Willie Nelson Waylon Jennings Steve Young Townes Van Zandy Heartworn Highways Graham Leader
Steve Young in Heartworn Highways produced by Graham Leader

Country music legends Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were almost in Heartworn Highways, the cult-classic 1976 documentary about the outlaw country music scene directed by James Szalapski and starring Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, David Allan Coe, and other founders of the movement.

46 years after the documentary first premiered, it played to an enthusiastic audience on Saturday at the first annual Pioneertown International Film Festival in Pioneertown, California. The film’s original producer, Graham Leader, gave a Q&A after the screening during which he revealed the little-known tidbit about Nelson and Jennings’ near-miss with the film.

“Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were staying in the same hotel where Guy [Clark] was. The crew had gone back to New York and it was just me and Jim [Szalapski], and Jim’s girlfriend had come down to join us and they were going to drive back together and I was going to fly back after we’d filmed with David [Allan Coe],” Leader explained.

“Willie Nelson sent his manager downstairs to tell me that they’d heard a lot about this film, because Guy Clark and Townes, all these people within that world were really beginning to be noticed and respected. Willie said that they’d heard things about this film, about us, because wherever we went we took a lot of booze and drugs with us. Well, just pot,” he laughed. “Everyone was enjoying the film, and [Nelson] said, ‘Tell this guy that we’d like to be in the film, if they want us.’ And Jim and I, idiots that we were, wracked our brains and figured that because Willie and Waylon were very [successful], I guess we felt that they would kind of overwhelm the story.”

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Leader and Szalapski ended up turning down Nelson and Jennings’ request to be a part of Heartworn Highways — but if he could go back in time, Leader might have made a different choice.

“Needless to say, that was short-sighted,” he said. “We lived to regret it, I have to say.”

Other artists that did get featured in the documentary and went on to become outlaw country music legends include Steve Young, Gamble Rogers, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Larry Jon Wilson, and The Charlie Daniels Band.

The consensus amongst the crowd in Pioneertown gathered to hear Leader speak on Saturday was that perhaps it was the right choice, after all, to pass on Nelson and Jennings, considering that their absence gave the other artists a chance to shine — like Townes Van Zandt, whose legion of fans have only grown since his death in 1997.

“The energy around Townes is always — he’s very infectious. It’s hard to describe,” Leader recalled of his time getting to know the “Poncho and Lefty” singer.

One of the most touching scenes in Heartworn Highways is when Van Zandt plays a jaw-dropping rendition of his song “Waitin’ Around to Die” in the kitchen of his good friend “Uncle” Seymour Washington, who begins to cry as Van Zandt is singing.

“He was pretty sober when he sang that song, and I don’t know how to describe what it was like to be there 45 years ago,” Leader remembered. “That song came out of that day we spent together. We were filming, not filming, eating. There was this thing happening, but the beauty of it, for me, was that relationship between Townes and Uncle Seymour. What’s amazing is that Jim [Szalapski] captured the closeups of him playing guitar, and obviously the bigger motions, the cutaways to uncle Seymour. It’s very powerful.”

You can watch the original Heartworn Highways in full on YouTube, and you can stream Leader’s 2015 sequel, Heartworn Highways Revisited, on Apple TV+.

Main Image: Steve Young in Heartworn Highways produced by Graham Leader and directed by James Szalapski.