At some point in your career, you look for a “personal project” -- a film you want to make because you care deeply about the subject. For me, it was Anderson Fair. The place was over thirty years old when I started the project in 2001, and it occurred to me that if I didn’t tell this story, it was possible that no one ever would. I mentioned the idea to my friend and colleague Jim Barham, who happened to be looking for a project as well. He loves the place as much as I do, so he embraced the idea -- but he made me promise that we would “do it right.” We worked hard at getting it right for the next eight years.

My landlady Pat Pritchett introduced me to the Fair in 1970. Marvin Anderson and Gray Fair were the partners and put up the money to open the place. Among other things, Pat was the cook and the clever one who gave the place its name: Anderson Fair Retail Restaurant… say it several times and you’ll get it. I have to borrow from Pat Stout to give a little more background on the Fair and why we wanted to make this film. “I never knew a single person at Anderson Fair who had a personal agenda. We came from a world of Vietnam, the draft, Nixon, assassination and mindless destruction where Lee Otis Johnson, the Black activist in Houston, got 33 years in Huntsville State Prison for passing a joint at a concert. At the door of Anderson Fair, one shed all that. The musicians gave, the cooks gave, the workers gave, the customers gave. We wanted a world based on generosity, not greed.”

So what we have here is a funky little music place in Houston that seats about 80—or maybe 100, if you pack ‘em in. Our cast of characters includes the volunteers who run the place (there are no employees), an owner who is a perfectionist when it comes to sound, and an endless stream of incredibly talented singer-songwriters with guitars on their hips and new songs waiting to be heard. We also have this savvy audience that makes playing the Fair somewhat of a trial by fire.

More than anything, I wanted the film to honor this crazy, tight-knit little family. Lucinda Williams once told me that we had too much “sugar” in the film, and I admit it is more of a “love letter” than an exposé. We included some of the warts but plead guilty to being a bit biased.

My memories of the place include Townes (Van Zandt) after a remarkable show one night deciding that he wanted some menudo and he knew where to get it. I had never had menudo before, or since, but that night it seemed like the thing to do. Or the time a young singer handed me a homemade cassette and asked me to please “take a listen.” One side was labeled FOLK, the other BLUES. He said his name was Lyle. I liked both sides a whole lot and still have that cassette.

Along the way, lots of people asked us what this film was about, and Jim or I would answer that we had to find out. We were making a documentary; we didn’t have a script. We discovered that a big part of the story was simply in the struggle to keep this place alive for 40 years. There is also, of course, the not-so-small matter of these remarkable singer-songwriters attempting to make a go of it in an unforgiving world with nothing but their poetry and a guitar. And so, in a way, the lives of these performers mirror Anderson Fair’s struggle to survive.

One question was never answered. Even with all the conditions being just right, why is it that so many outstanding artists and writers get their start at Anderson Fair? Why here? We had to let that one go after a while and just be content with the fact that it happens.

It might have been easier to do a film about just one singer, like Margaret Brown’s wonderful film on Townes or Ayina Elliott’s award-winning film about her father, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. We, on the other hand, found ourselves dealing with 30 artists, countless publishers, labels, agents, girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands and wives. But we did have something going for us. In addition to our wonderful wives, we had support from the musicians, the film community, equipment providers, fundraisers, and lots of other folks who just love the Fair. Nanci Griffith flew down to Houston and did two benefit concerts for us. Shake Russell and his band did a fundraiser, too.

The support of all these people has kept us going, and after eight years, 135 hours of music, interviews, and B-roll, we think we know what this film is about. It is about a little place where big things happen…where nothing gets in the way of the music. It’s about Anderson Fair.

–Bruce Bryant