They all look impossibly young.
That’s the first thing you notice in the new, expanded DVD version of James Szalapski’s 1976 documentary Heartworn Highways (Catfish Entertainment), fabled for the 27 years since for its early, casual glimpses of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, Steve Young and Rodney Crowell, even a 19-year-old Steve Earle, as they nibble at the edges of success in Nashville and Austin.
The original film demonstrates the truism that for documentary makers — and watchers — being privileged and plain lucky enough to be there at the right moment for the real action can be more vital than the presence of any particular director insight or shooting style. And Heartworn Highways as originally shown was very often lucky.
It captures aging Seymour Washington admonishing Townes that booze isn’t evil but moderation makes sense because life is good, then being moved to tears when the singer responds with “Waiting Around To Die”. The camera puts us there at two informal bashes when these key singer-songwriters are partying it up, lightly or not so lightly greased, trading off songs.
And it’s all brand-new discovery; there are also performers around who few remember, which makes the presence of these lasting stars all the more potent. The film has been remembered for including Townes’ tour of his own back yard, for the humor and soul of the participants — and all of that still works, touchingly so for the passage of time.
Guy Clark proves again that, even tipsy, he was the day-to-day master of so many things — guitar repair and wife selection included. Southern rockers Charlie Daniels and Barefoot Jerry (the latter an instrumental outfit) breeze through without a second of distinction. (On the other hand, women from the scene are noticeably missing, or shown in the background cleaning up after the drinkin’ and singin’ “geniuses”.) And this film shows just what Texans away from home do on Christmas Eve — which is let Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell and Steve Young lead everybody in some Hank, some Bob Wills, and “Silent Night”.
The new hour of previously omitted footage adds some of the best performances Szalapski filmed. A young John Hiatt, not seen in the ’76 film, offering a very finished and tuneful “One For The One,” already more in a pop vein than most of these guys will choose or be able to deliver. (Hiatt is seen jamming with Earle in a subsequent scene.) Clark’s “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train” and Townes’ “Pancho & Lefty” are included too, and there’s an extended cut of the Christmas Eve party with others joining in (among them Richard Dobson, whose “Forever, For Always, For Certain” eventually showed up on Guy Clark’s 1999 album Cold Dog Soup).
The added footage is delivered as bonus material — which is fine, but also a reminder that on many DVD players, it’s impossible to reprogram scene order (like a CD player can reprogram audio tracks) to put those deleted scenes back where they might have been.
The original editing choices, as opposed to the scene-capturing luck, were not so solid. This great stuff was left out to focus on long sequences of David Allan Coe being self-indulgent at a prison show and, early on, a not particularly interesting Larry Jon Wilson recording session. The movie was still good, and the DVD is certainly improved this way — but an actual re-edit might have been justified here.
Another highlight is further footage of the young Earle, including a Guy/Townes-influenced “Mercenary Song” which is already perfectly formed, recognizable Earle-style material, not rockabilly, and everybody there knows how good it is. The world wouldn’t hear anything like it for another decade!
From Earle much more recently, we’ve heard plenty, of course — and we get a clear and often engaging new sense of what a varied, exhausting year on the road with this apparently inexhaustible force is like via the new Amos Poe documentary Just An American Boy, set to be released by Artemis/Koch in DVD form by November, following release of the live music portions as an audio CD.
Produced by Earle friend and Artemis label chief Danny Goldberg, this one’s being pushed (as its “John Walker’s Blues”-quoting title suggests) as an essentially political portrait focusing on the controversy sparked by that song. That stuff is there, but it’s just part of a look at Earle’s travels through bluegrass shows; rehearsals for the rock tour behind the Jerusalem CD and the shows that followed; interviews; preparation and delivery of the anti-death penalty play Karla; acting on HBO’s “The Wire” series; receiving humanitarian awards; eating a lot; avoiding speeding (and cops) in Nashville; clips from the rarely seen “return to the prison that held him” show; and more.
Somewhat comically, Earle has been telling people he’ll never let a documentary crew follow him around again after this experience, since it’s all too intrusive — and anyway, it’s not “his statement.” Meanwhile, filmmaker Poe (a veteran of both narrative features and documentary directing) has been saying that this isn’t really an “Amos Poe film” because he wasn’t free to make it his way, having been hired by Earle and Goldberg.
