DFW Music News

Steve Jackson Steps Down As Host of Opening Bell's Open Mic Night

Steve Jackson is stepping away from his role as a host at an Opening Bell open mic.
Steve Jackson is stepping away from his role as a host at an Opening Bell open mic. Mike Brooks
On June 24, Steve Jackson walked into Opening Bell Coffee in his usual uniform of jeans, shirt and gray golfer hat, lugging his encased acoustic guitar.

He greeted the baristas, pulled up a stool on the corner stage and got to work. First thing on the list, sound check.

The sweet hum of his prize-winning song “Goodnight Moon” filled the basement suite at South Side on Lamar. It was part of his pre-show routine, one he had perfected throughout his 13 years as host of one of the best open mic nights in North Texas — an old-school open mic: "No sign-ups, just come."

At 6 p.m, perched center stage, Jackson kicked off the event with his typical banter. “No guns. No knives. Only bare-knuckle fist-fighting. In the event of a tie, there will be a spelling contest,” Jackson said, just like he had hundreds of times before.

At 6:45 p.m., mid-show, Jackson walked off the stage and handed the mic over to the baristas. As he walked out the door of Opening Bell Coffee for the last time, he finally pressed send on a text he’d long meant to write to Opening Bell Coffee owner Pascale Hall.

“I’m done. I need to move on,” it read.

“I would have loved to have gone out with a bang instead of a whimper, but I feel if I didn't leave then I would be stuck in it for another six or seven months,” Jackson says.

An hour after his abrupt departure, Jackson cemented the end of his tenure with a Facebook announcement.

“It is with immense sadness that I announce that I have stepped down as host for Opening Bell’s open mic,” the post read. “For almost fourteen years, it has been a pleasure to have worked with some of the most amazingly talented artists, but right now, personal health issues will be the focus in my life.”

Since 2009, Jackson has spearheaded Dallas’ longest-running open mic. He’s part of a tradition that’s vital to any thriving music scene, a tradition that gained popularity at Harlem's Apollo Theater and among folk singers in the 1960s. As the musical equivalent of a literary salon, open mics serve as incubators that prepare artists to perform in front of live audiences, allow them to form connections and learn from fellow artists, and to find a place under the wing of mentors such as Jackson.
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A commemorative list of famous performers from Opening Bell's open mic.
Mike Brooks

In Dallas, open mics have been a first stop for aspiring musicians who've gone on to achieve fame and critical success. As one of the most popular open mics, Opening Bell has boosted some of Dallas’ best singer-songwriters. During his time, Jackson hosted countless talented artists who have made a point to come through Opening Bell to perform at open mics and tribute shows.

But the ties are severed. Regulars will no longer see Jackson’s salt-and-peppered head smiling from that corner stage.

“It’s a clean cut, we haven't spoken since,” Jackson says of Hall. “I'm sure that she feels like she's abandoned, but I gave her almost 14 years and 700-plus shows of complete dedication. So, regardless of how it ended, I did everything I could on my end.”

His own passion for music began when he was 5 years old and A Charlie Brown Christmas introduced him to jazz, something he never heard much of in his hometown of Abilene. At 14, Jackson heard The Eagles for the first time and instantly knew he wanted to be a songwriter.

With his mother's encouragement, the teen nurtured his appetite for music. He learned to play instruments by ear, developed a “knack for writing a hook” and began to trust his musical instincts. His mother became his biggest fan. His father became his worst critic.

“My father told me I couldn’t sing worth a damn,” Jackson says.

By adulthood, he was playing lead guitar on stages in Dallas and rubbing elbows with future Dallas icons, including Stevie Ray Vaughan.

“Unless you were really good original artists like Stevie Ray was, you didn't get a chance to play your original stuff at the clubs,” Jackson says. “The clubs just want you to do the covers. I got fed up. As a songwriter, I wanted more out of it.”

In 1981, Jackson walked away from music. The next year, he sold all his equipment except for one guitar. For a quarter century, Jackson confined songwriting to a hobby behind closed doors. Echoes of his father’s criticism ensured the songs stayed buried there.

“I was always very intimidated, even in my own home, about singing because of my father's influence on me. Even without anybody present, I was afraid,” Jackson says. “But when I found that chord structure, it became a beacon for me to use that voice that I had never tried to use before.”

The chord structure was influenced by the ominous Silence of the Lambs theme song. It would become the foundation for Jackson’s “Wicked Web” and the algorithm for his songwriting.

During his reprieve, Jackson accumulated a 14-song collection that would become his 2013 album Goodnight Moon.

Once he showed his music to his friends, they urged him to go to open mics.

Riddled with fear, Jackson returned to the stage in 2006. His first performance was at the former Bend Studio. From that performance on, he was hooked.
The next week, he stepped foot into Opening Bell Coffee for the first time.

