Jackson Hall And The Mules
by Tim Murr
Like so many things, it begins with Lou Reed. When you come from a small southern town, and you are the only one who has a Velvet Underground tape, you feel like you're in some kind of secret club. You only let in your closest, most trusted friends, and then you smile at each other, because you know something all these small minded people will never know.
When Jackson Hall first got his hands on a copy of The Best Of the Velvet Underground: The Words And Music Of Lou Reed, a whole new world of possibilities opened up and the seeds of everything he was to do in his life were planted in that moment.
In Kingston Tennessee there wasn't much to make you feel desperate. But "Run Run Run" made him feel desperate to get out and do something great. "White Light White Heat" was a revelation and "Sweet Jane" was the standard by which all other music was to be judged.
But Lou and the Velvets were only the first piece to the puzzle. As the end of high school neared and more people came into Jackson's life the game changed and bent around the new rules and head trips of the other individuals, who were enlightened (and being enlightened was a prerequisite of the game). Slim Sartoris was two years younger than Jackson, but in him, Jackson found his first real musical partner. Someone who got it. Scottsburg Jonze was two years older, and was indeed wiser. Very quiet, very mature.
Jackson, Slim, and Scotts formed several short lived bands that were destined for failure from the get go, because where they were coming from was not a place many others were coming from. Not in Kingston Tennessee, anyway. Rock, country, punk, soul, jazz, and blues were not separate genres in their hands or heads. Everything was up for grabs and everything was possible.
In the mid 90's the trio came close with a group called The Middle Class Pop Explosion. Their live shows were a test of endurance, for the band and the audience. (For a New Year's Eve performance, they learned 50 covers, on top of ten originals, and played nonstop for 4 hours). MCPE had no concept of limitations. They took on all genres, including many jazz standards that would leave many pop bands scratching their heads at all the chord changes. These would be followed by a two and a half minute blast of power pop soul. Every show opened with "Sweet Jane" and within a year it was almost the only cover they ever did.
What made MCPE so exciting to listen to made them impossible to sell. They were part of no genre, and didn't fit in with any other band in the Knoxville music scene. On top of that, their timing was poor.
Knoxville was forty minutes from Kingston, and was the third largest city in Tennessee. But for it's size, it may as well be a small town, because its downtown is empty and there are few places for a small band to play. When MCPE first came to Knoxville most of the local bands were moving away or breaking up. Contacts never lasted or helped, and the band found themselves playing to a handful of people on the porch of a local coffee shop.
Frustrations were high, and with six individuals with their own ideas about music and the direction the band should go in, it was only a matter of time before things fell apart.
MCPE's last show came one September night in '96. It was a porch show at the Java Hut, and was in front of a crowd of about thirty people. Half the band, including Jackson, Scotts, and Slim weren't even speaking. There had been some heated debates about the number of jazz instrumentals and the lyrical content of Jackson's songs. No one was happy and everyone wanted to quit, but no one wanted to say so. It was a hard decision considering how hard they'd worked. One unreleased album, and a single getting sparse airplay on a local station showed so much potential, but the band was growing apart.
Jackson made the decision in the middle of the second set. He dropped the mic and walked away. Scotts followed. The rest of the band jammed on the same song for two hours, until the entire audience got pissed and left. The group met at Krystal's later that night, without Jackson, and decided not to carry on. Feelings were pretty well damaged.
Slim and Scotts formed a jazz combo with the drummer and bass player from MCPE, but Scotts soon left the group, and for a while had very little contact with any one.
Jackson knocked around Knoxville for a few months, seeing Slim on occasion, but no music was made between the two and they didn't talk about forming another band. Then out of the blue, Jackson announced he was leaving for Boston. He had been accepted to an art school up there. It was a shock to all his friends, because everyone wanted to leave, but no one ever thought they would, and then he was.
For the next six years Jackson drank to oblivion in the bars of Boston, living the life of an artist with a lust for life and a death wish. Many nights were whiskey soaked bad noise kinda drunks, knocking back drink after drink at The Model or The Silhouette then rampaging through the streets back to his Brighton apartment with his new friends in tow, who were all as bad of drunks as he was. Most nights he wound up in the living room playing country songs on his acoustic guitar, everyone singing songs that they only knew through him. Songs by George Jones, Hank Williams, and Merle Haggard.
