There’s a scene in the original 1976 Heartworn Highways that’s become a central heartbeat of the cult film that chronicled Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Steve Young, David Allan Coe and others as they lived, wrote music and filled their lungs with smoke and song in Nashville, Tennessee. Van Zandt is sitting in his wood-paneled kitchen in a denim shirt, plucking “Waiting Around to Die” on a cherry red guitar. His girlfriend sways, but “Uncle” Seymour Washington, a retired blacksmith born to former slaves, just nods as his eyes, circled by tree-rings of wrinkles, turn bloodshot and fill with tears.
“I tried to kill the pain, I bought some booze and hopped a train,” Van Zandt sings. “Seemed easier than just waiting around to die.”
Less than 10 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., you wouldn’t think a skinny boy from Texas might have much to say to a man whose family twice held onto freedom by a thin, fraying string. But they did. Van Zandt didn’t just speak his language — he sang it. Washington passed away soon after; he sought relief too often in drugs and alcohol. Seemed easier than waiting around to die.
Forty years later, at a theater in Nashville, the cast of Heartworn Highways Revisited has gathered for the premiere. Wayne Price — from Brooklyn, not Tennessee — directed the follow-up to the film, which follows a different crowd — including John McCauley, Jonny Fritz, Langhorne Slim, Andrew Combs, Robert Ellis, Bobby Bare Jr., Shovels & Rope and Nikki Lane —who are creating a new generation of lyrical, narrative-driven songcraft. Like what the 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization meant to fledgling punk bands, the original Heartworn Highways serves as a central roadmap for these artists who worship the words and worlds of Van Zandt and Clark — all the way down to their denim shirts.
But the film doesn’t open up with a country song. Rather, it’s McCauley, most known for his work in the sometimes-raucous Deer Tick. Even in the womb, he says, he would kick to whatever music his mother played. Later, he brings his young daughter, with singer Vanessa Carlton, to the celebratory post-show at Nashville’s City Winery, where he bops her along during fellow co-star Shelly Colvin’s set.
“I guess like Lady Gaga,” he says, laughing, “I was born this way.” Price saw McCauley as the de facto Guy Clark figure — the one who brings everyone together — and Fritz, who shows up next, as the Van Zandt, for his skewed, offbeat sense of humor. “They’re very different,” Price tells Rolling Stone Country. “But they’re two generations that are both very powerful songwriters.”
There’s a recurrent struggle to define in Nashville: what makes country, what makes pop, what makes an “outlaw.” What defines this group, even. But the choice to center around McCauley speaks loudest: this is about writers with a story to tell, who live and die for the sake of the song, not a particular genre.
“Indie rock pulled the songwriting out of music for a minute,” says Ellis after the premiere. “It was kind of depressing.” His central tune in the film is “Tour Song,” about the rude realities of life on the road, juxtaposed with scenes of him making guacamole in his old Nashville home. There’s no traditional chorus, and he picks a mile a minute. Like Van Zandt and Clark, Ellis came to Nashville looking for a community of artists — he found it, but he found other less savory things too. Like Bare Jr. comments in the film, Kris Kristofferson, if he were just coming up today, would be part of this crew — not getting cuts on Music Row.