“I got up the gumption to go out there and try my hand at it, and the very first person I met was the guy who I took over for,” Jackson says.

Ramon Mallow, known to Dallasites as Mr. Troll, welcomed Jackson into Opening Bell Coffee. The two artists bonded over their “hippie days” and shared stories of their time performing in Dallas and Denton. Before they knew it, both were Opening Bell Coffee hosts.

Six months after Jackson became an open-mic regular, Hall asked Jackson to host open mics at Opening Bell Coffee’s second location at the Mosaic building. Mallow was the host of the South Side location.

Nervously, Jackson accepted. That time was short-lived, however. The Mosaic location dissolved six months later.

“Two days later, [Mallow] called me and said, ‘Hey, I’m about to burn out, can you fill in for me for a couple months?’" Jackson says. "A couple of months turned into 13-plus years.”

Throughout those years, Jackson paved paths for artists by acting as a guide, scout, consultant, matchmaker and liaison in many corners of the industry.

As artists took to the stage, he could pinpoint who would go on to stardom.

“It's just instinct,” Jackson says. “It's just knowing who’s got it, who's got the persona on stage, who's got the writing skills that can put a song together that's catchy, that’s hooky and that people are going to know and are going to be singing next week, not just when they leave the venue.”

The first time he recognized a star, it was Garrett Owen, a folk-rock-country songwriting phenom who came to Opening Bell’s stage for his first open mic ever.

“The kid could play stylized playing, finger picking that was just beyond anything that I had heard from anybody else, and he has this unique voice that really works with a falsetto as well," Jackson says. "And you just knew this kid was going to do something.”

That night, Jackson suggested that Owen visit Poor David’s Pub’s open mic and introduced him to Dallas indie artist Glitter and to producer Taylor Tatsch, who would be instrumental in Owen’s development.

“It’s the end of an era,” Tatsch says of Jackson's departure.

Tatsch was a regular at Opening Bell Coffee before moving to Austin. He produced Jackson’s Goodnight Moon and is set to produce Jackson's impending album, one that has been in the works for eight years. As he did with Owen, Jackson has brokered introductions between Tatsch and other promising artists who have come through Opening Bell’s doors. Tatsch has also produced works for Cameron Matthew Ray and country star Maren Morris.
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Joli Hope performs at a recent open mic night.
Mike Brooks
And while Jackson’s health problems, which he keeps private, were a prominent factor in his decision to step down, it was the loss of camaraderie that came with Tuesday night’s crowd that ultimately lead to his quitting.

“We lost a lot of our regulars,” Jackson says. “We went from being a juggernaut of an open mic, where nobody could knock us down, to basically just another piss-ant open mic.”

After the pandemic lockdown in 2020, Opening Bell Coffee was forced to adjust its store hours to remain viable. That meant closing earlier and moving the open mics to Saturdays.

For over a year, Jackson lobbied for the open mic to return to Tuesdays. The Saturday events, which were meant to be temporary, proved to be too much on his body and meant giving up carpentry jobs he did on the weekends. He estimates a $300 loss in pay every Saturday he would host.

“[Hall] was timid, to say the least, about going back to Tuesday nights,” Jackson says. “When she went back to Thursday nights, ... I was a little less enchanted. When I confronted her about it, she said we may never bring Tuesdays back.”

For Hall, Saturdays are fine. Considering Opening Bell is an all-ages venue, the afternoon event works well for parents and children. She says the artist time slots continue to fill.

“Tuesdays were popular before the pandemic and we attempted going back to Tuesdays for a solid month and people just didn’t come out,” Hall writes in an email to the Observer. “It’s been a very rough two and a half years with this pandemic, and we changed our hours so many times trying to find a good balance. It didn’t make sense to open late on Tuesdays when we close at 3 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays.”

Jackson’s impact goes beyond the basement of the old Sears Roebuck building. As the self-proclaimed Simon Cowell of Dallas music, he spread an invaluable wealth of knowledge that has launched careers and steered artists in the right direction.

Dallas indie pop artist Remy Reilly visited Opening Bell with her father for the first time at the age of 13. Like many other parents of aspiring artists, Reilly's father knew Opening Bell’s open mics were a safe place to introduce children to the music scene, where they could receive constructive criticism and sharpen their skills.

Most young artists are nervous about performing. Jackson calms their fears by welcoming them to the “family” and making sure the audience cheers.

Jackson spotted a star when he hosted Reilly for her first open mic. He knew she was going to “be something,” he says.

By 14, she was a regular, even having a birthday show at Opening Bell.

Reilly recently played her first international show, and she credits Jackson for instilling lessons that have guided her development.

“He would say don't change for other people, and he said that for anything, not even just music, but also friendships, relationships, anything, just always stay true to you,” Reilly says.