Jackson formed a rowdy honky tonk band with a few musicians he'd met around Allston. He finally had an outlet for all the new songs he had been writing, but the band was short lived. They played one legendary house show in someone's basement, playing a set of genuine country at punk velocity, thrilling the packed room. The show was a sloppy drunken mess, but so fucking fun that people were talking about it for weeks. But, for whatever reason, the band only played once more. A wedding reception for Jackson's best friend. The families of the newlyweds were a bit dumbstruck. One more fucked up, drunk legend.
Boston took its toll on Jackson's health, far greater than he'd ever admit, and by 2000 it was time to get the hell out. All the fun had gone out of the all night drunken parties and things began to get dark. One of his closest friends was flirting with suicide, and one night after drinking a handle of Jim Beam, ran into the Devil on his way to the bathroom. The Devil told him to kill someone, and he shared this with Jackson. Jackson talked him down and no one died, but it was a sign that it was time to go.
In the mean time, Slim continued to make a go at jazz, playing anywhere he could with any group. He wound up studying under an old pianist, who'd played with Art Blakey. Slim had dropped guitar and switched to piano. In two years he was better at piano than he was at guitar after six years.
Slim immersed himself into the jazz program at the University of Tennessee and began composing. He was living off student loans, what little he made off playing gigs, and selling his blood. He was selling his blood at least once a week and his arm began to develop track marks, which raised some eyebrows. But nothing was going into his veins, just down his throat or up his nose. Old Crow whiskey was his weapon of choice, and crank was cheap and easy to get. The summer of '98 he dropped acid for the first time and it was a thrilling experience, but he only tripped once more. But what was most common was cough syrup. He often drank one or two bottles a night, and listened intently to avant gard jazz and classical music. He also listened intently to Jerry Lee Lewis, the Killer.
But by 2000, life was taking its toll on Slim as well and he began to clean up and concentrate more on playing and finding paying gigs.
Scotts seemingly dropped off the face of the planet for a while. No one really knew what was happening with him in the years that followed the break up of MCPE. But he was around, making ends meet and attending classes.
Jackson left Boston with a degree from the Art Institute of Boston, a bad headache, and a yearning to be back home in the south. But Knoxville was not in his future. He blew through Tennessee without stopping, and settled in Atlanta.
Atlanta proved to be anything but what he was looking for, and after a year he was moving again. This time to Chapel Hill, NC, determined to make the music thing happen. He began prowling the clubs and bars looking for other like minded musicians and artists. And he found plenty; unfortunately they all had something happening, with no room for a side project. Jackson would be damned if he was going to be anyone's side project any damned way. Besides, there was something else nagging his heart; he missed his boys.
He contacted Slim and Scotts, and they mended broken fences and quickly began serious talks about forming another band. Jackson's more recent songs had more of a country bend to them, but that didn't deter the other two. They moved to Chapel Hill and began writing, arranging and recording the new music.
After a solid year of writing and jamming, almost nightly, the thirteen songs that would make up their first album, Found Fenario, took shape and were a force to be reckoned with. The fusion of soul, blues, and country ran the gamut of emotions-from heart breaking to humorous, from rowdy to compassionate. It is inspirational music from the American heartland. It is also, and maybe most importantly, uplifting music- as much from the heart as from the gut.
You hear Jackson and the Mules and you feel all right. Hell, you feel damn good. Popular music doesn't sound like this, but life changing music does. Three chords are a powerful weapon in the right hands. I can imagine some thirteen year old kid, with a shit eating grin, hearing the Mules for the first time twenty years from now and suddenly feeling like he's smarter than everyone else, because he knows about this band, and they don't.
Check out the artist's website:
1. She Came To Me
2. Wrap This Song
3. Bad Cloud
4. Mexico (From Our Hotel Room)
5. Ima Stagger Lee
6. Ocean 13
7. Nervous Smile
8. Cigarettes On The Ground
9. TN Blue
10. You're Talkin' Crazy
11. Blame It On Your Blue Eyes
12. When I Find It
14. Another Goodbye