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Steve Jackson Looks Back on His 500 Open Mics at Opening Bell Coffee

Steve Jackson is coming up on his 500th open mic at Opening Bell Coffee.
Steve Jackson is coming up on his 500th open mic at Opening Bell Coffee. Jacob Vaughn

Every Tuesday morning, Steve Jackson gets out of bed and conjures up some clever way of reminding performers of Opening Bell Coffee’s open mic night.

“I think my best one was based on the soliloquy from Field of Dreams,” Jackson says.

“People will come Ray. They’ll come to Southside on Lamar for reasons they can’t even fathom,” the Facebook post goes on.

He then works a long day at his construction company, Innovative Renovations, turning things that "look like shit" into something that looks cool, he says. It’s fun but also physically demanding. He hits the road with just enough time to make it to Opening Bell Coffee at about 6:15 p.m. to start setting up for the longest-running open mic night in DFW. It has seen the likes of Leon Bridges, Charley Crockett and others — many who have gone on to compete on NBC's The Voice.

Coffee grinding, people talking and music playing over the PA fills the coffee shop as Jackson walks in.

He’s usually wearing a golfers hat, jeans and a T-shirt as he carries his acoustic guitar in its case to the stage. He stops to talk to the baristas and employees who have come and gone since he started playing at Opening Bell in 2006. By this time, singer-songwriters are among Opening Bell’s patrons. They are early. They know if they show up late, they won't get a good spot in the lineup. Worse, if they are too late, they won't get a spot at all.

Jackson does a quick sound check, often playing one of his original songs and getting an applause before the open mic even begins. He sets a black composition notebook on one of the shop’s tables at 6:30 p.m. for eager performers to lock down their set.

Thirty minutes later, he gives the performers the rundown for the night — who will play and in what order. Then, with a Texas twang, he tells them the rules. Performers get two songs apiece. No backing tracks. If everyone on the list has played before 10 p.m., the list will start over. He ends with a kicker and introduces the first act of the night.

“No guns. No knives. Only bare-knuckle fist fighting,” Jackson says. “In the event of a tie, there will be a spelling contest.”

Nov. 20 will likely be the same as any other Tuesday.

Jackson says he is generally good with dates. Now a pretty straight-edge guy, he knew Nov. 27 would mark 33 years since he quit drinking. July 15 marked 30 years since he quit smoking cigarettes. His 10-year anniversary at Opening Bell is coming up in May. However, it was not until someone asked that he thought about how many open mics he had actually hosted.

By his calculations, Nov. 20 will be the 500th.

Since taking over the open mic night, Jackson has become well known and loved by the music community, Pascale Hall, owner of Opening Bell, says.

“He is a vital part of giving new musicians a chance to play bigger shows, their own shows and opening for larger acts that play Opening Bell Coffee." – Pascale Hall

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“He is a vital part of giving new musicians a chance to play bigger shows, their own shows and opening for larger acts that play Opening Bell Coffee,” Hall says. “It just keeps growing and getting better. The caliber of talent is off the charts.”

Many artists who have passed through Opening Bell’s open mic night have gone on to become fairly successful. Garrett Owen, a local singer-songwriter who was nominated for four Dallas Observer Music Awards last year, played his first open mic at Opening Bell Coffee.

Jackson was so impressed with Owen that he introduced him to a few people and other open mics and he started to take off, he says. Jackson introduced Owen to Taylor Tatsch, then a Fort Worth producer, who Owen later went on to record an album with.

“Three or four weeks later, a man I’d known for years calls me up asking me if his son could come down and play,” Jackson recalls. “He had fancied himself a singer-songwriter. I said ‘Sure.’ The kid stayed after it and today, everybody knows him as Charley Crockett.”

Jackson says he never thought about his role in the music scene. He always just considered himself an open mic host. But people think he is much more than that. He's the first line of discovery.

“When somebody talks to me and says, ‘I’d like to put an album out, I just don’t know where to go,’ I’ll direct them to the producers who I think will do the best,” Jackson says.

