Jesse Dayton: From Waylon Jennings to John Doe, and Other Forks in the Road
As we talked on the phone it only took a couple of minutes. Guitarist and singer Jesse Dayton was full on, pulling no punches, taking no crap. “We have a complete narcissist sexist weirdo in the White House” he was telling me. “Now is the time to stand up.”
“It’s a weird thing here in the States right now,” he continued. “There is a lot of polarization and I think a lot of musicians worry about their standing with their audiences. I think that as musicians, if we had done that in the 60s we would have had totally shit music. Like we wouldn’t have Bob Dylan. We wouldn’t have had Joe Strummer. Or they would have worried about their fan base.”
He’d been to a political fundraiser the night before. There might have been a hint of a sore head when I called the next day, but who am I to judge. “There is a nice Irish boy called Beto O’Rourke” he told me, knowing I’m from Ireland, knowing my ears would prick up. “He’s trying to beat Ted Cruz who’s kind of an asshole.” It turns out that Mr O’Rourke is a fan. “He likes X and he heard that I played with X so he wanted to come over and take a picture.”
It’s understandable that O’Rourke would want a picture with Jesse Dayton. Over the years the guitar shredding, rock and rolling, horror film maker that is Jesse Dayton has played with a gamut of legends including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell, and Waylon Jennings. In more recent years he has worked with a whole new cut of musical hero such as X, and Supersuckers. He has worked numerous times with musician and horror film creator Rob Zombie – in front of the camera, behind the scenes, and has opened for him on tour. He has nine albums in his own right under his belt including his most recent release The Revealer. He performs, he tours, he writes, he collaborates, he acts. He produces (“The records tell you what they need if you listen to them.”) He’s a prolific reader (“What I love about Cormac McCarthy is that he puts you in that place and then he takes you, he drops the big picture on you.”) Jesse Dayton doesn’t stay still.
Long-time friend of Dayton, Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll co-wrote the track “3 Pecker Goat” on The Revealer. “He “first met Jesse at a bar in Galveston, Tx. called The Old Quarter.” He saw immediately what Dayton brought to the stage when he gets up to perform. “I was hanging around, tending bar, and playing a little music. Jesse had a show one night and just blew the roof off of the place. He makes quite a first impression … He can do it all. He’s a showman, a badass guitar player, a hell of a singer, a great songwriter, and he just has that swagger to everything he does to where you can’t help but watch.”
But how did all this start? How did the boy surrounded by country music make that leap from Waylon Jennings to X? For Dayton it was a perfectly natural progression. He grew up in the 70s on the Texas Louisiana border with a “hybrid” of music around him – “honky-tonk, and Cajun, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll music.” George Jones went to school with his dad. “He was from Beaumont, my hometown” said Dayton, setting the background.
He was the youngest of three in a musical family. “Everybody sings” Dayton explained about the household he grew up in. “My brother and dad have better voices than I do. My dad passed away, but everybody sings. Everybody plays piano and plays guitar. We had drum sets, and it was mandatory to take piano lessons you know. You didn’t have any choice, it was like the military. You had to do your two years of piano.”
He started learning guitar from “a guy on vacation with my parents in Colorado. He had played with Johnny and Edgar Winter … He taught me a column of three ‘Heys’. He taught me “Hey, Good Lookin‘” by Hank Williams. ”Hey Hey, My My” by Neil Young, and “Hey Joe” by Hendrix. Those were the first three songs I learnt on the guitar.”
He soon discovered he was a natural musician. “I could just play; I could change chords a lot easier than most people could. So it was like ‘Oh well, no wonder I suck at baseball. I was supposed to be a guitar player.’” But that doesn’t mean he didn’t put the effort in. “As they say in that book Outliers, I spent my 10000 hours. I didn’t take the guitar off my neck for the first four years. I studied jazz and country and rockabilly. I studied with different teachers. At first I just taught myself. I got home and I just figured stuff out on the records. I would put my three quarters on top of the needle on the record player to slow the record down. Then I would figure out how to play Jerry Lee or Freddie King. When punk rock came around I thought ‘I really like this, these guys aren’t great musicians, I could play this in my sleep,’ because I was already playing more advanced stuff. But the message, and the songs, and the energy, that’s what I was attracted to.”
