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'Road to Austin' at SXSW

Written by , published March 13, 2014

One musical director, 6 days of rehearsal,  3-hour concert, 60 artists, 38 songs and 3 reasons to celebrate. It’s a labor of love for Austin’s musical roots, Kris Kristofferson and the life of beloved musician Stephen Bruton.

Road to AustinIn 2007, an Austin audience was treated to a concert of the industry’s most respected performers who helped build the Live Music Capital of the World. The event, Road to Austin, was conceived as an opportunity to showcase that history while paying tribute to Kristofferson illustrious musical career. The resulting documentary, which is being screened at SXSW today (Thursday, March 13) is a celebration of the life of Bruton, Texas-based guitarist/singer and the concert’s musical director.

In 2006, director Gary Fortin and his business partner and friend, Bruton volleyed some ideas under the premise of creating a concert to pay tribute to their friend Kris Kristofferson. Bruton had been part of Kristofferson’s original band. As the idea grew, the two pulled together an impressive lineup with artists such as Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton, Ruthie Foster, Ian McLagan and, of course, Kristofferson. As it turns out, the performers also had a key, common thread. Bruton. He was a beloved musician who had performed with them, in one capacity or another, throughout his career.

The show was an enormous success, and Fortin gives credit not only to the performers, but to the unique Austin audience with sophisticated tastes.

“We set out to tell how Austin became the Live Music Capital,” says Fortin. And they do. The documentary offers a riveting look at the history of Austin’s music origins dating back to 1835. Archival photos point to German immigrant artisans who, in essence, built the musical community and started the seeds of what we came to know as the garage band movement.

“And the ‘60s Psychedlic movement began here with the 13th Floor Elevators, who later took it to San Francisco where it exploded. Janis Joplin was here. Rocky Erickson was here. Jerry Garcia was hanging out here,” says Fortin.

“The Live Music Capital of the World is not just a self-proclaimed slogan, and we set out to prove that with the facts. This is where raw talent lives," Fortin says, adding this is where touring acts come to find their touring machine musicians. “When Bob Dylan looks for his touring band, this is where he comes.”

“Austin is the oldest artist community in the United States,” he says.

Between the time the concert was conceived and showtime, Bruton was diagnosed with cancer, a fact that weighed heavy on the performers’ mind. The show’s energy changed, Fortin says.

“A show of this size is usually performed in an arena. We accomplished a lot of firsts, and the timing of the show of this magnitude and a million different moving parts was critical. There was a lot to choreograph to make sure everyone performed their two songs. The biggest challenge, though, was that our musical director, Stephen, wasn’t feeling well at all,” he says. “It was super human for him to get through the concert, let alone rehearsals. EMS was on standby and Bruton was hooked up to feeding tubes on stage.

“We told him he didn’t have to do this,” Fortin says, but “Stephen said, ‘I do have to do this. It was an amazing night.”

“Everyone on that stage are consummate pros, and Stephen has had a major impact on every artist on the show. They are literally some of his closest friends, so if no one showed up, there still would have been this band of people, who loved each other, performing.”

The resulting documentary turned out to be a celebration of Bruton’s life, and the last time he performed, having just been two weeks out of chemotherapy at showtime. He died in 2009.

The music history remains an essential part of the documentary, but because of Bruton’s powerful impact on the careers of all the performers, Fortin added artist interviews about Bruton, as well as the Austin music scene, for the final documentary.

Sometime after Bruton’s passing, Fortin says, “I was backstage with Kris at Willie’s picnic, when Kris said we need to do something in Stephen’s name.” From that was borne the Stephen Bruton Artist Wellness Program, and the documentation of the concert now served as a vehicle to celebrate Bruton and promote the program.

“Pulling out the footage was just personally trying and painful to watch it. It was healing and draining. It took me nine months to get through it and edit the concert footage. Plus, it was also technically challenging. It was like mixing six music CDs with the 38 songs,” he says.

Along with himself, Fortin says funding for the movie was made possible through executive producers, Rob Donnelly and his family trust. Also, many who have donated their time and talent. No one has been paid.

Stepen Bruton Artist Wellness Program

“We are not doing this SXSW screening looking for distribution. We’re using this as an opportunity to draw attention to AWP. It was a healing process for me and we do something that will help a lot of artists. There’s no better way to honor our friend, Stephen.”

The Artist Wellness Program offers biomarker screenings that helps inform artists of potential health issues and offers proactive treatment to address them, including a 90-day supply of vitamins, wearable devices that help track activity and sleep patterns and then a second biomarker test to document progress.

Fortin says, “The pilot program will start with 200 artists. If you see the credits on “Road to Austin,” you’ll see the first 185. This is for musicians and everyone involved in the craft. They work crazy schedules and wellness is an afterthought. This program helps catch a health issue before it becomes symptomatic.”

Stephen once asked, “I don’t know why we wait for people to get sick before we help them.”

If we knew about this test, Stephen would still be with us.

This 75-minute documentary and all of its proceeds are dedicated to the Stephen Bruton Artist Wellness Program.

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