Sunday 24 February 2013

The old songs that you taught me

While living in New York City in the early seventies, fine art student turned filmmaker James Szalapski had a roommate called 'Skinny' Dennis Sanchez, a bass player. When Sanchez went to Nashville to visit Guy Clark, a Texan songwriter and luthier who had returned to the South after being disillusioned by Los Angeles, he was enthralled by the circle of musicians who gathered regularly at Clark's house. Sanchez' stories intrigued Szalapski, who was then looking for his next project.

With thirty-five thousand dollars from a single sponsor, Szalapski assembled a small crew and followed Clark and the singer-songwriters he met through him from Nashville to Austin, Texas during 1975 and early 1976. The resulting film - expanded from a planned hour-long television documentary - made the rounds at festivals, but due to bad luck and limited commercial appeal it was not released theatrically until 1981. By that time the original title, New Country, had been discarded in favour of the more poetic Heartworn Highways.

Using loose association rather than a single narrative thread, the film presents a number of singer-songwriters and others across Tennessee and Texas. We're shown the painstaking precision work of recording Larry Jon Wilson's 'Ohoopee River Bottomland'. Townes Van Zandt shows the camera crew around his dilapidated trailer in Austin. David Allan Coe drives to a concert at the Tennessee State Prison. Guy Clark repairs guitars, and at his house a group including Steve Young, Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle (the latter two only in their twenties) hang out, drink and share songs.

Heartworn Highways exists for the music, and Szalapski gives the performances plenty of room to breathe. Guy Clark opens the film with a stunning rendition of 'L.A. Freeway' (Clark is more self-critical: 'A little loose,' he complains), and David Allan Coe provides its emotional heart with 'I Still Sing the Old Songs', an elegy that caused me to properly admire Coe's songwriting for the first time ('I still sing the old song that you taught me/And I still pray to Jesus now and then/And just like you I wish that he would save me/To see the day the South will rise again'). Then there's Steve Young's heartbreaking 'Alabama Highway', which accompanies Coe's drive through the Southern rain.

Those songs centre the film on Szalapski's fascination with a group of Southern songwriters who had travelled north or to California but found themselves drifting back home, drawn by something they couldn't leave behind. Not necessarily something positive, mind you: these songs are full of misery, poverty and longing for escape, more haunting evocations of Southern life than the celebration found in mainstream country. Szalapski's camera lingers on the ephemera of Tennessee roads: car transporters, overturned meat transports, and cars stuck in traffic. These men are rooted yet itinerant, rambling between states and - in Townes Van Zandt's case - occasionally actually homeless, searching for a Dixieland that keeps slipping through their fingers.

The lengthy sequence at Townes Van Zandt's place in Austin both reinforces and undermines that narrative. According to Steve Earle, the Nashville singer-songwriters deliberately sent Szalapski to Austin in the expectation that Van Zandt would clown around instead of providing footage of the world's greatest songwriter at work. And in a sense that's just what Townes does, introducing his girlfriend and his dog and leading the crew on a pointless but highly entertaining tour around the run-down property. (Because the film doesn't use narration, there's no-one to point out Townes was the son of an oil baron, not the hillbilly he pretends to be here.)

But instead of being a waste of time, the Austin scenes introduce us to Townes's neighbour, seventy-nine-year-old 'Uncle' Seymour Washington, a former blacksmith who explains his approach to horses (being gentle and friendly) and whiskey (God meant for us to enjoy it, but drink in moderation). In a film intended for a privileged white audience, it's virtually impossible for people of colour to be portrayed as just human beings rather than Magical Negroes dispensing homespun wisdom. Such qualms sour these scenes a bit, but they can't overwhelm the easy chemistry between Washington and Van Zandt. Their banter leads into the best performance in the film, Townes Van Zandt's sublime rendition of 'Waitin' Around to Die'.

Like 'Waitin' Around to Die', the prevailing mood in Heartworn Highways is elegiac. The boot-stomping rebellion associated with a term like 'outlaw country' isn't entirely absent: witness Coe's foul-mouthed tirades in front of prison inmates while wearing an awful rhinestone suit that screams 1975! like little else on display here. But all in all it's a subdued, unassuming documentary, quiet to the point of being boring at times. It requires patience and more than a little passion for this style of music. (I have the latter, at least.)

As the junior generation to the more established outlaw stars of the day (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, etc.), most of these musicians never made it out of the country music underground. The exceptions - Townes Van Zandt, whose 'highly authentic ghost' now belongs to everyone, and Steve Earle, popular with a far larger roots rock crowd - transcended rather than abandoned their origin. In hindsight, Heartworn Highways presents not the outlaw movement per se, much less the birth of Americana, but the gnarled roots of today's Texas country scene. It is, in any case, a surprisingly meditative look at a musical subculture whose critique of Nashville is as valid now as it was forty years ago.

No comments:

Post a Comment