The opening words of For the Sake of the Song, the new documentary about Houston’s legendary folk venue Anderson Fair, make it clear that it’s been a long, strange trip for this beloved venue.
"It's always been a struggle," Anderson Fair owner Tim Leatherwood says, setting the stage.
Yet thanks to a dedicated community of volunteers, musicians, and patrons, Anderson Fair has survived and thrived for 40 years, welcoming an illustrious cast of performers that has included Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen, and many more along the way.
For The Sake of the Song had its World Premiere at the South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival. The stories and songs of the musicians of Anderson Fair are the stars of the documentary. Filmmakers Bruce Bryant and Jim Barham from Houston’s Ghost Ranch Films artfully juxtapose archival footage of the club’s best-known performers at the start of their careers with scenes of their more current endeavors.
Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith is shown stepping out on the stage at Jones Hall before a concert with the Houston Symphony. Crowd-pleasing storyteller Robert Earl Keen headlines at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in front of tens of thousands.
These scenes are followed by Griffith and Keen’s gigs many years earlier at Anderson Fair, before their fame had grown and allowed them to entertain much larger audiences.
The documentary also contains extensive footage of one of Anderson Fair’s most famous family members, hometown favorite Lyle Lovett. In a 1980 radio interview on KPFT Houston with Roger Ruffcorn, a very young Lovett shyly promotes his upcoming Anderson Fair appearance. Beautiful concert footage shows some of Lovett’s early performances, when there might have been as few as six people in the audience.
Fast forward to the present, when the Grammy Award-winner takes the stage again at Anderson Fair with longtime friend and Large Band mate, master percussionist James Gilmer. The critically acclaimed singer-songwriter now appears in front of packed houses all over the world and has acted in a number of major films. “Without Anderson Fair, I wouldn’t have been driven to write songs the way I was,” Lovett said.
Anderson Fair didn’t start out as a folk music club. In the beginning, it was a small restaurant serving spaghetti, chicken burritos and lasagna that became a hangout where people could eat and talk about art and politics. Eventually, musicians determined that the small space (which had no PA and could only accommodate about 20 people) was a good place to play for tips. The music continued to grow in importance, to the point where a “knock a hole in the wall” party was scheduled to expand into an adjacent space for a larger audience of 80 to 100.
The owner of the place, Tim Leatherwood, has been quoted in newspaper articles in the past, saying, “Anderson Fair Retail Restaurant has been out of business for 37 years” because the live-music venue closes in the summer, is staffed with volunteers and has never made a profit to speak of. Today’s Anderson Fair has a core group of 10 to 15 volunteers who tend bar, cook, and handle all the necessary tasks associated with running the club.
Throughout the film, the recurring theme is the spirit of family and community that has kept Anderson Fair going throughout its 40-year history.
The South By Southwest screenings of For The Sake of the Song were especially poignant in light of the University of Texas’ recent announcement of a plan to close the venerated Cactus Café, Austin’s own legendary listening room, later this year. The impending closing of the Cactus Café only underlines the importance of supporting and preserving essential folk institutions like Anderson Fair.
For the Sake of the Song: The Anderson Fair Story will be shown in Houston on April 10 at 9 p.m. at the AMC Studio 30 as part of the WorldFest film festival.