Get ready everybody – the rockabilly hellraiser is back in town! Guitar player Jesse Dayton is releasing his latest record, The Revealer, this week and it’s a honky-tonking jitterbug of energy, fun times and southern witticisms. Not one to have his finger in only one home-cooked pie, Dayton plays most of the instruments himself, infusing a Texas badass charm into each of his creations: from “Daddy Was A Badass” to “I’m At Home Getting Hammered While She’s Out Gettin’ Nailed.”
But The Revealer doesn’t just show Dayton’s penchant for shit-kicking boogie tunes. He has taken a walk inside his family tree and escorted some pretty special tunes out about some pretty special people, including an homage to “Mrs Victoria” and the country-style ballad “Match Made In Heaven” featuring the harmonic vocals of Austin, Texas, songbird Brennen Leigh. Dayton also honors one of his country music idols, George Jones, on “Possum Ran Over My Grave” while sprinkling in bits of Waylon Jennings-influenced guitar picking and Buddy Holly pop giddiness throughout other tunes on the twelve song CD.
Growing up in Beaumont, Texas, Dayton straddled the borders of Louisiana zydeco, Texas outlaw country and adolescent-attracting punk. Introduced to the legendary Clifford Antone, whose Austin club was a hotbed of blues a la the Vaughan brothers, Charlie Sexton, John Lee Hooker and Doyle Bramhall II, among others, Dayton honed his craft starting in his mid-teens, releasing his first album in 1995, Raisin’ Cain.
Careen ahead a few years and Dayton has become a full-fledged singer, guitar player, actor, director, songwriter, sideman and producer; working on Rob Zombie films, adding guitar to tunes by Jennings, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, playing with X when Billy Zoom had to have cancer treatments and in John Doe’s solo band, and writing and directing a horror movie called Zombex. All this while making his own records as well.
Glide caught up with Dayton recently as he was preparing to end a solo tour and head back home to Austin. He will be back on the road again starting in early October. In the meantime, he shared with us stories about his new songs, playing guitar, growing up in Beaumont and what it was like spending opening day of a baseball season with the legendary Texas Tornado Doug Sahm.
Where are you tonight, Jesse?
We’re in Centralia, Washington. I just got to the gig and unloaded and life is good. It’s our last show and then we head back to Austin.
That’s kind of far away from home
Yeah, yeah it is (laughs). But it’s so beautiful and the weather is super cool and kind of the opposite of the devil’s armpit, which is Texas during the summer, you know what I mean. But we were out for about seven weeks with John Doe and then it ended and I came home and then I started this northwest tour that I’m doing right now. I’m out here with me and my bass player and we’re playing like all these old theatres and it’s really awesome, really cool.
You are called everything from Americana to country to rock & roll. Who are you?
I think I’m a little bit of all of that. I grew up in Beaumont, Texas, which is right by the Louisiana border and it was just a gumbo of all of that stuff. When I was a kid, I had honky-tonk music, I had rhythm & blues, I had zydeco, I had all the rock & roll stuff. It was pretty amazing.
And all that kind of filtered into the bloodstream
It totally did and when people hear me sing, because of my accent and because I love George Jones and a lot of old country stuff, they immediately think I’m a country singer. But there is actually a lot more going on there. Some people are calling it outlaw country because of that new station on Sirius called Outlaw Country Radio and that’s kind of a big deal. We just finished doing an Outlaw Country Cruise and it was amazing. It was sold out and it was me, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and the Mavericks and all those people kind of do the same thing. So I don’t care, whatever they want to call me (laughs).
Saying that, the new album is a good representation of everything you have going on.
Yes, I think so too. It’s got all the stuff that I love. Some of it’s heavy and dark and some of it’s light and funny; some of it’s acoustic and some of it’s electric. It’s just all those things that I love.
What about this unique sense of humor that you have in your songs – where does that come from?
I’ve always been a cut-up and I hung out with a lot of comedians. When I was younger I used to go see Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison in Houston when they were starting out. I’ve always been into witty songwriters too like Roger Miller and the thing that people really miss is that comedic aspect, that comedy. What did Shakespeare say – drama is hard but comedy is harder. It’s hard to make people laugh. It’s not an easy thing. Like the song, “I’m At Home Getting Hammered While She’s Out Gettin’ Nailed.” I can’t get offstage without playing that song. People will go nuts on me, you know, cause they love it and I kind of think that’s the way life is. Life is a whole lot of fun and a whole lot of tragedy so it’s great to bounce back and forth.
