The Road from College

Dallas, and SMU, favorite Jackopierce gets a call to the big leagues, and answers

You never know when that phone call's going to come that'll change your life. Even if the call isn't to you.

That's what Jack O'Neill and Cary Pierce -- the "Jack" and the "Pierce" of Dallas band Jackopierce -- discovered about a year and a half ago when they were, like they've been for much of the '90s, on the road. Little Sister, another Dallas band that distributed its independent recordings through the same company as Jackopierce, was in the middle of a major label deal, and their lawyer would call up the distributor regularly to check on sales figures. When he'd wrapped up his Little Sister business, he thought to ask what other Dallas bands seemed hot.

"And the distributor said, Jackopierce, they're by far our best seller. His call was on a Monday, and just by coincidence we were playing that Wednesday in Nashville, where he was located. So he came to see us and he couldn't even get in the front door. There were like 300 people in line, and he immediately knew that we were someone he wanted to work with," says Cary Pierce. "And he opened up the industry to us. He started sending our tapes around, and before we knew it, we had all sorts of people knocking on our door."

Pierce is on the line from Dallas, where he's sitting in the offices of A&M Records, the door knock that Jackopierce chose to answer. Though he wants to talk about his upcoming date in Houston, and the grueling year he and partner Jack O'Neill have just completed pushing their first big label release, Bringing On the Weather, he can't quite tear himself away from going over what a difference it makes to have a large corporation behind you and pushing. "We hadn't been trying to solicit anybody, we just didn't want to bother anybody bigger than us, because we just figured, hey. We play, people come, we go back, more people come, they get on a mailing list, they buy our records," Pierce says. But with A&M "we were given the opportunity to do things we'd never done. We'd meet up with distributors and all that major label stuff. A&M would have a breakfast, and we'd come out and play for program directors of major radio stations, something we'd never even thought about before."

What Pierce and O'Neill had also never thought about before was ending up on a national TV show -- Late Night With Conan O'Brien -- or recording under the direction of T Bone Burnett, who'd worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to Bono and produced acclaimed albums for Los Lobos and Elvis Costello, among others. In late '93, A&M sent their newly signed Dallas pair to Los Angeles, where for eight weeks they labored with Burnett, getting a crash course in what being in the big leagues is all about. Burnett fleshed out their sound and pushed the two into working more closely together, something Pierce says resulted in considerably stronger songs. There was a certain Texas tie -- Burnett is originally from Fort Worth -- and that may have helped smooth relations between the established pro and the newcomers.

Of course, "newcomers" is a relative term, and by the time Jackopierce ended up in an L.A. studio, they'd already recorded three CDs of their own, as well as a kickoff cassette that's no longer available, and settled into a relatively successful college circuit that stretched from Southern Methodist University, where the pair had met, across the country and up the East Coast to Boston. In the early '90s, Jackopierce was one of the most popular bands in Dallas. After breaking from the cover band scene in the late '80s, they'd gained a strong following of Texas yuppie college kids. Clean-cut SMU students themselves at the time, O'Neill and Pierce regularly sold out shows at venues such as Trees in the Deep Ellum area. Their blend of acoustic rock/folk -- kind of like a male version of the Indigo Girls with a sensitive frat boy angle -- gained a similar following on the road.

Recollecting the early days of Jackopierce, Pierce frankly states that "we sucked ... we were bad. We'd try anything to not be bad." Pierce formed the band with O'Neill in September 1988, doing "the standard two guys playing acoustic guitars" thing in small Dallas clubs several nights a week, while both attended their college classes. At first playing cover song sets -- accented by what Pierce describes as "weird stuff like New Order and Big Country" -- O'Neill and Pierce moved into writing and performing their own songs and eventually "got serious," releasing a cassette, Someday You'll Understand, in 1990.

That cassette, Pierce says, became "kind of a cult classic, a collector's item. I don't even have one. That's horrible." The debut was followed up in 1991 with the release of a self-titled CD, then in 1992 came Woman as Salvation. What Pierce calls "the band's official bootleg," Live from the Americas, followed in 1993. The CDs all appeared on Jackopierce's independent label, Rhythmic Records, and sold a combined total of close to 45,000 copies -- a substantial amount on the indie scene. The band's success was mainly due to its strong college fan base and word-of-mouth; at every concert, people would be urged to get on the Jackopierce mailing list, and by 1993 that steady customer base had grown to 8,000 souls.

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