Jake’s Place in Nederland is a classic Texas beer joint, located near the end of Spurlock Road in a part of town that manages to be both residential and semi-industrial at the same time.
Not to call the place a dive, but it wouldn’t be too surprising to see Guy Fieri show up in his red convertible to film a chapter of his Food Network show “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” though Guy is usually searching for the food offerings of such establishments. The only consumable snacks on display on a recent Friday night were on a small rack of potato chips behind the bar, but on some Wednesdays and Sundays, the customers feast on a classic barbecue spread.
On this night, the Business Journal has come to Jake’s Place in pursuit of a story that combines petrochemical refineries, union electricians and the music business. All those elements come together in the person of David Joel, a country crooner working day and night to feed his family and make his mark in the world.
David Joel Smith, 30, (who drops the Smith onstage) was raised in the west end of Beaumont, and first picked up the guitar at the age of 9. The path to his current dual careers was not smooth in the early days, but he has overcome his troubled youth with hard work, persistence and a little divine intervention.
Things are definitely looking up for Joel, and the good things happening in his life are apparent in his singing, infused with an unmistakable optimism and sunny outlook that sometimes works against his material. For example, the song about a teenage mental patient who just found out his girlfriend committed suicide is a little dark, but Joel somehow manages to make James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” his own while finding optimism somewhere in the lyrics. The world-weary cynicism that haunts so many country ballads seems far away from this promising young singer.
No matter how successful the night’s performance, the next morning finds Joel back on the job. A journeyman electrician with Newtron, Joel leads a crew building a flare gas recovery unit at the Valero refinery in Port Arthur, part of the on-going expansion efforts at this and other plants in the vast petrochemical complex that is the economic lifeblood of the region.
A card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Joel is a graduate of that union’s training facility in Nederland, which has put him in position to earn a good living while he pursues his musical dream.
Ironically, it was David the Electrician who made a connection that has opened an important door for David the Musician.
As Michael Cameron, a principal in the production company Texas Digital Media, tells it, “About five years ago, we had some electrical problems at our studio in Mauriceville. … David Joel was a young guy with a lot of energy – and he figured out the problem that had eluded Entergy and solved it. … He was passionate about helping find the problem, but equally passionate about music.”
With producer Cameron in his corner, Joel made another connection that bodes well for future success. Mindful of the lyric from the group Alabama that says “if you’re gonna play in Texas, you gotta have a fiddle in the band,” it seemed heaven sent when fiddle player David Varnado walked into his life.
A music industry veteran who has homes in Nederland and Nashville, Varnado has performed on the Grand Ole Opry and backed up country stars from Loretta Lynn to Johnny Paaycheck to Sammy Kershaw, Neil McCoy and the late Chris LeDoux.
His partnership with Joel is still in its early stages but showing signs of great promise. At the gig at Jake’s Place, Varnado lays down exquisite fiddle lines while singing harmony and acting as almost a cheerleader for Joel, leading audience participation sing-alongs. The aroused crowd chanted for more at evening’s end, with one enthusiastic imbiber — as always — calling for “Free Bird.” Eager to please, Joel obliged with the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic, though it never sounded quite like this with Vanardo’s wailing fiddle licks laid over churning guitar chords.
Their tour of the bar and restaurant scene has taken the Joel-Varnado duo to Starvin’ Marvins, Thirsty’s, and Fuzzy’s Taco Shop in Nederland. Future gigs range from The Grill in Beaumont, Tequila’s in Port Arthur, and the beer garden tent at the South Texas State Fair in March.
In the meantime, Joel is still channeling electric current and writing songs in preparation for recording an album towards the end of the year. Producer Michael Cameron said it is the logical next step.
“I’m honored to have him as a friend first, and to have had the opportunity to help him on his journey. He has the drive to succeed and the musical prowess to back it up,” said Cameron. “It is my firm belief that David Joel will be a household name soon, and I can say I know him, and call him friend.”
Stranger things have happened.
Business Journal editor James Shannon offers a weekly column of business news for readers of The Examiner. For more details, see the editions of the Business journal published monthly in Beaumont, Port Arthur and Greater Orange. Check out the blog at setxbiz.blogspot.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org