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‘The Neon Highway’ tells story of ambition, legacy, and heartbreak in country music

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NASHVILLE, Tennessee (WOUB) – The Neon Highway explores themes of ambition, legacy, and heartbreak with a story set in the cutthroat world of the contemporary country music industry.

It’s the story of Wayne Collins (Rob Mayes), a musician whose chance at Nashville stardom was dashed decades ago by tragedy. Now, grappling with a mundane job and familial pressures, he crosses paths with fading country icon Claude Allen (Beau Bridges) who reignites Collins’ musical aspirations.

Together, they return to Nashville, banking on Allen’s reputation to propel Collins’ success. However, they’re met with the industry’s apathy. Driven by desperation, Collins devises a plan to share the song, not for his own glory, but to revive Allen’s legacy.

Wages has been working on The Neon Highway for more than 30 years. Wages says early on there were multiple meetings with the late Johnny Cash, who he hoped to cast as Claude. However, when Cash’s health declined in the late ‘90s, The Neon Highway was shelved.

The project was reignited by interest from producer Stratton Leopold.

The Neon Highway received a Nashville premiere last week.

The poster for the film "The Neon Highway." It is a sepia toned picture with the title in blue and red.
[theneonhighwaymovie.com]
The film’s production timeline is unusual, but what’s also unusual is the fact that all of the film’s music was performed live. When Bridges or Mayes perform on screen, it’s a testament to their real life musical talents.

Bridges’ musicianship is assisted by a historic Gretsch White Falcon guitar on personal loan from the Gretsch family.

The Bridges clan might be heralded as a dynasty of cinema — Beau’s father Lloyd and brother Jeff are fellow Hollywood Walk of Famers — but Bridges says pop music has always been important to him, too.

Bridges credits this partially to having lived in storied mid-century musical hotspot Topanga Canyon, which launched artists like Linda Ronstandt, Emmylou Harris and The Eagles.

“Those were great days,” Bridges said. “And I loved Jimmy Messina, he was a buddy of mine. He was there back in the day with Poco [alongside future Eagles members] and all those groups [like Buffalo Springfield and Loggins & Messina]. Jackson Browne was another friend. I love music and the people that make it.”

Mayes developed his passion for music through exposure to the eclectic music scene in and around his hometown of Cleveland.

“I come from a very musical family,” Mayes said. “So much so, in fact, that my dad met my mom while playing in a Lithuanian folk dance group.”

The music isn’t the only thing that’s “real” about The Neon Highway.

Pam Tillis is a country musician and veteran of the industry. She plays herself in the film, bringing both her musical chops and real life experience to the role.

Actors Beau Bridges, Pam Tillis, Rob Mayes at the Nashville premiere of "The Neon Highway."
Beau Bridges (left), Pam Tillis and Rob Mayes attend The Neon Highway World Premiere at Belcourt Theatre on March 13, 2024 in Nashville, Tennessee. [Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for The Neon Highway]
“I can relate to it, because I’ve been around it,” Pam said. “And I’ve seen there, unfortunately, is some shadiness in Nashville.”

Pam says The Neon Highway tells a story she’s seen befall every music icon. After all, her late father, Mel Tillis, is a Country Music Hall of Famer, and would’ve been Claude’s contemporary.

Mel Tillis experienced the kind of comeback Claude is vying for in The Neon Highway. In 1998, years after his last Top 40 hit, Mel formed the Old Dogs, a supergroup with Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare, and Jerry Reed.

That’s not the only way themes of the film resonate with Pam’s real life musical career.

The dynamic between Wayne and Claude in The Neon Highway evokes the real-life dynamic Pam Tillis shared with “Mr. Country & Western Music” himself, George Jones.

In 1992, while being inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame, 60-year-old George Jones roared I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair, a battle cry against the ageism Jones was facing from country radio, despite the industry’s recognition for how he embodied the genre. Jones was joined in the rousing performance by an army of younger artists dominating radio, including Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, and Pam Tillis.

“[It was] a huge hit for George all over again,” Pam said. “He had a resurgence, that kind of carried him through until the end of his touring days.”

Neon Highway is in theaters now. For more information, visit theneonhighwaymovie.com.

Pam Tillis plays Ohio’s Neon Nights festival at Clay’s Park Resort on August 9. For tickets, and a full tour itinerary, visit pamtillis.com.