various artists,
Heartworn Highways
(HackTone, 2006)

"This is not the soundtrack of Heartworn Highways," the first sentence of the liner notes hastens to make clear. The statement -- maybe a warning -- refers to the James Szalapski documentary of the same name, released in 2003. I reviewed it, with restrained enthusiasm, in this space on 10 July 2004. Even so, the two Heartworns are related; the present CD consists of the best of the "recordings captured during the making of the film," meaning, I infer, that unlike many of the performances in the movie, these were caught when the performers were in relative control of their faculties. The film, an unedifying spectacle, shows how talented but seriously wasted musicians behave when a camera is turned on them. As it happens, they mumble a lot, prove barely coherent when audible, and play and sing in a slap-dash you-had-to-be-there fashion, preferably if you were occupying the same state of consciousness. And then there's all that ghastly '70s hair....

You will, I think, like this CD and be properly grateful that HackTone went to the trouble of making it possible. Like the film but without the irritants, it documents the early work of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Steve Young, David Allan Coe, John Hiatt and Steve Earle, with appearances by the nearly forgotten Gamble Rogers and the unforgotten but never remembered Larry Jon Wilson. Too bad, in this last instance. From the evidence of his snaky, Tony Joe White-flavored folk-blues "Ohoopee River Bottomland" -- my favorite cut, only partly because it's one of the few songs I hadn't heard before -- he was the equal of his distinguished contemporaries, and surely, next to Young, the most accomplished vocalist.

Whatever else the liner notes may assert, these were folk, not country, singers. America's folk scene had pretty much run its course by 1965, but it had not gone entirely to pasture. Its influence persisted in genres (bluegrass, old-time, blues) and in scattered club and coffeehouse communities across the country. Chicago's folk scene of the early 1970s, for example, yielded no less than John Prine and the late Steve ("City of New Orleans") Goodman. The biggest and most enduring folk-centered movement, however, was among Texas singer-songwriters, though by the middle of the decade many -- prominently including Clark, godfather of the movement -- had moved on to Nashville hoping to interest mainstream country artists in picking up on their ordinarily not terribly country-sounding songs; on another level, arguably just as important, they simply wanted to hang out with like-minded musicians. More at home in coffeehouses than in honkytonks, their compositions wed sophisticated (or in some cases pseudo-archaic) lyrics to basic folk melodies. The musicians were not called folk singers only because by then "folk" was judged neither hip nor commercially viable.

Of the artists represented here, only the sober craftsman Rodney Crowell and the near-lunatic/anarchist David Allan Coe would go on to have careers, if not terribly extended ones, in country's mainstream. After abusing every substance within arm's reach for decades, Townes Van Zandt passed on to hillbilly heaven in early January 1997. Except for him and the Florida-based Rogers (who died in 1979 while trying to rescue a drowning stranger), Highways' singer-songwriters continue to perform and record at varying levels of commercial success or visibility more than three decades on. They're now seen as pioneers of at least one strain of the genre now known as alternative country or Americana. Most are still creating rewarding music, generally in the same rooted styles.

If you've followed Texas country-folk, you will have long since made the acquaintance of "Waitin' 'Round to Die" and "Pancho & Lefty" (Van Zandt), "L.A. Freeway" and "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train" (Clark) and perhaps "I Still Sing the Old Songs" and "River" (Coe). You will surely be pleased to hear them again, especially in these relaxed yet affecting versions. On the other hand, Steve Young is, as always, as intense as a deep bluesman. I hope that on hearing his original "Alabama Highway" -- an emotionally charged meditation with multiple levels of edgy and ambivalent meaning -- you will feel the need to seek out his other recordings. (He is best known as writer of two major hits for others. The Eagles covered his "Seven Bridges Road," Waylon Jennings "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean.") Young's heart-felt reading of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" will either inform or remind you that as a Hank interpreter he is second to no one.

The CD ends abominably with a stoned, drunken group lunge at "Silent Night." But by then, as you race toward the stop button, you'll have heard enough of the preceding and better stuff to be in a charitable and forgiving mood. In the Christmas spirit, in other words. Heartworn Highways is an unexpected but welcome gift.

by Jerome Clark
29 April 2006

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