VARIOUS ARTISTS Heartworn Highways (Diverse) 

A producer's note maintains that "this is not the soundtrack to "Heartworn Highways"", but is in fact "an album that stood on its own as an audio companion to the movie". To that end, the project is conspicuously successful. I haven't seen the film  - a documentary on what was then known as the outlaw country scene, "bottled in Tennessee & Texas during the winter of 1976" - but I almost feel as though, having heard the album, I don't need to, such is this not-a-soundtrack's vivid audio verite feel to it. It's not just because of the impromptu nature of many of the performances , recoded in deserted clubs, homes, prisons and a Christmas Eve jam session at Guy Clark's place; the snatches of dialogue and banter that punctuate them help too.

Guy Clark demonstrates a crystalline purity of performance and narrative on "L.A. Freeway" and "Desperadoes Waiting For A Train", and Townes Van Zandt is as committed playing "Waiting 'Round To Die" and "Pancho & Lefty" to three people and a dog as he was to an overcrowded club on "Live At The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas".  There are a couple of shockingly precocious performances from a 20-year-old Steve Earle, already weathered with world-weary cynicism on "Mercenary Song" and fashioning a glorious family saga in miniature from "Elijah's Church". The producers break their self-imposed "no covers" rule for a couple of justifiable causes: Steve Young recasts "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" as a funereal dirge, and Rodney Crowell leads a star-studded ensemble on "Silent Night".

Not everything collected here is brilliant, of course. David Allan Coe's two contributions seem too sentimental to be truly representative of the genre, and John Hiatt is, surprisingly, just plain dull on "One For The One". Otherwise, though, this great album is a feast for the ears. It helps that Diverse's vinyl reissue sounds delicious in places, such as when the band spread out before the listener during Larry Jon Wilson's "Ohoopee River Bottomland". Although there are moments of grating distortion, the level of care and attention afforded this release suggests that they're more than likely endemic to the original source material rather than any negligence at the mastering or pressing stages.