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The 40 Acre Mule Wants to Give You a History Lesson in Rhythm & Blues

Dallas band The 40 Acre Mule released a new album that takes inspiration from the darkest moments in American history.EXPAND
Dallas band The 40 Acre Mule released a new album that takes inspiration from the darkest moments in American history.
Casey Kinney

The 40 Acre Mule is just coming back to Dallas after a short run down I-35, where they played a couple of nights in and around Austin, first at The Continental Club and then at the historic Gruene Hall — which singer and guitarist J. Isaiah Evans says was the best show the band has played so far.

“It was a good dress rehearsal for this Friday,” Evans says, looking forward to the band’s album release show at the Granada, where fans were finally able to get their hands on the long-awaited debut album Goodnight and Good Luck.

Five years in the making, Goodnight and Good Luck is a subtle reference to the lines made famous by Edward R. Murrow as he closed each night of See It Now on CBS.

“I come from a broadcasting background,” Evans says. “It's a saying that always stuck with me, but as far as this album goes, it kind of takes on a different meaning. A lot of the songs are about bad life choices, things we do in the night, things we may regret or things we won't regret. It's kind of a play on that — have a good night, and good luck with whatever trouble you're about to get into.”

Students of American music history will remember that there was a point in time when "rock ‘n’ roll" and "rhythm & blues" referred to the same kind of music, and it's precisely that style of music The 40 Acre Mule is interested in bringing to their audience.

The band is known for its high-energy, high-intensity performances that get audiences to loosen up and get moving. An album filled with raucous tales of one-night stands, pounding murder ballads to cheating women and slow serenades to lovers lost, Goodnight and Good Luck gets back to the roots of R&B where Big Mama Thornton and Big Joe Turner met Chuck Berry and Little Richard.

“That's the stuff my grandfather played,” Evans says. “He grew up in a time where opportunities for musicians of color weren't great. Getting back to that music, and bringing it to an audience of people who aren't aware of what it is, is important to me.”

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Seen in this light, a band name like The 40 Acre Mule, coupled with the kind of music a band with that name plays, recalls a hefty significance for Evans. The music is made to be the background of a good time, but its history should remain in the forefront of the listeners’ minds.

“The 40 Acre Mule is a reference to what we, the free people of color, after the Civil War, were promised as compensation for years and generations of slavery — 40 acres and a mule to work the land,” Evans explains. “Not only was that not nearly enough to make up for it, it never happened. That was supposed to be your opportunity for a second start, to build something of your own. I kind of look at this band as my opportunity to get my piece, to build something that is important to me and to move up.”

Using the band as a vehicle for personal growth, Evans hopes that his presence as the band’s leader inspires audiences to listen even deeper into the music’s sinuous history in the heart of American culture.

“I always knew that this was music that was born of black culture and turned into something else,” Evans says. “If I can, as a black man, tell the story of the roots of this music and where it comes from and how people appreciate what it is, I'll wear that crown anytime. It's important that people know that this music is what created rock ‘n’ roll. If that story is still from somebody that is not black, then I don't know if it's received as well, frankly.”

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