They should all stop semi-disowning this, because it’s a pretty damned good piece of work, considered just the way it is, not how anybody positions it. There are genuinely powerful political moments — notably the Poe-directed video for Earle’s “Over Yonder”, which sticks purely and unforgettably to the faces of the executed dead in Texas. The hyped-up “lover of the American Taliban” controversy (which already seems a bit like ancient history after the Dixie Chicks saga) comes off as rather self-dramatizing, showing those who attacked Earle vividly but none of his defenders, all the more to make him the Stand Alone Hero.
His work with his band and family, with anti-poverty and death-penalty-fighting activists, with the wide range of subjects that stir his passion, and with people he’s comfortable around, on the other hand, is interesting and charming and even admirable. And, oh, there’s much good music, from shows across the country. Poe consistently has the camera in the right place at the right time to give a strong, compelling sense of it, and much of Jerusalem is the better for the practice.
A different style of Texas charm is found in Waylon Jennings’ America (Lightyear Entertainment), which collects seven videos from the mid-’80s that, if not from Waylon’s honky-tonk hero heyday, show him happily fit and performing well among friends.
In the style of too many country videos of the time, Jennings hardly appears in several dramatizations of young folks in love and such played over his records, and those don’t wear so well. But to see him dueting in a saloon with Hank Jr. In “The Conversation”, or playing live (the mandolin!) with his band on “Never Could Toe The Mark”, or singing with and about Jessi Colter on several entries, should be enough to make any Waylon fan smile.
The numbers are tied together by a fairly hilarious series of scenes in which a worried Waylon is analyzed “on the couch” by a Dr. Robert Duvall; that stuff alone makes this one worth seeing now. It’s also bracing to view the video for his song “America”, an unabashedly patriotic number that is able to suggest America could still stand some follow-through for promises to racial minorities and also salutes the country for forgiveness for draft resistors. These were still O.K. mainstream patriotic country video themes in the middle of the Reagan years.
Two more essential DVD musical bios:
To be released within weeks, George Goehl’s King Of Bluegrass (Straight Six Films/www.kingofbluegrass.com) is a long-overdue, balanced and finally touching portrait of the singular Jimmy Martin, showing him to be as rightly heralded as a great voice, bandleader and musical innovator as he is prized (and lamented) as an utter character. With live performances and comments from the likes of Marty Stuart and Tom T. Hall, we see Martin’s obsession with remaining unadmitted to the Grand Ole Opry become something more — passion for the quality music he’s made and contributed, and a sense of understandable hurt for the wariness many have of him personally, however self-inflicted the pain. Telling, touching stuff.
Speaking of great singers, Sam Cooke: Legend (Abkco) offers the first detailed look at one of the all-time soul, gospel and pop voices — as innovator, role model, and irreplaceable loss. There’s more invaluable performance footage than shown on a TV version, still including that duet with Muhammad Ali plus extended bonus interviews with Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls, Lou Adler and more on this self-confident, gifted talent’s importance.
The trend toward near-simultaneous or even bundled-together release of live performance CDs with DVDs offers the advantage of choice — and of letting the show be watched at home and listened to in your car. But in many cases, the DVD is getting the clear upper hand now for giving that sense of being there, getting to take in “how it was” when you weren’t on hand — or even if you were.
Allison Moorer: Show (Universal South) is a “bundled with CD” example, with the video the stronger disc. Nobody has ever suggested Moorer doesn’t offer built-in visual attractions, but this seems to be her perfect medium. On-camera, in close, a certain icy distancing sometimes noticeable in her live shows is overcome. You see how the interesting interplay with sister Shelby Lynne really comes off (complicated!), plus Lonesome Bob has a new shirt for his solo. Who would have guessed?
Alison Krauss + Union Station Live (Rounder) does very well by this top bluegrass act; there’s been so much emphasis on the controversial “Alison goes pop” side of the act that the band’s ability and the feel of their full show often doesn’t get a fair shake. Here, we see them kick up a bluegrass storm as well, and there are revealing bonus interviews with all of the musicians. Krauss, sadly, reveals that a Foreigner concert was her peak live music experience — but she also plays that fiddle instead of just holding it.
In the case of The Three Pickers — Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs (also Rounder), the viewing probably doesn’t add that much to the audio experience of the good-enough live CD — but there’s a real attraction in the interview material, with all three talking about each other’s music. And it is, after all, a historic keepsake in any case.