Johnny Mullenax & The Sunday Circus
Written by: Cole Yearwood
Photographed by: Fivish
Seating is limited. Standing room can be tight. And dancing is encouraged, along with Team Drinks.
There isn’t a slice of French or avocado toast on site, unless you brought it yourself. Same for salmon or omelets.
There is a taco truck parked outside. A bloody Mary table blocks a pinball machine inside. And Fish is at the entrance in between.
Welcome to Bluegrass Brunch every Sunday at The Mercury Lounge.
The standing gig is mostly a kickass bluegrass-equse jam session dripping in the current Tulsa Sound. Also, a therapy session. And, part circus. Whatever it is may depend on how many frozen Vegas bombs you have.
A lot of things to a lot of people. Hundreds of people. Many of them are weekly regulars. Others damn near frequent enough to feel as if they are. A sea full of familiar faces among new ones, the tides continue to bring in each week. If you’ve been more than a couple times, then there are more than a couple people you recognize, even if there are only a couple names you actually know.
At the heart of it is Johnny Mullenax, often in a cowboy hat, always with a guitar. Unless he’s off stage, it might be a joint or a beer in his hands instead. Not to say he isn’t known to have one of those on stage, too.
“It's just crazy to me every single fucking week,” Johnny tells ASLUT. “It's the same feeling of ‘God damn, look at all those motherfuckers out there. Better not fuck up. All right, here we go.’ But man, I just really, really, really, really appreciate everyone that comes out, bro.”
He’s been there nearly every Sunday since Ashley Kirkley had the idea to start Bluegrass Brunch on Jan. 1, 2022. Except he wasn’t at the very first one because he was sick. And there is a yearly call out of Winfield, Kansas, he has to answer.
Most Sundays, Johnny is there with Paul Wilkes, Tony Spatz, Andrew Bair, Jake Lynn, Roger Ray, David Mullenax, and his hole-to-hole companion, Thomas Trapp. Though that's subject to availability because the extremely talented members of the Johnny Mullenax Band are also members of other bands, as well.
If someone won’t be back in Tulsa by high noon, an experienced musician is always lined up to join the madness for a Sunday or two. And it is madness, no matter who is up there.
“It's the bluegrass demolition derby,” Johnny says. “It's very niche. I don't even know if bluegrass is right.”
Traditional bluegrass or not, people are coming every week to hear what Johnny and Co. are playing. A sound they’ve never formally rehearsed.
“We take it seriously, but it's so hard to find that fine line,” Johnny tells ASLUT. “And we've all had fucking 10 gigs this week, and this is our favorite one. So let's go in there and do whatever the fuck we want.”
Faithful fill the Merc to revel in the band doing whatever they fuck they want.
“Everyone in that band has a personality playing wise that they're going to rip your fucking head off,” Johnny says. “They are not there to play it pretty. They're there to just shred. Because everyone is insanely talented.”
While people flock to experience the chaos of the moment, the art is rooted in the band’s technical abilities.
“You have to have good communication about songs and the music theory,” Johnny explains. “If you're like, ‘it's in G, it's 1-4-5, goes to the 6 on the bridge, you know, da da da da da da da,’ they're like, ‘got it,’ and then we're fucking in. It also helps; I've played music with those guys for fucking ever.”
Except for Thomas. The pair have known each other for less than two years after meeting at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas. And only playing together since Thomas joined the Bluegrass Brunch lineup a couple months in. Yet their chemistry is the stuff of past lives.
Like his band members, Johnny is also a member of multiple other bands. Taking a different place on stage for Honky Tonk Happy Hour with Jacob Tovar at Fassler Hall or the night of brunch back at Mercury for Sunday Night Soup. Playing backup guitar during another musician’s recording session.
“It keeps you on your toes, keeps your chops up,” Johnny says. “And also, you have to know when to fucking take the lead on something, and when to do what someone else tells me here.”
Music is Johnny’s life.
“Oh man, now that's all I've ever, ever, ever, wanted to do,” Johnny says, “I really genuinely believe that that is my whole fucking purpose in life is to play music because you can bring a lot of people joy with it.”
For the 27-year-old career musician, having a Sunday residency has been a turning point. Before becoming the Bluegrass Brunch ringleader, Johnny was playing guitar wherever the road took Tennessee Jet. Now whatever his week brings him is anchored by Sunday afternoons at 18th & Boston.
Front and center, he's surrounded by friends and family. His mother, sister, father, and Lauren are either in the crowd, on the patio, or out back. His brother, along with some of his best friends, playing behind him. Other musicians throughout Mercury taking it in.
His community is a part of the magic.
“My family plays music,” Johnny says. “Every single person I hang out with plays music. Or is an artist and a creative person. So I think if you just surround yourself with people like that, then word will catch on. You know, don't hang out with assholes. Don't be a fucking asshole. Try not to at least.”
As much as Sunday between 12 and 3ish is his time, he gladly shares it. Kicking the attention throughout the show to a bandmate for a killer solo or giving his position in stage up to a friend for a song or two.
“Now I'm leading my own band, and have my own EP and coming up with a brand and all that. [Having people up] is the least that I could do, if someone that helped me out wants to sit in. And it’s only gonna make the show better.”
Whether artists passing through who Johnny calls up, or familiar guests like Tovar, Cassie Latshaw, and Jared Tyler, the onstage cameos never disappoint.
Sharing the screen is as easy for Johnny as sharing the stage. Other artists and brunch regulars will be featured in his upcoming music video, directed by Fivish.
Always different, Sunday always remains a show worthy of the community gathered.
“That's what we try to make brunch—a fucking Saturday night primetime show. You never know what the fuck's going to happen.”
Experience a Saturday night primetime show every Sunday from 12-3ish with Johnny and his friends at Mercury Lounge.