It’s got that Jerry Reed humor to it
Totally. I’m a huge Jerry Reed fan. I probably spent 10,000 hours moving a needle around on my record player trying to figure out Jerry Reed guitar riffs.
A lot of people forget that he was a guitar player
Oh yeah and that’s how I kind of made my entrance into the music business. I played on a Waylon record, I played on a Willie Nelson record, I played with Johnny Cash, I played with Glen Campbell and a bunch of those guys and that was kind of my way to get in there and do it.
Were you like the class clown in high school?
I was a class clown to a certain degree. I loved cutting up with people and having fun. I had a very eclectic group of friends who were involved in all kinds of different stuff so I’ve never been just one thing. I’ve always been kind of whatever felt right at the time. I know I’m being kind of vague but when I was in school, I was kind of the only free-thinker that was going to Houston and seeing punk rock shows. I would go see the Clash or some band that none of my friends understood. I went to a high school in Beaumont where everyone had an AC/DC concert shirt on and Resistol cowboy hats on. I would go see Hank Williams Jr and Johnny Paycheck and David Allan Coe at the Palace one night and then the next night I would go see whatever big FM rock band was playing or I would go to Houston to some punk rock show. So I’ve always been super-eclectic because of my parents. My parents got me into reading and that kind of stuff pretty early on and that’s where all that comes from.
My great-great grandfather lived in Beaumont for a little while before moving to Port Arthur at the time Janis Joplin was growing up not too far from him.
My mom had classes with her at Lamar University. There is a great blues club in Austin called the Antone’s Blues Club and Clifford Antone’s family was from Port Arthur. His family knew my family in Beaumont. So Clifford came out and saw me play when I was fifteen years old at a place called the Boulevard Club and he’s the one who really discovered me. He came and said, “Hey, come to Austin and come to the club and sit in with the band.” And that was a big deal back then. So when I got there, he gave me all these cool records, original blues records, when I was a kid and said, “Hey, learn all this stuff.” So I did and went and sat in and he said, “Yeah, you’re good but you’re kind of country though. You should go by Broken Spoke too.” So he took me by there and that kind of started my life playing music really.
Austin is a hotbed of music. People gravitate there.
I started playing there when I was fifteen and I’ve been playing the Continental Club and Antone’s and the Broken Spoke before I could shave. And I bought a house there like fifteen years ago. I think that if you’re a guitar player in Austin, if you’re going to be a guitar player in Austin, you better move there with a really good gig cause it is super, super competitive. There are so many great guitar players in Austin. It’s unbelievable.
How did you get a guitar in your hands?
The first time was my mom and dad were going to Boulder, Colorado, for the summer, and I was fifteen. I had played drums and I had played piano but I had never touched a guitar before. I got to Boulder, Colorado, which I was pretty upset about because my brother was going to stay home and have these awesome parties while our parents were out of town. They were like, “No, you’re too young. You’ve got to come with us.” So I got there and then the first night I met a black guy who was a blues guitar player who had played in Johnny and Edgar Winter’s White Trash Blues Band named Granville Cleveland. What a great name, huh. He couldn’t believe I was from Beaumont because that was where Johnny and Edgar were from; we’re from the same neighborhood. They grew up like literally two or three blocks away from me. So I started learning guitar and when I got back to Texas I borrowed an electric guitar and an amp and I had a gig. I was like playing immediately. I was supposed to go to college and I didn’t. I think I played in a zydeco band for a little while in Lake Charles in Louisiana, played in a rockabilly band in Houston; whatever I could.
Did it come natural to you?
It was super easy. Like a lot of people have trouble learning how to change chords but I could just play the guitar. As soon as I picked it up. I mean, I spent ten hours a day playing (laughs). I put my 10,000 hours in, as they say. But I was a natural. I didn’t have to work that hard. I studied Jazz guitar and I studied some flamenco and some Classical. I was a real hardcore student of the blues and into a lot of East Texas blues and South Louisiana blues. I was really familiar with all the guys who came from where I’m from, which kind of gave me a leg up, you know. If there was some kid from the suburbs in Des Moines who was a really hot guitar player, he didn’t have an old black creole nanny who raised him at his house who turned him on to Lightnin’ Hopkins, you know what I mean. So there was a lot of stuff there that I feel like I was born into it.