Reilly’s father, John Nicholson, chimed in on the Facebook comments under Jackson's parting note. He fondly recalled Jackson's “sour disposition” and the tongue-in-cheek teasing he and Reilly gave to Jackson for his surly tendencies. That disposition, however, melts away as soon as the host warms up to newcomers.

“People he liked, he would kind of harass — he would do that to me on the regular, and I would chase him off,” says singer-songwriter David Crandall. “One day, he came up and did that and I said, ‘That's it!’ I grabbed him and threw him on the ground and kind of roughed him up a little bit. It happened to be right around his 50th birthday. After that, every birthday, he would tell the story to anyone who would listen, that I beat him up on his 50th birthday.”

Jennie Samuell, known musically as Phoenix Hart, has been touched by Jackson’s influence in more ways than one. Jackson is a guiding influence in her worship ministry at The Parks Church in McKinney.

“There's been a lot, even in ministry, that I've gleaned from Steve, and it starts with his love of community building and his selfless desire to constantly lift up those around him first," she says. "He’s given all these artists in Dallas a platform to just be themselves in their own creativity and that has been really important in the Dallas community and the music scene.”

As a mother of four, Samuell appreciates Jackson's mentoring of young artists and credits him for raising her — musically speaking — along with artists such as Glitter and singer-songwriters Josh Cooley and Emmeline Miles.

Jackson gave Miles her first show at Opening Bell alongside Samuell, Cooley, Meredith Dodds and himself. Miles remembers that experience was life-altering.

“It was like someone had set the forest on fire,” Miles says. “All of a sudden, I knew exactly where I needed to go, and exactly who I thought I was, and exactly what I was meant to be doing.”
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Carson Lewis performs at open mic night.
Mike Brooks

For Miles, it was the caliber of the audience that cemented her future. The patrons of Opening Bell were singers, songwriters and artists who shared their vulnerability, refined their craft and celebrated together. Music was the unifying force, Opening Bell was their home and Jackson was the foundation that kept them all steady.

“He's been the father of the musical community at Opening Bell," Miles says. "Everyone knows him, and he knows everybody. He makes those connections."

Today, Miles teaches music to adolescents. Until recently she frequented the open mics with her students to watch the man who ignited her musical passion and to present them with the same opportunity that catapulted her career. She knows that for Jackson, “Everybody’s talent is valid, everyone’s song is valid” and respect is a must.

Through her podcast Journey of a Song, Miles wants to continue building a community centered on songwriting. Jackson was her first invited guest.

It wasn’t only new artists whose sound evolved thanks to Opening Bell's open mic.

“It changed my style more than anything,” Jackson said on the podcast. He diverted from jazz to folk under the influence of Opening Bell regulars. The shift would produce his most celebrated work.

“Some bands who I respect tremendously in the music business around here said that that song ‘Goodnight Moon’ was the best song they’d ever heard by a Dallas songwriter,” Jackson says.

An Opening Bell barista was the muse for “Goodnight Moon,” the single. The song began as a melody that rang out on the stage as Jackson plucked his guitar during down time.

“That sounds like a lullaby,” Jackson remembers her saying. Their many late-night conversations would find their way into Jackson’s 12 meticulous drafts of lyrics for the tune.

The song debuted, unbeknownst to the audience, on Opening Bell’s stage one evening.

Eight years after its release, during the bored days of lockdowns, Jackson says he submitted the song to the Dallas Songwriters Association. In January 2021, the group awarded first place to “Goodnight Moon” in the best singer-songwriter category.

“I think it's my best yet,” Jackson says. “Now I have to try to top that in the back of my mind, and that's my problem. My dedication to open mic put all my stuff on the back burner, so I could put everybody else on the front.”

Tracks are laid out for an upcoming album. They have been, for years. A bout of writer’s block has kept them from seeing the light of day for eight years.

“His dedication to it [open mics] has sometimes led to a bit of a writer's block,” Tatsch says of Jackson. “Hopefully, we can finish this record now that he can focus more fully on it, but it's all just kind of gonna be in his time and what he wants to do.”

The focus is now inward. Jackson is prioritizing finishing his album.

“What I do is write. I'm not going to be a performer. I'm not pretty enough, too old, and my music is meant for a generation that’s dying,” Jackson says while chuckling.

Hall plans to continue the open mics as scheduled on Saturday afternoons. Anticipated rotating hosts include Kristy Kruger, John Lefler, Septien Entertainment, Emmeline Miles and others.

“He's built something bigger than himself that will last long after he has stepped down,” Miles says. “He's instilled in all of us those values of community and encouragement, so that we can continue to pass that on. That doesn't have to die with Steve stepping down. That's something we can all continue to do for each other and for the music industry as a whole.”
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Desiree Gutierrez is a music and culture intern at the Dallas Observer. Equipped with her education from Dallas College Brookhaven Campus and the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism, Desiree has transformed the ability to overthink just about anything into a budding career in journalism.