The first concert that the young Jesse Dayton attended was George Jones, and it was a no-show. “He was too drunk to come out of his bus” Dayton recalled. “I was seven years old. We came back the next weekend and the band plays like five songs and then he finally walks out. He’s got this high collar kind of velvet Tom Jones country pimp outfit on. He trips over the monitor and falls and just passes out because he’s so drunk. I looked up at my father and I said what’s ‘wrong with him daddy?’ He said ‘Son, that’s country music.’” Dayton’s voice lowered, slowed down as he quoted his dad. “After that I was very suspicious of all these guys who look like chicks from L.A in these cheesy bands.”
Then at 15 his friend asked him to a gig. ”He was the only other kid who knew about punk rock in my little red neck town. [My friend] said ‘Hey let’s go to San Antonio and go see the Clash. And I was just … well … the next day I went and put grease in my hair and bought a leather jacket.”
We talked about the impact that punk had on his, my, generation. How immediate the change kicked in. Those charts/radio LPs that we’d been listening to were slipped to the back of the record case, to be replaced by the Clash, Ramones, and so it goes on. Everything changed. “If you’re not rebelling against your parents at that age, I mean come on?! … What better way to do it than punk rock. I mean my parents thought it was insane. But it’s so important. It’s my story. Other people would be like ‘Why you don’t look like George Strait, you sing with such an authentic country voice. Why are you so weird?’ Then I would go to Los Angeles and New York and I wasn’t weird at all.”
For Dayton, punk was an honest voice. “[They were] daring and honest and they didn’t give a shit … They weren’t doing it to see how many clicks they could get on Twitter.” However that voice is not the monopoly of punk. “I think all the guys that I loved growing up, even though they may have been associated with a specific genre, they almost had a world, global theme to them” he explained. “I mean Johnny Cash – I played guitar for Johnny Cash and he was very progressive. You’re talking about a guy who was worried about poor people. He couldn’t give a shit about the money, and that is a powerful thing man. Especially in this day and age when there’s so much emphasis put on how much people have. It’s kind of a scary time; we need those stories now more than ever.”
Then one night he was playing a gig in Nashville. “This publicist saw me playing at the Continental Club in Austin. I was a kid. She kept her eyes on me and then eventually a few years later she said ‘Hey I want to put you on this TV show. All you’ve got to do is come to Nashville; the house band will back you up.’”
“So I go there, and I am on this show and I don’t fit in, again. You know it’s like guys with bad mullet haircuts and singing goofy bumper sticker songs. Kris Kristofferson is there and he’s kind of keeping me at arm’s length. So I do my song and Kris comes over, and he goes ‘Man that was great. You want to smoke a joint?’ And I was like yeah. So we go out in the back alley … we smoke some pot in this limousine, and then we go back in and do “For The Good Times.”
The next day, a broke Jesse Dayton was preparing to leave his cheap hotel to fly home when the phone rang. “It’s Waylon Jennings. He says ‘We were all watching Kris last night on the television, we saw you play with him. I cut my hand cooking with Jessi Colter last night. Do you want to come down and play guitar for me?’ I just kind of stared at the phone for minute. Like this guy is putting me on, this is bullshit. So I said ‘yeah,’ and he says ‘Right, be down at Woodland Studios in a couple of hours.’ So I blow off my plane flight. I go to Woodland Studios and I knock on the door and Johnny Cash opens the door. And he says ’Are you going to stand there with your mouth open or are you going to come in and play guitar for us?’ So that is how it started. It’s all about timing.”
Things just started rolling from there. Soon after the recording at Woodland Studio, Waylon Jennings flew him back to Nashville to play with Mark Knopfler on Waylon’s new record. Then a Ray Price record, then Glen Campbell. “It was amazing. The first day I met him was in Nashville. We were playing this Americana conference, a big show. I said ‘Hey Mr Campbell how are you doing?’ And he said ‘Call me Glen’. I was shaking in my boots, you know? … Up until the end he was beautiful. Up until the end. He was just a beautiful cat.”
In the subsequent years, between recording and playing with others and in his own right, Dayton started his own label, Stag Records. He toured widely with Supersuckers, and indeed with his producer’s hat on he produced front man Eddie Spaghetti’s “The Value Of Nothing” for Bloodshot Records. He played the role of Kinky Friedman in Ted Swindley’s stage production “Becoming Kinky: The World According To Kinky Friedman.” He has also written soundtracks for, and appeared in, Rob Zombie horror films, which forged a whole new fork in the road for Jesse Dayton.