Is that the “Mrs Victoria” you sing about?
Yep, that’s her. I’m so proud of that song because it’s such a personal song. You can hear it in there. She was my nanny growing up and she was amazing, so cool. She had a place across town but she stayed with us and worked for us and my family and my grandmother for a long time.
How old was she when she was raising you?
She was probably in her early seventies
You were talking about playing guitar, and you play just about everything on this new record. Was that your intention from the beginning?
Yeah, I just wanted it to be stripped down. I didn’t want a bunch of musicians playing all over it, you know what I mean. I wanted it to be more about me and my guitar and have it more guitar-centric and have it stripped down and not have a bunch of superhot players playing a bunch of stuff all over it. So that was the way I did it. Me and John Evans, the producer, we went in together and kept it really stripped down. There’s barely another instrument on it besides the guitar, drums and bass. There is a little bit of fiddle on “Three Pecker Goat” and there’s a little bit electric piano on “Daddy Was A Badass,” but mostly it’s all guitar stuff.
Which guitar did you use predominately?
I used a guitar that this guy made for me, which is called a King Hollow Body. He built that guitar for me when I was in a Rob Zombie movie. I did these three movies with Rob Zombie. He goes, “Hey man, I’m going to put you in this film and you’re going to be playing and look like this psychobilly vampire crazy guy and we want you to have a really evil guitar.” I said, “Well, I know a buddy of mine can build us one.” Rob was like, “Great, have him build it and I’ll pick up the check.” So that was nice. A guy named Jason Burns built it and I’ve had it for a while. I used that and then I used a Martin D28 acoustic. I think I used a Telecaster too on some of it.
What song got you started putting this record together?
I wrote and directed a feature film starring Malcolm McDowell and the film was called Zombex and I shot it all in New Orleans and Austin. I had done these three movies with Rob Zombie, done the music for them, and they’d done really well so I wrote a script and I gave it to Malcolm McDowell, who is a bigtime actor. So as soon as I got him attached and I got the money, I made this crazy B-monster movie. We sold it, we got distribution, it did good and that whole time I was doing that I had been writing songs. So I started writing all these songs like out in the middle of nowhere and “Daddy Was A Badass” was the first song I wrote. I was like, oh, this is good. It was more interior stuff about my family and I just did the whole record like that.
Was Malcolm McDowell easy to direct?
Yeah, well, you don’t really direct Malcolm. You just let him do what he wants to and then hope you get it (laughs). But he was great. I had directed some music videos and short film stuff but I’d never done a movie before. It was great but it was super, super hard making a film. I had to deal with a lot of business stuff that sent me screaming back into the arms of the music business. But I might do another one. I’ll just have to do it under different circumstances. I’ve got a couple more scripts that people are interested in but my main focus right now is my music career and touring and getting this record out.
What can you tell us about “Big State Motel.” It’s one of the more gentler songs on the record. But which guitar were you playing on it?
I was playing a Martin D28 on that. You know what, that’s not true. Actually I played a Dobro, an old 1930’s Dobro guitar on that, a Resonator guitar is what they call it. But yeah, the way that song came about was we were recording at this legendary studio in Houston called SugarHill Recording Studio and George Jones and Freddy Fender and Jerry Lee Lewis and Doug Sahm, all these people had made hit records there. I was like, man, we got to go back there and record, that would be cool. So that night I didn’t want to drive back to where I was staying with some friends. I was like, I think I’m going to stay at that Big State Motel and they were like, “You’re crazy, dude. Do not stay there. It’s totally sketchy.” But I was like, “It can’t be too sketchy.” So I drove by there on the way home and it didn’t look that bad and it was clean so I ended up staying there while we made the record. And that song is all about me staying there and about the characters around there.
Tell us about Brennen Leigh, who sings with you on “Match Made In Heaven.”
Oh yeah, she is such a star. You can fill the Astrodome with girls that can sing passable versions of “Crazy” by Patsy Cline but you can’t fill the batter box with women who could write music, sing, write lyrics, play multi instruments, sing harmonies – I mean, she is a star. It’s unbelievable. I just loved getting her in to sing with me because we’ve been very close. She’s from Austin and her voice is amazing.
What can you tell us about “Possum Ran Over My Grave.”
