Heartworn Highways
directed by James Szalapski
(Snapper, 2003)

I'm not sure what the title has to do with anything, except some footage taken from David Allan Coe's bus as it rolls up or down the road on its way to a concert at the Tennessee State Prison. That highway just looks like a highway to me. The original title was New Country, about as eye-glazing and instantly forgettable as one could imagine, or not be bothered to imagine, so I suppose this is an improvement of sorts.

In any event, in the 1970s James Szalapski had a camera, which he wielded to film home movies. Three decades later, home movies became Heartworn Highways. Szalapski happened to be around a bunch of mostly Texas singer-songwriters who one day would become famous, or at least as famous as Texas singer-songwriters become, which means mostly to that small public with its ears tuned to something other than the crap on the radio -- though, given much of what's come since, 1970s country radio now seems practically a golden age of high art.

The Texans are Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and a young, skinny, callow and otherwise unrecognizable Steve Earle. Only one of the group -- Crowell -- would go on to significant commercial success, for maybe two or three years, as a mainstream country act, meaning radio hits (good ones, too, as I recall). Though subsequently they would have some hits by other artists (Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, Don Williams, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, the Oak Ridge Boys), the rest were or are less Nashville-style "country" artists than folk singers (Van Zandt, dead since 1997, and the still active and visible Clark) or roots-rockers (Earle). Another presence in the Texas footage is Alabaman-by-birth Steve Young, a splendid country-folk singer and composer -- best known for the ghostly, anthemic "Seven Bridges Road" -- who has never received his due though his talents match any of the above-named.

Most of these guys sport horrible 1970s hair, and they're drunk and stoned a lot. When not singing, none of them are interesting. When singing drunk and stoned, they're not interesting, either.

Though the least known, the most appealing singer and writer on filmed display proves to be the sadly long-vanished Larry Jon Wilson, who in an early scene pulls off a hilariously dead-on impersonation of Texas blues legend Lightning Hopkins. After that he goes on to perform a terrific bluesy folk tune about his boyhood in south Georgia.

Unrelated to any of the above is footage of the late Gamble Rogers, then a popular figure on the folk-club and festival scene. Mutual friends who knew him and saw him on stage used to tell me that he was very, very funny. Unfortunately, he is not very funny here, just windy. The one song he sings is unmemorable, perhaps explaining why none of his compositions have survived. I am perfectly prepared, however, to believe that Rogers was as fine a man as people said he was. He was drowned in Florida in 1979 trying to save a stranger's life.

In Nashville, at the hole-in-the-wall Wig Wam Tavern (which it would be exaggeration and praise to call a joint), two old guys, one of whom worked in Uncle Dave Macon's band and has an entertaining anecdote or two about the old man, reminisce about the way it used to be, and how lousy it is now. They play a raunchy blues piece. A while later in the film, at the same establishment, an older and down-on-her-luck woman sings an almost brutally hard-core cheatin' song in front of a small string band and before onlookers who barely outnumber her and the musicians. This is hillbilly music at its most basic, and it beats listening to a bunch of mumbling, plastered hippies, however gifted they may be when they're not personating self-indulgent jerks.

The most engaging part of this spottily interesting documentary is Coe, a truly weird guy. At one moment he's carrying on like an earnest liberal on the need for prison reform, in the next -- clad in a butchy leather outfit in the persona of his alter ego, the Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy -- talking tough and trash to a crowd of redneck convicts, baiting the guards and boasting of a supposed episode from his days as a young tenant at the Ohio State Penitentiary. As Coe tells it, an older prisoner propositioned him in the shower, and -- Coe hints -- he replied by beating him to death with a mop. As I recall, a Rolling Stone reporter back then investigated and deduced that the incident never happened. In the telling of the tale, though, Coe indisputably looks just plain nuts. You find yourself uneasily reflecting that either this guy is a killer or he's even crazier and scarier than one. There is something profoundly, uh, unsettling about David Allan Coe.

He went on to enjoy a few Nashville hits, notably covers of "The Ride" (the phantom hitchhiker in reverse; in this case the ghost -- of Hank Williams -- is the driver) and the late Steve Goodman's jokey "You Never Even Called Me by My Name." He also wrote the immensely successful "Take This Job and Shove It" for the now-deceased Johnny Paycheck. From there he, his rhinestones and his 365 tattoos passed into a twilight zone of biker bars, multiple wives (not necessarily serial ones), quasi-pornographic albums and (according to a New York Times article two or three years ago) hate-laced recorded rants for a specialized audience of white supremacists and other nut jobs.

Anyway, Coe, who may or may not be sane, is at least sober, and if he doesn't always make sense, he sure is one hell of a talker. He's worth staying awake for. Not much else in Heartworn Highways is.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 10 July 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.