Jesse Dayton – Are you sure Waylon done it this way?
The title song actually is about a guy with a guitar and a dream of fitting in to country music’s city of gold. He’s come equipped with songs of heartache, written for good ol’ boys like those at his family reunions, “hoping they’re not a dying breed.” “Yes I’ve blown some deals for keeping it real,” he sings, “and I ain’t so sure even Waylon done it this way.”
Dayton says he learned to appreciate the spirituality of making music while working on Waylon Jennings’, Right for the Time. “I felt like I ‘arrived’ as a guitar picker when I played on the new Waylon Jennings record. It doesn’t get any deeper than that….Real true guitar players have reached a level of nothingness where their cerebellum doesn’t even come into play; it’s just totally spiritual. Those are my favorite musicians, period: Buck Trent, Roy Nichols, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery. I’m really into jazz in terms of a songwriting form. I learned that from Willie. I learned from Willie Nelson how important it is to sit around and listen to Gershwin.” Dayton has opened for Nelson and recorded Raisin’ Cain at the legendary singer’s Pedernales Studio.
“(But) Waylon really taught me how to listen to myself, and that’s a whole different concept than just music; that’s spirituality and living and things outside yourself. Just listen to yourself and you’ll be okay. That’s what Waylon does, and he was the first platinum artist in country music….It’s not about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it’s about enjoying what you’re doing right now.”
Dayton’s producer, Justice Records owner Randall Jamail, facilitated the opportunity for Dayton to play on Jennings’ record. “I was in Nashville for an interview and [Jennings] was fixin’ to do that song for Twisted Willie [a Willie Nelson tribute album released last year on Justice], so the producer [Jamail] says, ‘Hey, there’s a young guitar player who would walk on hot coals to come over and hang out in the studio with you all day.’ After I left the session I went back to my hotel room and I actually knelt down and prayed and said ‘Thank you.’ Two months later [Jennings] was looking at guitar players and he remembered.”
What attracted Jennings’ interest? “I think it’s because my guitar playing is very raunchy, not like the new hot compressed guitar playing. James Hatfield from Metallica said his favorite song is ‘The Boxer’ [a cover of the Simon & Garfunkel tune] I played with Waylon.” It stands to reason Dayton would be pleased by that. His heart may be in Texas and his spirit in Nashville, but what takes the stage is rock ‘n’ roll. “I’ve been headlining lately in a lot of punk clubs,” he says. “They want so much to embrace country because they know [traditional country artists] are cool guys. What I’m doing is exactly what Waylon and Willie did at the Armadillo in ’74, seein’ nothing but fans of Lynard Skynyrd and ZZ Top and the Allman Brothers. They were dope-smokin’ anti-establishment hippies. Now those are the kids on skateboards listening to punk music.
“I think we’re basically one of the only acts in country that has the energy to go out and play a rock audience. [The fans] will say, ‘This guy’s cool and this guy’s cool,’ but they won’t stand there all night and listen to country music. They get bored.” He says his energy and his “aggressive honky-tonk shuffles” hold their interest. A usually less sanguine Chicago-based writer concurs: “You gotta see him live. He blew Joe Ely out of the water at Fitzgerald’s.”
Touring punk clubs and honky-tonks has taken its toll, his marriage its chief victim. “Never Started Living (Till I Started Loving You)” and “One Life Stand” reveal a deep and grateful love; “Letter to Home” and “Heartbreak California”, the latter co-written with Rosie Flores, treat loneliness and doubt arising from life on the road; “Tongues of Fire” hints at the divisive gossip of an outsider; “Damned Old Guitar”, written with David James, rues the burden in the artist’s gift.
“Bein’ away from people you love is the first thing you sacrifice to do what you want,” Dayton affirms. What makes it worth it? “This isn’t something I’ve tried to do. You either have it in your blood or you don’t. I don’t have any choice in terms of what I want to do.”
Dayton first picked up a guitar on a family vacation to Colorado when he was 15. “I kicked and screamed because I didn’t want to go…because I thought I was old enough to take care of myself. I met an old blues guy and went off and learned all these folk and country and blues songs at the same time. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church and grew up singin’.
“On a vacation bible school trip, I actually had someone ask me, ‘Are you going to make your music for the Lord, or are you going to make it for the world?’
“I said, ‘Both.'”