Jackson Taylor Live at The Mule Barn

Jackson Taylor Live Show at The Mule Barn in Justin, Texas. Justin, Texas is one of those cool little towns with a long, checkered past that pop up by surprise on the two-lane blacktop all over the Lone Star state.  Along with other small but fascinating places like Hico, Gonzales, Stonewall and Goliad, it’s the sort of place you find by accident and then find yourself wanting to stay a spell.  And while many who make the trek to Justin do so for its eponymous boot and western wear outlet, there’s just more to the place.  Not that the deals on boots can be beat, but hey.  You can’t shop all the time.  Sooner or later you need to take a load off, grab a sweaty-cold Lone Star, maybe live a little.  And like most outstanding small towns, Justin’s got a place where you can do just that.

It’s called The Mule Barn, and while predecessor joints have occupied the building, this one just flat out gets it right.  Just a couple miles up FM 156 from the Texas Motor Speedway, the restaurant and bar makes sure to pay homage to its big NASCAR neighbor.  But not in overbearing fashion.  The usual neon beer signs and the Shiner city limits sign that’s ubiquitous in Texas roadhouses these days are all here as well.  But the overall feel, even in the parking lot, is of a simple place where hardworking folks like to gather and listen to some damned good music.  The bar’s calendar stays pretty full, and a mix of Tex-centric artists ranging from bald-assed newcomers to grizzled road veterans keeps the place hopping all week, every week.  Kitchen serves up some grub that’s a solid cut or two above standard bar fare but still nicely in the extremely affordable range.  Cheese fries with onions and jalapenos are outta this world.  And the beer, even in the ungodly huge pitcher-sized schooner, is as cold as can be.  As neighborhood joints go, this one fits perfectly with Justin.

Late January saw the Barn host a Saturday night show with Jackson Taylor’s revamped three-piece band.  It made for a perfect fit.  Taylor’s one of the hardest working guys in the business, and the same goes for the clientele in Justin.  Everybody ready to rowdy it up and cut loose, but nobody out looking for a fight.  Two or three hundred folks over the course of the night, plenty of them drunker’n snot, and not a harsh word anywhere.  Friendly, simple crowd.  Salt of the earth types, and the majority fans of Jackson’s craft.  If Taylor’s gig was still the five-piece balls out arrangement that fueled his career the last few years, maybe the night would’ve played out differently.  But what he’s doing these days is stripping down the sound to make sure his lyrics get heard over the bass and the steel guitar.  A great move, given his past reputation – too many folks got the idea that a Taylor show was just a party orgy.  Sort of like the way too many people think David Allan Coe’s best songs are the ones on the jukebox.  With both those guys, the song’s the thing, and taking the time to listen to what’s being said reaps substantial and unexpected rewards.  Jackson’s new format signals that he understands the need for getting his message out, and allows him to do so masterfully and without losing his trademark high energy live show.  Significant wall of sound coming from three instruments and three mics on the uptempo tracks, but no trouble understanding the vocals.  And the slower, more introspective songs in Taylor’s catalog shine in this format.

The other unexpected yet huge benefit is that the tighter arrangement gives the band an opportunity to go back and mine a lot of early material that fans drawn in by recent success likely aren’t familiar with.  Majority of the set list this particular night was drawn from albums up through Goin’ Down Swingin’, which is now knocking on the door of being ten years old.  Plenty of more recent cuts from the five or six intervening CDs made appearances, but the old stuff that never got airplay in the five-piece ensemble appears to be a focus on this tour.  Meaning that stellar cuts like “Maria” get dusted off and showcased the way they were meant to be heard.  It makes for a fantastic show, the kind you’d expect to see at, say, the dancehall in Luckenbach or maybe outside at Hondo’s on a spring evening.  Neither of which are what you’d normally associate with a date with Jackson Taylor and the Sinners.  The fact that Jack recognizes where he needs to take the music is a strong indicator that his life’s tough road continues to engender maturity.  He’s still an entertainer from hell, but he’s doing it clean these days and with all of the passion but not so much of the anger.  The format, coupled with the venues he’s playing, makes it clear he gets it.  His was never the party band it got labeled as being, at least not to anyone who listened to the words.  But his new take indicates he’s ready to give up the party image as well.  The substance has always been there but it’s a damned sight easier to recognize now.

And it’s a joy to see it showcased in a joint as well run and inviting as The Mule Barn.

Saturday night in Texas, y’all.   The way it’s meant to be.

Hit www.jacksontaylorband.com for info on the music.

Visit www.mulebarntexas.com if you’re in the DFW area and looking for a terrific place to eat, drink, and shoot a little stick while some great music plays.

~ Dave Pilot

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Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs.  When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline.  When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas.

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