“Rob Zombie called me,” Dayton explained. [He] said ‘Look I’m making this ultimate white trash 70s horror film called The Devil’s Rejects and I think your music would be perfect.’ Which is kind of a left-handed compliment, like somebody peeing on my leg and shaking my hand at the same time, you know?” Nevertheless, Dayton went to LA and wrote the soundtrack – a massive success that led to more work with Zombie, and a 40-show tour.
While touring with Rob Zombie, Dayton disciplined himself to write two pages of film script every day, and by the end of the tour had the basis of his own horror for the silver screen. This film, Zombex, was ultimately filmed in 2013 starring Malcolm McDowell. It also featured X frontman John Doe, and this introduction led ultimately to a lasting friendship between the pair, which is interesting considering the initial conversation they had with each other about the film.
Dayton John I am making this movie and I need you to play this Irish burlesque club owner in the French Quarter in New Orleans named Seamus O’Connor.
Doe Is it a horror movie?
Doe Well if my buddy can be written in so that he can die in the movie I’ll come and do it.
John Doe remembers the conversation well. “It’s true,” he concurred. “I agreed to do the part as long as Nick, who is a huge horror movie fan, could be made up as a zombie and get killed. I think that Emily cut his head off.”
“The film sold and it’s made money,” Dayton assured me. “They wanted me to do another and I ran screaming back into the arms of the music business. I figured out the difference between the film business and the music business. The music business will stab you in the back but the movie business will stab you in the face. They will look at you right in your face, they don’t care. At least in music, if I am dealing with some guys trying to rip me off we probably like the same music. There’s honour amongst thieves.”
Sometime later Doe invited Dayton to play guitar at SXSW. Six months after that they were on Letterman. Then one day John Doe contacted Dayton to say that Billy Zoom of X had been diagnosed with cancer. A full US tour was booked. “Do you want to learn 30 songs and meet us in New York in like a week?”
The tour went ahead with Dayton in Zoom’s place. “It was a hard time” Doe explained of the decision to ask Dayton to come on board. “At that point Jesse and I had played together a good bit. Exene [Cervenka of X] had met Jesse and trusted me. Jesse and Billy listened to the same guitar players as they developed their own styles.” It worked, the band pulled it off and Doe could see the qualities that Dayton brought to the table. “Jesse is a pro, has a ton of confidence and knows how to work with people. We had faith and it turned out to be a great time as well as rewarding for the audience. We played a straight up punk rock show, which X hadn’t been doing with Billy. Jesse did his homework and added a more raucous style of playing to the X songs.”
Since then, Doe and Dayton have toured regularly between each other’s individual projects. “X is finishing our 40th Anniversary Tour this Nov & Dec” Doe informed me. [We are] opening an exhibit in October at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Currently I’m working on a sequel to the LA punk history: Under the Big Black Sun, and also a memoir.”
But between the work with other musicians, between the horror films and the touring, Dayton has continued to write, record and perform his own music. His latest album The Revealer was released last year in the States, with a European release in September ’17. It’s a collection where the rock and roll and the punk slam sideways into the blues, but there are soft landings too with heartfelt ballads and warm country, made all the more convincing with the knowledge that the album tells stories connected to the Dayton family going back for generations. Try “Mrs Victoria (Beautiful Thing)” for a heartfelt American folk ballad about the black nanny who helped to bring Dayton up. “Holy Ghost Rock n Roller,” shakes us through a song about a character that Dayton knew as a boy. ‘Possum Ran Over My Grave:’ in spirit and sound resurrects deep country memories of George Jones.
The Revealer will be well established in U.S. listeners’ record collections by now, however it is still new for people over here on this side of the pond. Indeed Dayton’s European tour is presently threading its way through continental Europe and is just about to jump over to the UK and Ireland where they will be hitting various venues over the next ten days or so. Visit the Jesse Dayton website for full tour dates and information.
Oct 23 Nottingham – The Maze
Oct 24 Sheffield – Greystone
Oct 25 Glasgow – Stereo
Oct 26 Leeds – Brudenell Social Club
Oct 27 Newcastle – Gosforth Civic Centre
Oct 28 Kilkenny – Cleeres
Oct 30 Belfast – Errigle Inn
Oct 31 Dublin – Whelans Halloween Party
Nov 1 Winchester – Railway
Nov 2 London – Borderline – Folk and Roots