Reissued by HackTone after its original CD issue in 1995, Heartworn Highways is the sonic companion to the classic 1981 documentary of the same name. David Gorman goes out of his way to tell listeners/purchasers that this disc is not the soundtrack to the film because there never was one. HackTone "had to go back to the original film elements and Nagra tapes with the film's editor and producer to create one," according to Gorman. They "spent months working between them and an audio restoration engineer in New York to make a stand-alone album out of audio that works perfectly well while watching the film but would sound horribly disjointed otherwise. In fact, most of the performances in the film are edited down to about 1/4 their original length." This is key because it must have been a very painful process at time--especially during the 'round table' recordings on Christmas Eve at the end of the album. The microphone was literally in motion during the entire evening, trying to capture whoever was singing lead; but you'd never know it by listening to the CD. The breathtaking sound quality is a credit to restoration engineer Alan Silverman. A number of performances were left off in order to make this fit onto a single disc. What is here is a vintage treasure trove of the then-emerging singer/songwriter movement from the (mostly) American South. What is most important to note is that these performances were recorded for the documentary; they are not licensed recordings from a catalog. Some of the artists included here are no longer with us, but their performances (e.g., Townes Van Zandt's "Waitin' 'Round to Die" and "Pancho and Lefty," Gamble Rogers' "Charlie's Place" and "The Black Label Blues") are chilling and top-notch. Yet, they are in context because these infromal performances are stunning throughout. Some of the truly notable ones are by songwriters who are not well known even now among the general populus -- for example, the great Steve Young, who decided on deeply moving covers of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" along with his own "Alabama Highway". Youngis the guy who wrote "Seven Bridges Road," "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean" (the anthem of Waylon's outlaw movement that didn't include him--though, who was an outlaw long before it became a marketing concept)--and his "Montgomery in the Rain." is also here. Larry Jon Wilson makes an appearance with his deep backwoods "Ohoopee River Bottomland," which is equal parts Tony Joe White and Lightnin' Hopkins, all of it wrapped in Young's swampy Georgia voice and guitar playing. Guy Clark is heard on five cuts, three of them well known, but "Ballad of Laverne and Captain Flint" makes it too. Other writers here include David Allan Coe and John Hiatt, both of whom originally hailed from the Midwest. Hearing Coe in this setting is especially rewarding, almost separated from his bullshit image, just playing and singing his utterly moving songs, especially "I Still Sing the Old Songs," done with only an acoustic guitar. The glimpses listeners get of Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle apart from the slick Nashville production on their own records is especially refreshing. This is a timeless collection that truly stands on its own whether or not you saw the film in 1981 (it is available on DVD thank goodness). It's a no-jive set of songwriters doing what they do best away from the hype, the myth-making, and the self-destructive impulses that have plagued many of them.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek