There are many sacred places singers and other artists take to heart along the way. Venues with a touch of home, stages of inspiration, or rooms filled with love have a way of bringing out the best in performers and attracting the best by reputation. It can be as down home simple as the riverside patio of a family-owned catfish house or the cozy corner of a local watering hole. It can be as good and godly as a church social hall or as wildly soulful as that converted gas station that now fills you up with spirits and caffeine. It can be as artsy-aesthetic as a centuries-old downtown opera house or as artsy-eclectic as a backwoods boonies state-of-the-art, multi-purpose renaissance center.
For more than forty years, Anderson Fair has been a hallowed haven for young artists honing their craft, wooing an audience, finding their image, while feeding their faces. It’s also been a coveted stop on the road for many major artists.
The venue gained some mainstream attention roughly two decades back when former MCA folkabilly artist, Nanci Griffith, performed her live concert there, One Fair Summer Evening. The event was filmed at the venue and directed by Bud Schaetzle formerly of High Five Entertainment. Griffith is one of many singer-songwriters who cut more than a few molars of their creative teeth at Anderson Fair. Others include Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Lucinda Williams.
Situated in the historic Montrose area of Houston, just a short half block east of Montrose Boulevard, the building structurally reflects over a century’s worth of Houston’s cultural and artistic diversity. AFair, as its referred to by its regulars, is one of the longest-running original music venues in the U.S. having served troubadours and devoted followers since the 1960’s. It has moved from its coffee house roots of poetry readings to its still-evolving rich, diverse culture of live music and original songs. And now, it can add the coveted title of film star to its storied history and strutting swagger of fame.
The Anderson Fair Project is an initiative of Fair Retail Films in cooperation with Ghost Ranch Films in Houston to produce a ninety-minute documentary film titled For The Sake Of The Song: The Story of Anderson Fair. The film documents and preserves an important component of America’s musical legacy, Houston’s venerable folk and original music venue, Anderson Fair Retail Restaurant or AFair. This film tells the compelling saga of how a devoted family of volunteers, patrons, and artists transformed a little neighborhood coffee house and restaurant into a unique American music institution.
For producer-director Bruce Bryant and producer-cinematographer Jim Barham, the film is a labor of love and a nostalgic red-brick spin through old stomping grounds.
“I remember sitting in the music room on many a night back in the 70s listening to people like Vince Bell and Eric Taylor and Lucinda Williams and wondering to myself if any of these people were ever going to make it,” Jim said. “I guess that thought had something to do with popular or commercial success. Now, making it means something totally different to me. Again, it’s not about money. It’s about art and living your art and following your passion. If you can spend thirty years living out of a van, committed to something you truly believe in and have to do, your art, then you’ve made it, no matter what your bank statement says. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who plays at Anderson Fair has made it.”
Bruce Bryant recalls some magical moments that have fed his passion for making the dream of this film come to life.
“There was a dark spot on the old church pew stage right, maybe fifteen feet from the center mic,” Bruce said. “Every night I went to the Fair I heard some world class poetry…I had the honor of watching these artists develop and become great from my little bench way off to the side. It seemed like there were nights when the artist on stage and the audience were one…hearts beating in rhythm…all of us tuned in totally to the song. This probably sounds corny today, but when the set was over we didn’t have to be told. We knew we had experienced something that was indeed magical. After those sets, there was not a lot of talking, but everyone seemed to be smiling. I also remember the wonderful wild and fun nights with bands like Dogtooth Violet, Greezy Wheels, Wheatfield, the Cypress Swamp Stompers, The Natives and the wonderful Dr. Rockit and the Sisters of Mercy.”
The Heart For Art’s Sake
Making the film happen has had its challenges, mostly with funding. But it is the spirit and heart of those who bring live to AFair that stir the heart and spirit of these two filmmakers. Bruce figured if he didn’t do the film, who would? When he mentioned the idea to his friend, Jim, he jumped at the opportunity. Bruce acknowledges that Jim Barham has poured his enormous talent and his soul into the project.
“Somehow I always knew this film was going to happen,” Jim said. “Bruce and I hung out at the Fair a lot back in the 70s, right around the same time we started working together in television. He did music projects whenever he could and many of them involved the artists who played the Fair. I got to hang out or tag along as the shooter on occasion. When he brought up the idea of doing the film, I had a weak moment and said yes. All I asked was that we do it right. Then he had a weak moment and said, okay, let’s do it right.”
Jim believes that live music brings people with common interests together and has been an important part of our culture for hundreds of years, with AFair just a small part of that bigger picture.
“Anderson Fair is a listening room,” Jim said. “People go there to listen to music. As Lyle says in the film, these songs tell you something about life and your own life. So when you’re in a live situation like that, not multi-tasking while driving car or checking your email, you really have a chance to reflect on the song.”
For Bruce one of the biggest challenges in pulling the project together was coordinating the shooting schedule with all of the people to be interviewed. Some of them lived in Houston, but others live in places such as Nashville, Santa Fe (New Mexico), California and even in Europe. And, as die-hard troubadours many still live on the road.
Completing Circles of Connection
“We made the film to honor this brave little experiment and the people who gave a big part of their lives to the place and to their art,” Bruce said. “I think folks like this will like it, and I hope the story will touch some viewers who have never heard of the place. Poets and poetry make life worthwhile. You can never give too much kindness and you can never-never-never-ever get enough poetry.”
Visit www.andersonfair.com and www.andersonfairthemovie.com for more information on this amazing film venture, its enormously gifted producers, and the storied venue that feeds inspiration and serves singer-songwriters grateful plates full of audience gratification.