It’s late December, 1975, and a group of musicians have gotten together to perform a few songs. This bunch of singer-songwriters were all young men, all based in the American Southwest (mostly from Texas), still relatively unknown to the music world, but in the words of this album’s producer, ones who “were beginning to change the landscape of country music.” What these musicians were offering was definitely not your traditional brand of hillbilly country, but something that was later dubbed “outlaw country” or even “progressive country.” More whiskey and Texas chili, as opposed to grits and biscuits.
Whatever the label, you could safely say, without exaggeration, that this was one of the greatest collections of singer-songwriters ever assembled; a jaw-dropping group of young mavericks that included Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, John Hiatt, Steve Earle, and Steve Young. Throw in interesting characters like Larry Jon Wilson, Gamble Rogers, and David Alan Coe, and the atmosphere becomes even more intoxicating — in more ways than one! The CD clocks in at nearly 80 minutes, offering stunning performances such as Van Zandt’s classic “Pancho and Lefty,” a few Guy Clark gems (“L.A. Freeway” and “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train”), Crowell’s “Bluebird Wine,” and Coe’s surprisingly tender “I Still Sing the Old Songs.”
Although the film was made in 1976, it’s not clear why it took over 30 years for these recordings to surface. But thanks to efforts by the label, the album’s producer, and sound engineers, a “meticulous audio restoration” was undertaken and the result is an incredible album. It sounds like you are right in the room with these guys, listening to history being made. Not only is this a priceless audio snapshot of great musicians during their formative years, it’s also a thrilling listening experience. And it may cause some listeners to redefine what they think of as country music.
There is also a documentary companion to Heartworn Highways that contains even more music, including performances by Charlie Daniels. But it’s apparently now out of print and the last time I checked on Amazon, even used copies were selling for well over a hundred dollars. Have to patiently wait for a reissue or more affordable offerings.
The biggest musical contributor to Heartworn Highways — at least the one with the most songs — was Guy Clark, at that time a young songwriter who had just released his first two albums, both of them flawless collections of well-crafted songs; Old No. 1 and Texas Cookin’. Pick any song off either of those albums and you have a classic. Really, it’s hard to think of an artist, in any genre, who had two better albums to launch a career. Although Guy Clark is perhaps best known as a songwriter whose songs have been covered by hundreds of other artists, he’s also a very good singer and the power of his songs are not diminished at all by having him perform them. Which I think, was one reason why fellow troubadour Townes Van Zandt never made it big. Townes was a great songwriter, no question about it, but his vocals took some getting used to. And while Guy Clark is no Willie Nelson in the vocals department, he’s much smoother than Townes.
For yet another glimpse into the great songs and personalities of these musicians, check out Together at the Bluebird Café, a live album recorded in 1995 with contributions from Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Steve Earle. Wonderful tunes performed in small venue with some great between songs patter helps gives this album a refreshing down-to-earth homey vibe. This was also one of the last times the three shared a stage; Van Zandt passed away less than two years later.