If Jackson had fully given up on music and sold his last guitar, like he was considering in 1992, things would be different for him today. He would probably spend his Tuesday nights at home, resting from a day's work at his construction job.

click to enlarge JACOB VAUGHN
Jacob Vaughn

Eleven years after Jackson decided to stop performing, after he sold all of his music gear (with the exception of one guitar) for a hefty profit, after he decided to devote his time to his new business, he was sitting on his couch watching the Oscars.

He was starting to believe what his father, a craftsman who installed flooring, told him all his life.

“You can learn to play the guitar, but you’re never going to be able to sing,” his father would tell him.

“Everything he said was in my head,” Jackson says.

However, Silence of the Lambs was winning award after award. Every time it won, the main theme song for the movie would play. He grabbed his acoustic guitar and began picking out the notes to the haunting tune. They became the chord structure for his song “Wicked Web.”

“I started working on this music, and all of a sudden I started moving my fingers around in different places," Jackson says. "All of it was basically Silence of the Lambs. I had a newfound love for what I was doing.”

The song from the movie helped rekindle Jackson's passion for music that was just about dead. He showed his friends the new songs he had been writing, and they told him he had to get back on stage. They introduced him to a couple open mics in the area. He was scared as he stepped onstage to end his long break from performing.

"Scared shitless," he says.

But Jackson fell in love with it.

At the time, Opening Bell Coffee had two locations. The one everyone knows is in the Southside on Lamar building. The other was at the Mosaic in downtown, which opened in 2008.

Jackson says the first couple of years he went to Opening Bell’s Southside location, there was a sense of familiarity. When he was younger, his father would take him on construction jobs. One of the first he was taken on was at Southside. It used to be an old Sears building. He says he can still remember pulling up to the building in his father’s car.

After becoming a regular open mic’er, Hall asked Jackson to start hosting at her other location. Jackson’s time there was short-lived.

“The Mosaic just didn’t have the vibe that the Southside location has, and so we parted ways,” Hall says.

Hall told Jackson the situation and that the next week’s open mic night would be the last at the Mosaic. Shortly after, Ramon Mallow, who hosted at the Southside location, called Jackson to see if he could take over for a couple months. Mallow was getting burned out. A couple months turned into 10 years and now, Jackson says he would not want to spend his Tuesdays any other way.

When he first started, a busy open mic night included 12 to 14 people. Now, a busy night is 20 to 25 performers, Jackson says.

He’s met many longtime friends through his time hosting at Opening Bell, such as Dave Crandall, a local singer-songwriter and bassist. Crandall has become a regular over the years, playing funky satirical songs on his handmade guitar. Whenever Crandall plays, Jackson loves to watch the audience.

“When he does that song ‘Puppy Love' that has that part where he goes, ‘I like pussy – cats, but they don’t all like you back,’ I will watch the audience just to see their reaction,” Jackson says.

For a while, there was a powerhouse of regular performers Jackson could expect to see at Opening Bell.

When Drugstore Cowboy, a local coffee shop, opened and started a competing open mic night, which took place around the same time as Opening Bell’s, the powerhouse performers left Jackson behind.

“It went from one week having 24 performers, to having 12 the next,” Jackson says.

It hurt, he says. For a period, he thought he had outgrown his youthfulness. But it soon picked back up. About a year later, one of the old regulars asked Jackson if he was mad at everyone for leaving.

“I missed you guys, but that’s about it,” Jackson told the performer at the time.

Drugstore ultimately closed down in July and soon the old regulars began heading back to Opening Bell.

“You have people that try to knock you off since you’ve been there the longest,” Jackson says. “But I don’t think we’ll go anywhere.”

“You have people that try to knock you off since you’ve been there the longest. But I don’t think we’ll go anywhere.” – Steve Jackson

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Fourteen songs Jackson had written in his 25-year break from performing later turned into his album Goodnight Moon. When the album was finished, Jackson’s guitar player said he thought all the songs were about the same woman – a woman Jackson had an affair with years prior.

“I said, ‘They’re not. They’re about six different women,’” Jackson says. “He was blown away by that, and I was like, ‘I’ve got about 300 others I could write about.’”