That’s about George Jones. One of the first concerts I ever went to was a George Jones show and he didn’t show up. But I love George Jones and he’s like my favorite singer in the world, like number one. He’s from Beaumont, Texas, too. Anyway, it’s me and another guy wrote that song and when I heard the title of it I was like, Oh my God, I’ve got to cut that. And it works really good. We’re actually doing a video for that right now.
Tell us what it’s like to go to one of your shows
I think what people are taken with is the fact that I’m pretty vulnerable onstage and I talk to the audience in a way that you talk to your friends. And the music brings them to a place. I mean, right now in America our lives are dominated by major corporations and people really want something real right now. By the time they get off from work or by the time they get home, they’ve been inundated with ads and podcasts and radio and TV and people telling them what to like. And I think when they get to my show they realize, this is the real deal; this guy is not doing it for the money. So I think that’s a big feather in my hat right now. I also think that my style of guitar playing is pretty unique and people aren’t hearing a lot of that. So I think when you come to my show what you’re ultimately going to get is just a break from technology and corporate America.
And have a good time
Yeah, you’re going to have a great time. Like I say, I cut up with the audience a lot. The last like six shows have been packed so we’re pretty excited. And excited we’re going to have a new record.
Will you include many of the new songs in your set?
I am. When I was on tour with John Doe, we came out and opened up with like five brand new songs off the new record before we had recorded them. So we got to really go out and test them on the road.
Did you change them up any before you recorded them?
Yeah, a little bit for the record. We cut a little bit of the fat off so it’d sound more like a record but most all these songs I got to play live before we made the record.
What’s it like working with John?
He’s great. When John called me to fill in for Billy while he was getting cancer treatment, John was like, “Can you learn thirty X songs in seven days and meet us in Chicago?” I was like, “Yeah, I can.” It was a big deal and playing with John, we got to do David Letterman and some big stuff. It was great for me because it kind of reintroduced a national audience to me and gave me a chance to start doing my own thing. So every night we would open up for John and then my band would back up John. He’s a total sweetheart. He’s like my big brother. We’re very close and he’s done a lot for me.
You’ve talked before about how much of an influence Doug Sahm was and I heard you went to an Astros opening day game with him. What was it like going to a baseball game with him?
It was me and Doug Sahm and Clifford Antone. One thing with Doug is you couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Doug was just on fire and the funny thing about him is the more the old blues and country original guys passed away, the deeper Doug got into baseball. He could tell you every farm team player. I mean, he was just a walking statistic. He played on my first two records and he taught me a lot about where I was from, even though he was from San Antonio. He used to just go on and on about Beaumont and recordings that were made there, musicians. I felt like when I hung out with Clifford and Doug, I was hanging out with the Harvard of roots music, you know what I mean. They knew everything and had seen everybody. Doug had played on the Grand Ole Opry when he was like eight years old. It was cool and I’m lucky to have hung out with those guys. I miss them.
So for the rest of your year you’re just going to be doing some shows?
Yeah, we come home from this tour and then we go out for like, October, November and December. So we’ll be out three months, basically doing all of North America.
You’ve done so many different things in your career, you’re not a one trick pony by any means. Why do you think you were able to accomplish all this?
I don’t know. I mean, I think maybe because I was the baby in the family and they kind of let me get away with everything. It’s that whole birth order where the older sister is the one who’s perfect and the middle one is trying to compete with everyone and the baby is just like, “He’ll be okay, he can do whatever he wants!” (laughs). But I think also I have a natural ability for show business. I did theatre, I played instruments and I sang. I read a lot of books. And all that preparation is what makes you, makes sparks fly when you get your opportunity. Plus, I keep a really open mind. I’m always learning and this whole thing is one big huge learning curve. I just try to have fun with it, not take it too seriously. I used to take it a lot more seriously when I was younger and now I’m like, eh, it’s okay. At least I’m not working in the oil fields.
And hey, listen, I love your accent. I’m usually the only one who sounds like he’s loving on his sister (laughs). But my parents are the first ones to make it out of the oil field and become academics and they had this whole thing when we were kids, kind of, “Don’t ever lose your colloquialism” and all that. But it’s a weird thing. You know, if it wasn’t for southern writers going up to New York and changing the local color, we would have a very boring literary world. So whatever you do, unless you’ve got an acting gig or something, don’t change your accent.
Photo by Jeff Shipman