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Townes Van Zandt


Recently I was invited to a screening at the Country Music Hall of Fame of a documentary profiling an unusual slice of Country Music history.

Producer Graham Leader (In the Bedroom, 5 Academy Award nominations) and director James Szalapski went down to Austin in 1975 to chronicle what they considered the new Country music. The drinkin, druggin bunch of renegades they hung out with and filmed sure enough did end up changing the course of American music in the years to come.

Everybody's drinkin, all the time. And right from the top, Guy Clark is playing and singing his ass off. It's some of my favorite Guy Clark stuff ever, and it's fascinating to see the young wiry Texan, already an ornery bit of a genius in his youth. It puts you there, from whence they came. If you're a Guy Clark person, you have to get this DVD, simple as that. Me and a songwriter lady friend were sittin in the back row of the John Ford theater watching, and Guy sat down a few seats away, on the end so he could get out to have a smoke now and then. He was there to answer a few questions after the film with Steve Young, and they were both very personable and entertaining, that really made the event special. When Guy sings "L.A. Freeway" and "Old Time Feeling," buddy, that'll send chills right up your spine, believe me, if you love this music.

There is a scene between two old codgers in a bygone cafe cum tavern where the Nashville Hilton is now, on 4th Street off Broadway. The proprietor, Big Mack MacGowan, goes off on a tirade about how he feels about the Opry getting relocated and how Johnny Cash "done already shot his wad." And his drinking buddy, Glenn Stagner, who played with Uncle Dave Macon from '37-'41, is talking about having his friend "casterated," before they launch into "The Doctor Blues" (which he first subtitles "I'd rather be sunburnt on my vacation than be vaccinated on my week-end"), where he's pickin and singin pretty damn good and his buddy is playing absolutely comatose snare drum, it's wild. Welcome to the South, as I often say to myself around these parts. And it's very interesting that this and similar clips make it into the film that is otherwise about budding stars, it does help set the stage and locate it in time.

The unlikely star of the film is Townes Van Zandt. He does a lot of talking and joking around, really hams it up, which will keep the legions of Townes fans out there on the edge of their seat. He disappears down a rabbit hole very comically, interviews the walking blacksmith Seymour Washington, introduces his girfriend and his dog, plays the first song he ever wrote ("Waiting Around to Die," and ain't that a hell of a first song to write), and sits around the kitchen like someone you now feel you know pretty well.

This is even better the second time around, and I'm sure I'll watch it many more times. It's a documentary that feels as close to a home movie as it does a feature film. Austin figures who didn't become legends appear in very noteworthy clips, like Larry Jon Wilson and Barefoot Jerry. The also late Gamble Rogers does an ingenious monologue, setting up his "Whisky and Water." ("...just so y'all will know where art comes from...")

My favorite parts feature the young incendiary Steve Earle. Like James Dean with an old Gibson, the cat absolutely smokes up the camera, playing the first ever version of "Mercenary Blues" and the completely unreleased "Darling, Commit Me," it's shockingly good.

Even though he says he doesn't wanna see it because he's too "gacked up, and I don't wanna see myself like that," there are very cool clips of Rodney Crowell and Steve Young. And an unreleased clip of the very young John Hiatt, that's truly good. Guy Clark working on a fella's guitar (something he still likes to do, make guitars--see our interview) while he's smoking a cigarette, excellent. I keep waiting for the hot ash to fall on the spruce top of this old Gibson.

Maybe you get the picture. I can't hardly say enough in a short review how good, how precious this documentary is to those of us who love this music. After several failed or faltered attempts to release it, it almost oxidized beyond redemption sitting on a shelf for some 18 frickin years. Kudos to Catfish Entertainment for rescuing this valuable document.

If cool country music means anything to you, there is NO reason why you shouldn't own this DVD and share it with all your friends. Buy Heartworn Highways here.  • FG

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