Zach Balch and Karyna Micaela were both featured on the album. They lived in the Southside building and Micaela, who is now Balch’s wife, used to work at Opening Bell. The open mic night was the first they had heard of outside of Denton. After becoming regular performers at the open mic night, Jackson paid them to work on his album.

“Steve is a sharpening tool for local singer-songwriters,” Balch says. “A tastemaker. A gatekeeper.”

Now a freelance producer and recording engineer, Balch gets suggestions from Jackson regarding artists passing through Opening Bell who he should work with. The latest is Kyle Sturrock, a local singer-songwriter regularly featured at Jackson’s open mic night.

“If people learn to recognize who has helped guide their steps, he will be remembered as a very influential person for the singer-songwriter scene,” Balch says. “He’s seen all of us come through. He is a common thread in the fabric of our network.”

Today, Jackson does not perform much outside of open mic. He says the majority of the people who listen to his music are middle-aged. Balch says his music is like the Bee Gees played folk music. His fans would likely not drive down to Deep Ellum if he pursued shows at places like The Bomb Factory or Trees, Jackson says.

Instead, his music career primarily consists of recording his new album, which began production in 2014. Like Goodnight Moon, producer Tatsch and Balch are both involved. But unlike his first album, this one is not about his relationship with women.

A few songs on the album are about Jackson’s parents. While he was able to impress his mother all his life, Jackson says he could never impress his father.

Jackson tells a story about visiting his father in a nursing home in 2006. It was just a couple months after playing his first open mic at Opening Bell. His mother had died years before, and his father’s mind was riddled with Alzheimer’s disease. Protein fragments had accumulated to form hard, insoluble plaques in between neurons in his brain.

click to enlarge Steve Jackson and his dad - COURTESY STEVE JACKSON
Steve Jackson and his dad
courtesy Steve Jackson

In his father’s room, images of past memories hung on the wall. Jackson tried to talk to his father about them. A lot of them, he could not remember the time, place or circumstance in which they were taken, Jackson says. He says his memory of his father revolves mostly around how he could not remember things like he used to.

On his way home, he tried to imagine a conversation his parents might have had were his mother still alive. This turned into one of the songs on his new album. Most of the tracking for the album is done, Tatsch says, but Jackson has not settled on the lyrics yet.

“He took a long time to write [Goodnight Moon], so it took a little less time to record it,” Tatsche says. “Since he’s so meticulous on his lyrics and the content of the record, it’s taking a little longer this time.”

Tatsch says they are rounding third base on the new album, and thinks it could be done by this time next year. What he hopes to see is for this record to come out, followed by some release shows and airtime. In the end, however, he thinks Jackson wants to sell his songs.

“He wants to sell himself as a songwriter, and either have someone else sing these songs or have these songs appear in some other way, shape or form,” Tatsche says.

Jackson says he still has deep-seeded doubts about what he does creatively because of his father. But it didn’t have to be this way.

His father did not think he could sing a lick, Jackson says. He always took this to heart but he knew more than he let on. After a scare with his father’s health, Jackson and his sister talked.

“She said, ‘That’s where you get your love for music from,’" Jackson recalls. "I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘Pop’s used to be a singer.’ I was stunned."

He was part of a vocal quartet in the ’30s and a father by the time he was 20. The man had eight children, Jackson says. Singing was never going to make him any money and by the time Jackson found out, his father’s memory of his singing past was limited at best.

“It was something I never knew about my father until far too late in life,” Jackson says.

“It was something I never knew about my father until far too late in life." – Steve Jackson

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Jackson’s father died in 2010 and would have been 100 years old this year. His mother died about seven years earlier.

He does not know why his father never told him about the vocal quartet. It would have made a difference in their relationship, Jackson says, giving him more self-confidence. His mother remained the only one who believed in what he loved.

Jackson says you never know what is going to transpire to put you where you are. He just drifts with the current. So, maybe it was all for the best.

Jackson is getting older and he believes eventually people will want someone young and hip to host Opening Bell’s open mic. Until then, however, anyone looking for him will know where to find him Tuesday nights. He will be the one helping to introduce the world to some of the best singer-songwriters in North Texas.
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn