For the Sake of the Story
I could use a little spin on a red brick floor
In that crazy ol' bar when Tim locks the door
Where the walls are gonna ring and the strings are gonna bend
And it's a buss on the cheek from all my old lovers again.
- Nanci Griffith from "Spin on a Red Brick Floor
It started out as a little spaghetti bar and turned into one of the country's most hallowed rooms for live music, and 40 years later Anderson Fair shows no sign of slowing down. Over seven years ago, filmmakers Bruce Bryant and Jim Barham set out to document the history of the Fair and tell the stories of the devoted cast of volunteers and musicians who kept the place going.
The fruits of their labor have come to fruition in the absorbing new feature documentary, For the Sake of the Song: The Story of Anderson Fair. The film wowed audiences at its world premiere at South By Southwest last month, and now Houstonians will have a chance to see the vibrant celluloid valentine to a hometown institution for themselves.
For the Sake of the Song will be screened at 9 p.m. Saturday night at AMC Studio 20 (Dunvale & Westheimer) as part of the WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival.
CultureMap sat down with Bryant, the director, to learn more about the Fair and his film.
CM: Do you remember the first time you ever visited the Fair?
BB: No. I have early memories of being there, remembering it to be a bright cheerful place. It was in the daytime, lunchtime usually. I remember artists, writers, and singers and poets, roller skaters all being there. People reading the paper and trying to look like they were hip.
CM: How do you account for its longevity?
BB: I just don't know. That's why I say they bucked the odds. Who would have thought that this place would still be here and still be vibrant, relevant? I think the obvious answer is that money wasn't the goal. They weren't in the business to make money. They were really in the business for music and to have a good time because they're having a fun. They don't go to work, they go to play.
CM: Speaking of art over commerce, that seems like a very un-Houston concept for a local business. It's actually pretty quaint or naive depending on how you look at it. Do you think the musicians identified with that vibe? It all seems very pure.
BB: It feels very much like it should be in Austin ... or in some smaller town in Texas, but it's not. You know, Lucinda (Williams) said about the early days that it seemed a lot like what you might think of as Haight Ashbury or that kind of scene, but it was only happening at Anderson Fair. In other words, there was not a big scene like that in Houston at all, but around the Fair there was. I think when people walk in the Fair it's almost like going into another world, and maybe it's a fairytale world. It's like a time machine. You're stepping back, way back and it's anything but a commercial place.
CM: From the film it's obvious that the workers at the Fair, or volunteers rather, have played such a vital role at the Fair.
BB: In the film, Richard Dobson, who's another early player at the Fair, says that many times he'd be in the Fair and he would have another gig in another town and maybe very few people showed up for his show and somehow they paid him what seemed like more money than would have been coming to him. But because of that he was able to keep playing and moving on. That's the kind of love these people had. They would dig into their own pockets and make sure that that musician got paid.
CM: Why was the Fair so important for so many young songwriters and for helping to launch the career of so many internationally-known musicians?
BB: In my director's statement I said that one of the questions we couldn't answer in the film is, "Why this place? Why could this funky little place be the starting point for so many great writers?" And we never could answer that question. We had to just be happy that it happened and accept it. I don't know. Vince Bell said that it wasn't that he was nurtured, you know, people weren't coming to him and nurturing him, they were just leaving him alone. They were letting him play and do what he wanted to do in his own style. It was a warm, gentle spotlight and a crowd that paid attention.
CM: What moved you to make this film? Take us back to the germ of the idea.
BB: I can remember when I decided to do the film. I was at my brother-in-law's house and it was right before Christmas. We were having dinner and people were having some wine and I was thinking, "You know, I'm getting up there a little bit in age and I'd like to do something that's meaningful, something just for me that I care a lot about." It didn't take me very long to realize that that was the Fair and I wanted to do a film about the Fair. And that was about as far as it got, but in the next few days I mentioned it to Jim Barham.
Jim and I have worked together for over three decades. And he said, "I'm in! I want to do it too." But, he said, "I want to do it right. I really want to do it right. I don't want to cut any corners. Let's do this thing and let's do it well." Not that he doesn't do everything well, but we really wanted to make this important.
CM: How did the process then morph from idea to execution?
BB: We actually weren't ready to start but (current owner) Tim Leatherwood told us that Carolyn Hester would be playing the Fair and she wasn't doing a lot of touring and this might be our only chance to get her there. And so we quickly put together a crew for that first interview. Carolyn Hester was the person that Joan Baez wanted to grow up to be. They called her the "Texas Songbird" and she was America's first folk diva. She was on the cover of Saturday Evening Post magazine and her first husband was Richard Farina, who later married Mimi Baez, Joan's sister.
Anyway, we shot that interview and then it was a few months later before we did anything else and I talked to Lyle (Lovett), actually Tim Leatherwood talked to him for us, and he agreed to do an interview for us. He came and gave us at least a two-hour interview and then he sang six songs that we recorded with audience of about three people on a Sunday evening at the Fair and he said we could use the songs. And then after that we didn't meet any resistance from the performers. I don't know if we would have anyway, but it was really nice to have Caroline Hester and Lyle Lovett on board.
CM: Did you have a goal in mind when you set out to document the Fair?
BB: I knew we wanted to talk about the history of the Fair and that includes the way it started, the people, and the characters involved, at least some of them. And then I also realized, and Jim did too, that it was a fishing trip. We would explore what the Fair meant to all of these characters, including Tim Leatherwood. I call him the keeper of the flame.
People would ask, "What's the story? What's the real story?" And we say, "We don't know. It's a documentary, we're finding out. We're searching for the real story." And it came to us, but it didn't come to us as an epiphany.
CM: Why is the Fair so important to the city?
BB: Well, this is one of those little cultural gems that a lot of places don't have. It's not for everyone, but everyone that goes there recognizes that it's unique and it's special. New Orleans has Preservation Hall and everybody knows about it and nobody questions the importance of Preservation Hall. Houston has Anderson Fair and it is our Preservation Hall. It is just as important and just as special.
Right now in Austin, they're fighting a battle to keep the Cactus Cafe. Someone at the University of Texas wants to let it go because they can save a few dollars. And what a sad thing that would be. And what a sad day it would be for Houston, if they lost the Fair.