In the winter of 1975, filmmaker James Szalapski went to work on a documentary about the founders of the Outlaw Country music movement. It’s slow, rambling style mirrored its subjects, which included luminaries like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earl, and Rodney Crowell, among many. Since its 1981 release, Szalapski’s Heartworn Highways has become something of a cult phenomenon, which found a fan in filmmaker Wayne Price.
For Heartworn Highways Revisited, Price and Heartworn’s original producer, Graham Leader, returned to the rural Tennessee music scene Szalapski had originally been drawn to. There, he met and started filming modern day “outlaws” like Deer Tick’s John McCauley, Jonny Fritz, and duo Shovels and Rope, as well as genre legends like Guy Clark. The result is a music documentary that moves slow and looms large, a treat for music lovers of all kinds.
What initially attracted you to this project?
Wayne Price: I am first and foremost a music lover. I never focused on learning an instrument well enough to go pro, so I use the camera as an instrument, and make the orchestration of the edit musical. In the same way that you can’t really explain why music is good, I feel about movies. It’s a combination of storytelling — which is easy to focus on for criticism — and flow.
Had you seen a lot of rock docs prior to putting this one together?
WP: Oooooh yeah. Gimme Shelter, Woodstock, The Last Waltz, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Running Down a Dream — so many good ones. And the web series have also been a big influence. The Take Away Show format pretty much created by La Blogotheque and Vincent Moon moves me deeply.
Graham, were you at all weary about trying to make a second film?
Graham Leader: Yes, definitely. Heartworn Highways has become a beloved film with devoted fans, so it’d be disastrous to let them down in any way. Also, importantly, Heartworn Highways Revisited is an homage to Jim Szalapski, who shot and directed the original film and tragically died on ’01. He was a great unsung talent.
Wayne, what did you think of Heartworn Highways when you first saw it? Was stuck out to you?
WP: I’ve loved music documentaries for many years, but it seems like most of them fell into one of two categories: dramas about bands (getting together, rising to fame, breaking up, going into therapy) or concert films. Heartworn Highways was neither. It was like a visual album! There was a cohesion thematically, but just like a great record, it can be enjoyed in pieces. I sometimes have a craving to watch the Barefoot Jerry studio scene, or David Allan Coe doing “I Still Sing The Old Songs.” I can play the songs audio only, or I can watch that part of Heartworn. Another thing that stood out was how deliberate the filmmaking was. Scenes were well lit, and the music — I liked these recordings better than the studio versions! These days, it seems filmmakers are afraid of losing the audience’s attention, so there’s constant cutting to new angles, rack focuses, etc. Heartworn was made in the ‘70s. Maybe that had something to do with the fact that the camera didn’t move much. Audiences were likely not as fidgety then. But I loved it. It felt refreshing. It also allowed me to make my own decisions about where to look and treated me like a guest in the room where the musician was playing. I felt appreciative.
Graham, how did the making of Revisited compare to the making of Heartworn Highways? Were there any notable deja vu moments?
GL: The deja vu moments were less in the filming itself than in certain moments of pure nostalgia—i.e. Guy Clark’s home where there are memorable paintings by Susanna and, in his studio, stacks of analogue tapes of his songs, including tapes from the original film 40 years prior.
Over the course of filming, were there any specific interviews/performances that particularly resonated with you? Any “magic moments”?
WP: I know I am biased as director, as well as a fan of all the artists whom I had the honor of working with on this, but there were no duds! I was worried several times that John McCauley wouldn’t show up (or when he did, was drunk or high), but then he’d sit down to play something, and this magical spirit would rise. I had such a difficult time choosing which songs to use in the film, as there were so many great takes.
McCauley and Fritz playing together at Fritz’ house was a really special night. Andrew Combs, who may have been the last artist to join the film, crushed me with the two songs he played in Jonny Fritz’ Airstream. He’s a really soft-spoken guy, who emotes from a deep place in his soul. His voice is silk, his storytelling sharp. And he’s quite the looker. I think he’s gonna blow up. But if I had to choose one moment that was pure magic, it had to be the night I discovered Josh Hedley. I knew Josh as Jonny’s fiddle player, and kind of his sidekick. Jonny invited friends over for a “Josh Hedley Appreciation Night,” which ended up with an outdoor jam session, lit only by a small owl lamp. Earlier that same day, we had shot at Guy Clark’s home and I brought Jonny and McCauley with me. That night, somebody said to me, “It’s a shame you didn’t invite Josh. You know Guy is his hero and he plays a Guy Clark cover night weekly at Robert’s.” So I looked over at Josh, who is holding a guitar, and I ask him to play a Guy Clark song. I nearly cried at his rendition of “Anyhow I Love You.” Sadly, this version didn’t make the film, because he also crushed our souls with “L.A. Freeway” and his original, “Weird Thought Thinker.” But man, that guy is a star. He’s the real deal.
GL: There are so many — the obvious being Townes and Uncle Seymour Washington’s sermon on drinking and living wisely. The other that always hits home is everyone gathered around the booze-littered table at Guy and Susanna Clark’s house on Christmas Eve.
What do you hope people take away from it?
GL: A good time warm feeling and hopefully a deeper appreciation for the music.
What’s your favorite album of all time?
GL: I can never answer this, or similar, questions because different albums appeal at different times. For instance, all of Bob Dylan in my late teens and early 20s; Keith Jarret’s Koln concert right after that; Bruce Springsteen’s The River. Other albums include Guy Clark’s Old No. 1, and a whole lot of jazz. There is no single favorite, just lots of favorites!