A kaleidoscopic musical road trip down a million mile highway of poetry, philosophy and life featuring Nashville hit songwriter, Danny Darst.
“We don’t use the c word,” responds Michael Altman when I attempt to pigeon hole Danny Darst as a country singer. “They’re calling it Americana now – it’s more country than anything else but it’s just a bad term these days.” Americana, I point out, was also a term used to describe his father’s films – the late legendary Robert Altman, director of seminal American movies like Nashville, the 1975 musical that shares a setting with American Songwriter, Altman Jr’s directorial debut (and award winning documentary) on largely unknown Nashville singer-songwriter, philosopher and sometime actor Darst.
“My history with Danny goes back thirty-five years,” Altman says “He acted in some of my father’s films and would just come in and start playing his music. His first job was playing a piece for a small set of his plays called 2 By South. My father didn’t have many close friends but he counted Danny as one of them and they appreciated each other’s company.”
“I’ve always loved Danny’s music and been a huge fan – I consider him of the same calibre as Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon and McCartney…”
Danny Darst – American Songwriter
Danny Darst – American Songwriter
With seventy hours of footage it was quite a challenge to condense American Songwriter into a sixty- minute documentary. “What I know from working around my father all those years was that a film is made in the cutting room and it’s about what you do with those pieces when you put it together. It was particularly challenging to keep it moving as Danny talks… real… slowly…” says Altman mimicking the singer’s drawn out drawl. It’s certainly been a fruitful odd couple collaboration, one that over an exhaustive two and a half years has produced the stage production Exit 10, two soundtrack albums, (with a third on its way), an independent feature and now this documentary.
“I’ve always loved Danny’s music and been a huge fan – I consider him of the same calibre as Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon and McCartney and always thought it was a shame no one reported on his stuff, but he’s such a humble person and hard to corner. He’d play a song and you’d turn around and he’d be 300 miles down the track. I just wanted to document this creative guy who’s led a tough life but is such a fabulous storyteller and certainly one of the best songwriters I’ve ever been around. To be up close and personal with him is like hanging out with Bob Dylan – except nobody knows who he is.”
One of Michael Altman’s own noteworthy contributions was, at the tender age of 14 writing the sombre lyrics to ‘Suicide Is Painless’, the infamous title song to his father’s smash hit movie Mash. The theme was later re-used for the iconic TV series.
“At the time I was listening to a lot of Bob Dylan and I’d written quite a simple song that Johnny Mandel turned into what everyone’s familiar with today,” Altman reflects. “I wrote a lot of poetry when I was young. One day I walked into a conversation my father was having with [legendary filmmaker] Otto Preminger. I wanted to show him what I’d written. They said ‘we’re just talking about this scene, why don’t you see if you can write this song?’ So I went away and wrote 102 verses of the most god awful crap you’ve every heard in your life and told my father I couldn’t do it and he said, ‘I knew you wouldn’t be able to do it!’ So I replied, ‘Oh yeah!’ and went away again and wrote the whole thing. My father was pretty sharp!” he smiles.
American Songwriter became an equally organic process for Altman. Watching the film you come to appreciate Danny Darst – playing acoustic guitar and wearing his trademark cowboy hat, dark glasses and white handle bar moustache – for his simple, salt-of-the-earth existence. He’s an observer and upholder of basic values. He strolls through the Nashville side streets and drives through rugged country, lamenting about the decimation of rural America and the importance of having faith, family and being a good neighbour – philosophy that is reinforced in his deeply soulful lyrics. We learn Robert Altman once said to him, “Wake me up early, be kind to my dog and teach my children how to pray” – random words that Darst turned into verses for two songs. And it’s this serendipity that truly resonates. “A songwriter is a potential time bomb, because he can roll in in shirtsleeves, sleep in a dumpster, throw a song out there and six weeks later they are writing him huge checks,” Darst murmurs memorably at one point in that archetypal drawl.