the film industry is taking another look at the era, with a documentary about Guy Clark, “Without Getting Killed or Caught,” getting attention at the upcoming South by Southwest Film Festival. That film is by part-time Austin residents Tamara Saviano and her husband, Paul Whitfield. Their film, which will be independently released later this year, deals with Guy and Susanna Clark as well as fellow native-Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt.
Van Zandt is the focus of the first scene in “Heartworn Highways,” a most unusual concoction of home-style video footage of some of the most creative and rebellious musicians in 1970s Texas.
As “Highways” opens, Van Zandt is walking around his place outside Austin, drinking shots of Seagrams V.O. from the bottle, followed by a swig of Coca-Cola. He’s obviously getting drunk, but not so drunk that he can’t render a legendary rendition of “Waiting Around to Die” with his neighbor, 79-year-old Seymour Washington, looking on.
The scenes of musicians ranging from David Allan Coe to Rodney Crowell, Steve Young, Steve Earle and David Allan Coe seem randomly strung together. But there’s a unity to the film and the various snapshots. All of them were shot by director James Szalapski in late 1975 and early 1976.
The film didn’t get a theatrical release until 1981, and after that, it gained a cult following. It was later released on VHS and DVD, with new scenes, and it’s apparently that version that’s making the rounds this year. Kino Lorber is the distributor.
There’s no narrator in “Heartworn Highways,” and no overt attempt to make grand overall statements about the history of country music and the Nashville-Austin differences. Szalapski’s camera just takes us from one scene to another, like a Christmas party at Guy Clark’s house, where Crowell, Young and a very young Earle join in the liquor-soaked picking.
An extended scene follows Cole traveling in his band bus from Texas to Nashville, and has him talking on the CB radio, asking truckers whether they think he’ll be able to make it to a gig at a penitentiary on time. Once there, Cole puts on his rhinestones and gives a somewhat-bizarre concert to the convicts.
Producer Graham Leader provides some background material on how this unusual documentary came to be in press notes provided by Kino Lorber.
Leader says he was an art dealer going back and forth between London and Paris when he met Szalapski in Paris, where he introduced Leader to the music of Clark and Van Zandt. And before long, Leader was in Nashville, listening to Clark and entertaining the idea of helping Szalapski fund a documentary about these rebellious musicians.
“Had I not met Jim, it is highly probable I would never have become a producer,” Leader says. “It is the path I chose because of him. It’s certainly debatable whether I would have been happier as an art dealer. … I would have certainly been far richer! One thing for sure, ‘Heartworn Highways’ is a defining accomplishment that I will always be proud of.”
The film’s tagline is “The best music and the best whiskey come from the same part of the country.”
And there’s plenty of both in “Heartworn Highways.”