Here at Texas Monthly, we love Texas culture, both the classic and the new. On a walk through our office halls, you might find a staffer writing to the sounds of Willie Nelson or spot a dog-eared Molly Ivins anthology on a bookshelf, but you could also pass an editor revising to the sounds of Khruangbin or a fact-checker theorizing about the latest Texan to grace the stage of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Sharing our newest obsessions with other curious Texans is one of the best parts of the job—especially during South by Southwest, with its high concentration of worthy cultural discoveries. We hope you enjoy these SXSW-encountered recommendations as much as we do.
Traveling the Border via The River and the Wall Documentary
Texas has never looked more beautiful—and more vulnerable—than it does in the new documentary The River and the Wall, which had its world premiere at SXSW on Saturday. The film follows five adventurers as they travel the 1,200 miles of the Texas-Mexico border along the Rio Grande, all in an effort to see how a wall would affect some of the wildest terrain in the country. Filmmaker and horse trainer Ben Masters, Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation’s Jay Kleberg, wildlife biologist Heather Mackey, Nat Geo Wild star Filipe DeAndrade, and Guatemalan-American river guide Austin Alvarado tackled the often treacherous route from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico by mountain bike, canoe, horseback, and foot. Along the way, they interviewed politicians like Beto O’Rourke (who attended the premiere) and representative Will Hurd, border agents, border-town residents, and landowners. But it’s the stunning images of Texas at its most primitive—along with the personal journeys of each of the travelers—that will stay with you. The documentary has one more SXSW screening, and in early May, it will screen at several hundred theaters nationwide. Follow the film’s Facebook page for more information and updates.
—Kathy Blackwell, executive editor
Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello’s ACLU Concert Set
I went to the American Civil Liberties Union 100th-anniversary concert to see Bay Area rapper K. Flay, who was announced as one of three acts on the bill, along with former Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello and Roots drummer Questlove. She ended up only performing a pair of songs with Morello’s band, which sounds like it would be disappointing. Yet Morello’s set turned out to be an indelible moment of SXSW magic. Aside from the two songs with K. Flay—one of hers and one of his—and a Woody Guthrie-esque cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” Morello played an instrumental set that included a medley of his hits, marked by Rage Against the Machine’s distinctive, timeless guitar sound. He’s no stranger to SXSW stages, having performed before as his folk alter ego, “The Night Watchman,” and sat in with the E. Street Band for Springsteen’s legendary 2012 performance at ACL Live, but his ACLU set was truer still to the spirit of his entire career and the values his music espouses. He brought things home by introducing “an old gospel song” for the encore, at which point he flipped the microphone stand toward the audience, played the opening riff to the RATM classic “Killing in the Name,” and led the crowd in a scream-along rendition of the song—the perfect capper to the night.
—Dan Solomon, writer-at-large
The Breakthrough, Celebrating Iconoclastic Scientist Jim Allison
Until recently, the story of humanity’s battle against cancer didn’t include Jim Allison. He gets name-checked only once in Stephen S. Hall’s 1997 chronicle of early cancer immunotherapy discoveries, A Commotion in the Blood: Life, Death, and the Immune System, and isn’t mentioned at all in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize–winning history, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. But Allison, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine last year, is now on the Mount Rushmore of cancer researchers, and Bill Haney’s documentary about him, Breakthrough, which premiered last week at SXSW, is the most complete account yet of Allison and his work. (Full disclosure: I am interviewed in the film.) It’s a hard-science subject, but also a breezy watch, taking viewers from Allison’s difficult upbringing in small-town South Texas to the board rooms of the Big Pharma companies he pushed to turn his discoveries into a drug. The story ends in triumph: Allison’s drug begins to save lives, the man himself wins science’s ultimate honor, and as the credits roll, one of the world’s most renowned scientists takes the stage with Willie Nelson to toot out a solo on the harmonica.
—Eric Benson, senior editor
Emily Miller’s Hand-Painted Jackets at Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion
As I wandered through Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion on Thursday, artist Emily Miller immediately caught my eye. At a color-splattered table, she was hand-painting custom designs onto denim jackets. Her selections included recognizable Southwestern scenery like a saguaro cactus under the moonlight, armadillos, and—as a nod to the owner of the ranch—a simply drawn marijuana leaf. The Nashville-based illustrator and street artist also works on a larger scale with murals, tour posters, and album artwork. Her work is whimsical and minimalist, and she often sticks to natural themes like flora and fauna. In the case of my new jean jacket, her drawings are also the perfect way to spice up a staple like denim. Outside of Luck, her offerings also include decorative prints, tote bags, pins, and made-to-order jackets. You can check out her Instagram to track down her pop-up street art in and around Nashville.
—Cat Cardenas, writer-at-large