Kris Kristofferson's success changed the Nashville songwriting power structure, taking paychecks away from pros who wrote in label offices, and passing them on to the mavericks who drifted into Music City with guitars and open-mic schedules in hand. The post-Kristofferson revolution is well-recorded on Heartworn Highways, the soundtrack to a 1976 documentary about the outlaw country-music scene. The heart of the film is in scenes of young bucks Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, and John Hiatt hanging out with Townes Van Zandt at Guy Clark's house and passing around a guitar. The Heartworn Highways soundtrack includes contributions from each member of that crew, and by putting songs like Clark's evocatively neurotic "L.A. Freeway," Van Zandt's mournful "Waiting Around To Die," and Earle's honestly political "The Mercenary Song" into one place, the disc helps explain how these artists reclaimed American roots music for people who had something to say about contemporary life.
Kristofferson himself recently returned to action after a decade-long hiatus with the fine set This Old Road, and there are plenty of songwriters in Nashville who can claim to be heirs to his stylistic legacy. But his renegade spirit has long-since been usurped by daring alt-country acts like Centro-Matic, which uses deep twang and images of rural living to craft a different take on what it means to be alive in the American South right here and now. Centro-Matic's new album Fort Recovery surrounds Will Johnson's poetic phrases (evident in song titles like "Covered Up In Mines" and "The Fugitives Have Won") with fuzzy guitars and clattering rhythms, evoking the tug between the accelerating pace of society and the pleasure of sitting motionless on a hot Texas day. Johnson's songs aren't as tightly composed as anything by Townes Van Zandt, and Centro-Matic's general drift toward noise and fog renders Fort Recovery a little indistinct at times. But the contrast of rippling piano and stormy guitars on "Patience For The Ride" creates a musical tension unique to Centro-Matic, and the song itself is melodic and personal enough to stand up at any writers' showcase.