Singing electrician galvanizes

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 or e-mail

KSET goes silent

Radio station KSET, the Beaumont news-talk outlet that broadcasts at 1300 AM, has gone silent. A hastily scribbled note posted on the door of the KSET studio at 5550 Eastex Freeway read “KSET RADIO HAS TEMPORARILY SUSPENDED OPERATIONS. OWNER HAS TAKEN OVER MANAGEMENT.” A second note provided employees an address to e-mail their timecards.

These events took place with no apparent warning on the morning of Monday, Jan. 16. An episode of the syndicated Dennis Miller Show was being re-broadcast, but the station went silent by mid-day.

Lee Melton, general sales manager for KSET, told the Business Journal, “It kind of came as a shock this morning. I got a phone call from one of my producers trying to get into the radio station.”

Melton said station owner William Hill “has changed the locks, and I have no idea what is happening. The entire crew, every employee including myself, was locked out as of this morning.”

Attempts to reach Hill were unsuccessful. A source that did not wish to be identified for this story told the Business Journal that Hill had battled health problems in recent months. According to the source, “Mr. Hill said he was going to put the station up for sale and suspended operations to conduct an audit” in order to effect such a sale. The source declined to provide direct contact information for Hill.

“Only William Hill knows where KSET is going at this point,” said Melton. “I’ve been trying to contact my advertisers and let them know. Obviously we had things on the books ready to run.”
In a little more than two years on the air, KSET had established a reputation for broadcasting local news and talk programming. The Dennis Miller Show was one of the few syndicated offerings on KSET, compared to the dominant Clear Channel station KLVI, whose daily programming hours were dominated by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
While Melton expressed surprise at the shutdown, others said they saw signs of trouble at the station in recent weeks.

James Dabney, who had hosted In the House with James and Julie from 5 to 9 a.m. five days a week with his wife, said he had no idea KSET was about to suspend operations when he made the decision to leave the station.

“We did our last show on Thursday, Jan. 12,” Dabney said. “About three months ago, I told Julie I’ve got a bad feeling; something’s not right. For example, the equipment in the place was literally just falling apart and there were other issues, financial issues.”

Dabney said he told his advertisers in advance he was not renewing their contracts because he had decided to leave KSET but that all of his advertisers received all the spots they had paid for by Jan. 12.

“I told all my folks I wanted to be on the radio; I hate that we’re not, but I had concerns about what was going on and didn’t want to be (on KSET) anymore,” he said.

Citing on-going financial issues at KSET, Dabney said, “I’ve been in business all my adult life and the bottom line is when there’s no money, something’s real wrong because we had plenty of sponsors; I had sponsors and I’m sure the other shows did and the commercial breaks just seemed to get longer, yet where’s the money?”

Speculation over whether Hill was planning to sell the radio station or bring in another management group was not grounded in any verifiable facts at press time.

Melton said that decision rested with one man.

“William Hill, at the end of the day, owns the license; he owns KSET, and if he chooses to take it off the air or sell it to somebody else, he’s got that right every day of the week,” he said.

— James Shannon

Fuzzy’s Taco Shop targets Beaumont

Fuzzy’s Taco Shop has arrived in Beaumont. Greg Lee, whose restaurant resumé includes Sonic, and Chuck McCarty, who has Chicken Express outlets here, are partners in Baja Tacos Amigos 1 LLC. They have acquired franchise rights to build and operate Fuzzy’s Taco Shops in Jefferson County and the cities of Galveston and Lake Charles, La. The first Fuzzy’s in Southeast Texas actually opened its doors last June in Nederland and has already built a loyal customer base for spicy tacos, cold beer and its trademark margaritas. Now the company has targeted Beaumont for its next outlet, planning a Jan. 18 opening next door to Sertino’s in the Gander Mountain shopping center on Eastex Freeway in Beaumont.

Chef Paul Willis created and opened the original Fuzzy’s Taco Shop near Texas Christian University in 2001 with a menu that boasted Baja-style Mexican food. Billed as the home of the original fish tacos, Fuzzy’s tacos can be ordered soft or crispy, with fish, shrimp, beef, pork or vegetables — and extras such as feta cheese, garlic sauce and an optional habeñero kick.

Fuzzy’s Taco Shop’s corporate-owned and franchise locations are now serving fresh, handmade Baja-style Mexican food across seven states – the new Beaumont location is the 50th store in the burgeoning chain.

In an interview, Lee said the partners’ second area “location will be about the same size as Nederland – about 200 square feet smaller – but will have a larger patio.”

Operations at the Nederland store indicate Fuzzy’s marketing efforts are conducted on multiple levels. As a family-friendly restaurant, they offered specials in October designed to attract that demographic, with Sundays featuring $1 off any plate dinner and free food for kids – a meal from the Kid’s Menu with the purchase of an adult meal.

All Fuzzy’s locations offer indoor and patio seating where their food specialties including fish tacos, burritos, nachos, queso and ice-cold beer are served. The intent is to create an atmosphere that is “bright, fun and energetic – perfect for gathering with friends and family to watch a game, enjoy a beer or margarita, or just hang out.”

H2O Seafood and Grill opens

The new H2O Seafood and Grill restaurant at 7675 Memorial Blvd. in Port Arthur quietly opened in December and is already making a splash on the local restaurant scene. The location is in front of the Medical Center of Southeast Texas, sharing a strip center with Sertino’s and the King Buffet, but the space created where the old bookstore once operated is a cut above. A dining room that seats 195 is dominated by a curving glass wall that separates the bar area with an elegant waterfall and complements a décor that manages to be simultaneously futuristic and inviting.

Owner Sam You is a restaurant industry veteran who spent more than 20 years running the family-owned China Inn in nearby Groves. With pain-staking attention to detail, You worked for more than a year to make his new restaurant a reality, sparing no expense to create an upscale dining experience he can deliver at affordable prices.

Despite the high style of the H2O interior, You knew he would ultimately be judged by what comes out of the kitchen – and early reports are very good indeed.

Executive chef Wayne Kung, most recently with Ruth Chris Steak House in San Antonio, is delivering on the promise of freshness, quality and expert preparation with highlights including blackened red snapper, crab cakes and jumbo shrimp.

Fresh Gulf seafood sets the tone for the menu, but it’s clear H2O’s philosophy is to do whatever needs to be done to meet exacting standards.