Let’s Spread The Word: The Mule and Beyond
By Danny R. Phillips
Life takes a person too many different places in their journey; passed tears, smiles, excited success and crushing, disappointing failure. In my years as a journalist in St. Joseph, spent writing about the music and people that make up our beloved music community, I have seen both success and loss. I have had the privilege of getting to know the people on the stage or leaning with an acoustic guitar in the corner of the bar. Once, they were locals happy that someone noticed what was happening, noticing the music they came to create. In addition, it all started, in my twisted opinion, with The Mule.
When I began writing professionally, (some would argue with the “professional” distinction) in 1999 or 2000, I do not know the exact year, a lifetime of trials, travails, joy and sadness, have flowed below the bridge of my life since. Whatever the year, I picked up the first edition of the Mule outside of East Hills Mall, read that first issue, I decided in my youthful arrogance, that I could write a better music review than the guy with the name R# (sorry Randy) so, I contacted the editor Clay Johnston, boasted that I could do better and he challenged me. I hung up the phone, wrote a review and have been in all but five editions for The Mule and all its incarnations From The Mule News and today with The Regular Joe. What began with that reading and the subsequent phone call set me on a course to becoming the “professional” music critic I am today.
My point, hidden within the jungle of verbal ego stroking, is that The Mule, along with The Regular Joe, Tuning Fork, vocals on top (www.vocalsontop.com, a website devoted to music, ran by record collector/music journalist Clint Weiderholt) all had or have had a hand in the cultivation of the scene. In a wider reader based, more far reaching manner, The St. Joseph News Press’ Off Hours, then St. Joe Live!, were the first look that many outside of the music scene got of the music community growing up under their very noses. My first interview was the band Alice, an interview that started my writing career, and from there I met people in the scene that would become my good friends or enemies, depending on who you ask.
There have not been many “alternative” publications in St. Joseph and, I am sure that many people forget that The Mule/Mule News ever existed but certainly, those that followed the paper or appeared in its pages, used it as a guideline to their Saturday night. Before The St. Joe Live! Tuning Fork or anything of the like either existed or gave a crap for the music, bands and art was in the air; it’s just that very few heard the sound. The Mule (the earliest such publication in St. Joseph, I may be wrong) was the first to give bands like Ramey Memo, The Waystation, The Rogers, Full Power, Hooray for Me, The Belt Highway and other bands of the like, any exposure at all.
Many bands were covered by early publications that the mainstream media in St. Joseph avoided, ignored or simply, never cared about. Was Marc Darnell’s crazy ass self ever covered in “the real paper” when The Rogers were putting on phenomenal shows at The Rendezvous to packed houses twice a month? Perhaps but probably not.
When Todd Long shaved his head and painted it blue for a scorching set at a The Waystation performance at Felix Street Square, was mainstream media there? Most likely, not; did the alternative publications write about it? Yes, all day long, a lot and often. Those so-called second tier publications were a key to different places, where bands were pushing boundaries, looking for a place to thrive.
“I think it (The Mule) lit up the music scene and paved the way for other alternative publications.” Said former Mule/Mule News writer, owner Jack of All Trades Marla McElvain. McElvain, who started out as an ad exec that would ultimately end her tenure there as owner. She did not mix words, “Before The Mule News there was only news.”
Local musician Peter Shapiro (The Great Northern/The Belt Highway/Bear in the Ball Pit/Airport Novels and many others) remembers the days of The Mule fondly. “The Mule covered the growing local scene,” he continued, “It and The Regular Joe were an invaluable resource for blurbs and write ups to pad a press kit for bands like mine trying to get their foot in the door or book out of town shows.” He added, “The Mule treated all artists fairly whether you were straight out of the garage or had a ton of experience under their belt. The Mule gave people options and exposure to what was going on, it was business casual; it was an entertainment paper geared more to the reader, the fan than musicians.”
As for events, I believe The Mule (and now The Regular Joe, Tuning Fork and The St. Joseph Music Foundation) made and make a genuine effort to bring bands into town, to put on shows and festivals; to highlight local talent and make an exerted effort to build and foster a growing and thriving music scene in our city. “Alternative publications” in St. Joseph have been at the forefront of displaying bands and local music for years now; ready to talk to bands and give them love. Blowing up huge, the band of brothers Radkey got their first or second bit of press thanks to my pen and the pages of The Regular Joe. Scruffy and the Janitors are poised to break big with their upcoming album, had their first tastes of written notoriety within the sometimes-crumpled pages of Tuning Fork and The Regular Joe.
Now, with local online publications like Vocals on Top, The St. Joseph Post, The St. Joseph Telegraph and through the St. Joseph Music Foundation supported FM radio station 99.3 KFOH; and the St. Joseph News-Press now paying attention to and giving regular, solid coverage to local bands, it is a great time for both music and the written word in St. Joseph.
I’m not saying that the music scene in St. Joseph, MO would not exist without these publications and many more I’ve most certainly forgotten or simply omitted due to lack of knowledge. What I am saying is this: without those publications to push, cajole and help drive the thriving scenes of the late nineties, the always moving, always exciting days of The Rendezvous and the alternative music flavored surge of the early 2000s, those bands, those talented musicians, those helping to be the beating heart of the beast, few outside of those circles, may never have known this part of the city’s history.
Maybe I am naïve, maybe I am foolish for putting this much time and energy into writing about a part of the music scene few may remember, I do not know. What I do know is that the people like myself that were/are involved in publications like The Regular Joe, Tuning Fork and the sadly long expired Mule News have some great, some not so great memories of those days. I am proud of being a music man for those publications, I am proud of the place they carved out in the community. Moreover, I’m proud to see it all, like clockwork, happening again.
DANNY R. PHILLIPS
Let’s Spread The Word: The Mule and Beyond