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Heartworn Highways

Kino // Unrated // April 25, 2022
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ian Jane | posted June 4, 2021 | E-mail the Author

The Movie:

1976's Heartworn Highways (dedicated to the late ‘Skinny' Dennis Sanchez, a session musician), made by documentary filmmaker James Szalapski, is a fascinating look the outlaw country music scene of the seventies where quite a few remarkably talented, and sometimes quite controversial, musicians decided that they didn't really want to do things the Nashville way, setting out to make country music that had some depth and sincerity to it, concerned less with the marketing machine that Music Row lived and breathed off of than doing things the way that they wanted to do them.

There's no real narrator in this picture and it is structured in a very loose, almost meandering style. This might put people off if they're looking for a more polished explanatory type of film rather than what Szalapski has put together with this project. But if it's the music that matters most to you, stick this out, you'll wind up quite pleased with the results. As the movie plays out we get some great live and backstage footage with legends and lesser knowns alike such as Guy Clark, Towns Van Zandt, the always outspoken David Allan Coe (whose performance for a group of inmates in a Tennessee Prison is one of the highlights of the movie), Larry Jon Wilson, Barefoot Jerry Rodney Crowell, Steve Young, Gamble Rogers, Peggy Brooks and The Charlies Daniels Band.

The musicians all speak to the camera quite frankly and honestly about their experiences with the corporate country music machine, about their songwriting styles and about their goals and ambitions. Along the way we get to know them a bit, we learn about their personalities and hear firsthand what it's like living on the road as a touring musician. You don't get the feeling that much of anything is held back here, with booze flowing like water most of the time and some of these guys really throwing them back.

If there isn't a narrative per se, the film does succeed in simply showing off a lot of great moments. DAC's performance in the prison is fantastic, the man who was once in prison himself (something he didn't hide but in fact boasted about in songs like Long Haired Redneck… and we do get a look at his own mugshot in the film), clad in rhinestones and feeling his way through the get, giving his all and the crowd absolutely eating it up. Townes Van Zandt playing Waiting Around To Die as his aged neighbor fights back tears. A Christmas Party turned impromptu jam session at Guy Clark's place where everyone is drinking everyone else under the table. Peggy Brooks performing a heartfelt and beautiful song at some small watering hole somewhere in the American south. Spliced into all of this great footage are a lot of clips of the highways themselves, the veins that connect the country that these people are touring across, accessible by anyone with a car and allowing easy travel to pretty much any major city in the nation. This ties in thematically to a lot of what the music documented here is all about. The picture does a great job of simply getting some great moments with some great musicians, quite a few of whom are no longer with us, on film. There's no mythologizing here, the footage is presented to the audience ‘as is' and the viewer is left to make up his or her mind about the merits of it all.

The Video:

Heartworn Highways arrives on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.78.1 widescreen taking up 27.5GBs of space on a 50GB disc. The film is well-shot but not always under the best conditions, so expect some scenes to look better than others, that's just the nature of the beast here. The transfer itself is quite strong, however, showing nice detail and good texture. It always looks nice and filmic, there are no issues with any noise reduction or compression artifacts. So scenes do look fairly (and naturally) grainy and there's a bit of print damage here and there but overall, this looks good.

The Audio:

The only audio option for the feature is an English language 24-bit DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo option. Removable subtitles are available in English only. No problems to note with the audio, the dialogue is always clean and easy to understand and the track is properly balanced.

The Extras:

Extras start off with an audio commentary with producer Graham Leader and editor/AD Phillip Schopper that goes over the nuts and bolts of putting this picture together. They share some interesting stories about what it was like to make the movie, interacting with the different musicians that are featured in the film, the picture's complicated distribution history and more.

The disc also includes sixty-two minutes of Bonus footage presented in 1080i with DTS-HD 2.0 audio. Some of this stuff is quite interesting to see and while it was wise not to include it in the feature itself, having it in the extras section is great. Finishing up the extras on the disc itself are trailers for Heartworn Highways and the 2017 follow up film, Heartworn Highways Revisited as well as menus and chapter selection options.

Included inside the keepcase alongside the side is a full color insert booklet with essays by Graham Leader and Phillip Schopper that cover the history of the film.


Heartworn Highways is genuinely fascinating stuff, an intimate look at the outlaw country scene of the seventies and a must for anyone with an interest in what came out of that scene or anyone who just enjoys a good music documentary. Kino's Blu-ray looks and sounds quite good and includes some nice extra features as well. Highly recommended.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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Highly Recommended

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