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A production crew collected footage of musicians playing at Banker Smith recently for use in "Broken Strings," a planned documentary about Texas music and the people who make it. Producers who work with MTV are heading up the project, which they hope to see completed in the coming year. Photo by Phil Houseal

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Playing on Broken Strings

by Phil Houseal
Oct 8, 2008


What happened to Luckenbach in the 1970s is about to happen to the entire Hill Country music scene.

Back in 1977, Willie and Waylon sang a tune about a sleepy kink in the road called Luckenbach. The simple song transformed the town (population 3) into an international phenomenon. The ripples linger to this day, drawing people yearning to get "back to the basics."

This time the location is Banker Smith, Texas (population 1), just a few miles down the road. For one weekend in August, dozens of Texas singer-songwriters gathered to play their music for an independent film project.

This story comes through Lajitas, but its roots go to New York City, about as far as one can get from the remote outpost on the Texas-Mexico border. To wit: producers for the MTV reality show "Run's House" were scouring the country to find a dude ranch. The premise of the show is placing the family of rapper Reverend Run in unfamiliar situations, then filming the hilarity that ensues. Producers Nick Lee and Stephanie Smith discovered the perfect venue. After two airplane flights and a 12-hour bus trip, the 28 crew members found themselves in the dusty border town of Lajitas.

"It was amazing," Smith sighed. "Coming from New York City, we were fish out of water. Just driving through Big Bend was visually stunning. Then in Lajitas, it is this old western town; it is what you dream when you dream of a dude ranch."

There they were guests of George and Anita Goss, ranch managers and owners of Broken Strings - a recording studio cum "cult." The couple arranged to have live musicians perform for the crew at a place with the dreamy name Thirsty Goat Saloon. The New Yorkers were not impressed.

"I don't know what we were expecting," Smith admitted. "We were like, oh yeah, some old honky-tonk musicians. Can't wait to see this."

It took exactly one song to change that attitude.

"Literally our entire crew, made of every type of person you can imagine, was completely entranced with these people," Smith said. They ended up having jam sessions until 5 a.m. "It was pretty clear right away we were interested in doing something."

That something was to create a documentary. Filming is well underway. Before heading back to New York, the producers armed George and Anita with digital video cameras, which the pair have been using since April to capture everything to do with Broken Strings.

The crew returned in to Texas in August, this time landing at Banker Smith, where the Gosses had arranged for dozens of Hill Country bands to perform on the back porch. The couple's recording studio was located near Luckenbach from 2004 to 2006, so they knew the rich lode of musical talent that runs through this area. Ahead lies months of post-production and editing, but producers are hopeful they will capture the essence of Texas music (even though they are not yet sure what that is).

"I think it's the characters behind the music," she said. "There are so many people who are musicians, but there are very few people that have a story that backs it up. That story is what draws you in. It's undeniable; you can't resist it."

Those stories all seem to run through Broken Strings.

"It is a recording studio, it's a fellowship, and it's a cult... I don't know," Anita Goss said. "Broken Strings is a revival of the Texas music that has been lost. It's like skipping a rock in the water. The ripple touches all sides, and we don't know where it's going."

The common thread is music.

"Music connects all these characters. It creates charity. It creates a reverberation in the heavens. That's what Broken Strings is... it's the heart strings."

Smith had to think hard when I asked her what they hoped to portray with this project.

"I hope to give justice to a unique group of people, and be able to convey to the world how amazing they are," she finally replied. "And to show just a little bit of how they have affected us, and to relay that on film so other people can feel that as well."

Goss has mixed feelings about impending celebrity. After all, some locals still wish they could play dominos at Luckenbach without all those tourists taking their pictures.

"There are pros and cons, but I hope that happens because I want everyone to see and feel that," she said. "At this point in our lives and in our world, it's too precious to keep it a secret anymore."