Jesse Dayton – Are you sure Waylon done it this way?
“I didn’t know what country was until I got my heart broken.” Jesse Dayton is explaining the unambiguously traditional country, but decidedly not retro, nature of his new CD on Justice.
Track after track of Hey Nashvegas, due out August 5, laments the loss of his wife and the life that led to their divorce. “We’re friends, now,” he stresses, and the liner notes thank her, but the songs came out of a recuperative period he spent last year in Beaumont, Texas.
Dayton’s roots are in Beaumont, and he’s not too proud to say they’re always part of him. “I come from George Jones’ hometown. I think what makes you country is you’re just being honest about where you came from…when you have a regional sense of identity. There’s rural landscape everywhere.” His new songs distill and heat to boiling whatever it is in Beaumont’s drinking water that’s yielded some of the best-selling artists in Nashville history.
Of his first solo album, released in 1995, Dayton says, “To me, Raising Cain wasn’t a start-to-finish country record. It was a lot of different influences I’d grown up with.” Dayton mentions fellow Texans Doug Sahm, Joe Ely and Lightnin’ Hopkins. “The thing of it is that I’m not just a country singer. I like rockabilly; Conway Twitty, George Jones, Johnny Cash were all rockabilly singers before they were country singers.”
And he relates how at age 17 he snuck into a Port Arthur honky tonk and saw the Fabulous Thunderbirds. “After I saw Jimmie Vaughn, I went the next day and popped grease, you know? Plus, if you go to my family reunions, guys got grease in their hair and tattoos of pinup chicks from the Korean War.” He sports his own buxom 5″ cowgirl ridin’ a Telecaster on his right bicep.
Dayton has no interest in resurrecting country music like it used to be. “I don’t think you’re doing very much for music to go back and re-create something that’s circa 1959 to ’65,” he says. “Hopefully, in time people will see that I have a vision. It’s a question of getting further than the past. The same time I was listening to George Jones’ ‘He Stopped Lovin’ her Today’, man, I was listening to the Ramones.”
He adds, ” I think there’s a lot of cool country music from the ’70s that’s not being explored — the whole outlaw thing. I think Phases and Stages is arguably one of the most important country records ever made.” Vision makes a poor companion, though. “I feel alienated so much,” he says. “I just don’t know what group I fit. Sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s really lonely.” Dayton refers deferentially to Kurt Cobain’s legacy as a paradigm. “I want to do what Kurt Cobain did. He was completely honest and he made all those corporate hair bands look silly. I’d love to be the one that brings everybody back to [country] music. That’s why Cash listens to Cobain.”
In the category of genre-defining artists, Dayton is more often likened to Elvis than Cobain. The comparison wearies him, but his stray black curls, perpetually poised lips and sly flirtatiousness assure that it’s not going away. In fact, it may even make him a movie star: He’s just landed the role of what he calls a “white trash tow truck driver” in the forthcoming movie Wrecked!, on the heels of roles in two Pam Tillis videos in heavy rotation on CMT. Dayton’s screen credits also include placing songs on “Melrose Place” and in Sam Shepherd’s Curse of the Starving Class.
In his spare time, Dayton writes novels. He reflects almost dreamily about passing time recently in writer Jean LaFitte’s bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter. “It was really cool, man, to hang back and have a drink and soak up the Hemingway thing. That’s what a real writer is, when you can go out and experience life and put it into your art.” Dayton got an early start on experiencing life by going around the world on the money his folks had set aside “for law school or whatever.”
The surroundings of Nashville are the ones he chose for making Hey Nashvegas. Despite the album title’s reference to the city’s glitzy, showbiz-oriented reputation, Dayton is a staunch defender of the Nashville that lurks beneath the industry sheen. “People think that because of what’s on country radio that Nashville is like that. It’s nothing like that. Nashville is the home of country music. It’s an honor to be there. Steve Earle, Lucinda, Jim Lauderdale — I love those people. And I wanted to be influenced by my surroundings when I recorded that record.” The record absorbs more of Nashville than just atmosphere: Asylum Records singer Mandy Barnett’s harmony on “Don’t Take Yesterday” virtually assures the song’s placement in the pantheon of country heartbreakers.
But Dayton brought along some Texans, too. If the fiddling is as classic as on a Bob Wills record, it’s because Texas Playboy Johnny Gimble is playing it. “He told us stories about people fainting in VFW halls in the Panhandle; the band was swingin’ so hard they would just pass out from dancing.” That spirit is evoked in the Hey Nashvegas swinger “Panhandle Jane.”
But getting to Music City for the moment: “It was important to be in Nashville because it was important to me to make a contemporary country record.” Dayton says. “I don’t believe in live-to-two-track. If we have to go back and fix something, we do.” He stresses that “in no way is the title of the record a slam on Nashville,” though it likely will give him much to talk about in coming months as journalists grasp for the trendy anti-Nashville handle the title may imply. “I first heard that term ‘Nashvegas’ from a record company guy,” Dayton says, almost defensively.