Jesse Dayton – Changing horses
There has historically been much talk, in Texas anyway, about what it means to be a Texan, what defines Texan-ness, what tie could possibly bind the scattered peoples within those far-flung borders. The answer is this: That which defines Texanity is a common want, a shared desire, a unanimous longing for one simple thing. And you can tell Jesse Dayton’s a Texan — if the question concerns you — by the fact that he wants it too: just a little ranch of his own in the hills outside Austin.
That Dayton additionally wants a couple of hot rods in the gravel driveway bespeaks the presence of Dayton’s greaser streak, the Beaumont-bred homunculus who copied his hair after Jimmie Vaughan’s pompadour and made his name as a rockabilly frontman with the Road Kings in Houston. That the dream spread would put him closer to his son, named after playwright and hipster emeritus Sam Shepard, bespeaks a different sensibility entirely. That he’s reading Capote biographies and co-writing screenplays and recasting his own songs as short stories a la Nick Cave when he’s not touring describes a man trying to make the break into the intellectual upper deck. He used to name-drop George Jones and Mike Ness. Now he’s name-dropping Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. He’s becoming, he says, more of a writer.
The new Tall Texas Tales is his “writer record,” he says, and it is also, perhaps coincidentally, his first self-produced solo release.
His solo debut Raisin’ Cain, came five years ago, on Houston label Justice Records, which had money and the goodwill of a stable of late-career country heroes (Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver). Justice helped get guest spots from Flaco Jimenez and Doug Sahm on Dayton’s debut. The disc went to #1 on Gavin’s Americana chart, and Dayton was playing Willie’s picnic and recording with the Supersuckers and playing camera-time lead guitar in CMT videos and touring with George Strait and getting his songs placed in TV shows.
The exposure bought Dayton the clout to go to Nashville and record a full-bore slick country record, on which he had the help of guests as deserving as legendary fiddler Johnny Gimble and as prescient as the pre-Target Dixie Chicks. That record was originally called Hey Nashvegas and later was titled Letter To Home, but it has never been released. Justice owns it, and owner Randall Jamail doesn’t have immediate plans for it, though he says it’s well worth hearing.
Dayton, Jamail says, asked him not to release it, about the same time he asked out of his contract. Dayton did get out of the deal about the same time he moved from Houston to Los Angeles, where he started making contacts with Pete Anderson and Dwight Yoakam and taking meetings with co-writers. There have been performances, tours, a record from the once-defunct Road Kings on Surfdog Records, and appearances on other people’s records — the Ray Price Orchestra recently, a Pete Anderson duet upcoming — but no solo Dayton disc.
What tossed Dayton off the fast track to stardom is hard to nail down, but contract negotiations with Justice arrived about the same time as a renewal of interest in the Road Kings, including the Surfdog release and offers to tour. Dayton says he was in the mood to have some below-the-waist fun with his old band. Jamail says Dayton had decided to lean toward rock ‘n’ roll and didn’t want the Nashvegas record on his rap sheet. “We were just going different directions,” Dayton says, “wanted to do different stuff.”
In any case, Dayton and Justice parted ways, and Dayton threw himself into “finding his voice” as a writer in Los Angeles. Along the way, he hooked up with an agent, a booker, a manager and a lawyer, and learned something about producing in Yoakam’s studio.
Three years later, he had built the confidence to move back to Austin, where his son Sam lives, and where the opportunities provided by the self-described live music capital of the world allow him to play pretty much when and where he wants. That’s what Dayton’s into these days, and thus the little piece of hill country land he’s looking to find — a relaxed, low-pressure environment where he can scale back, simplify, and hopefully translate his cult status into a maintainable career. It’s worked for Jerry Jeff Walker, and Robert Earl Keen.
“I think the smart guys in the business,” Dayton says, “are the rappers and the hippie bands. They’ve got their own distribution and business plans, they operate independent.”
Tall Texas Tales was recorded on the cheap in a home studio in Houston and released in October on Dayton’s newly formed Bullet Records. If it doesn’t exactly announce Dayton’s arrival — that announcement has already been made several times — it does showcase a songwriter who takes his I-won’t-be-pigeonholed attitude seriously. Once relegated to rockabilly, then thrown into the amorphous Americana bin, having helped blaze the punk-friendly hard-country path and having flirted with mainstream country, Dayton has made a record that self-consciously denies all those labels and subsumes them under the banner of songwriting. “It sounds like Austin in the ’70s, stripped down singer-songwriter country,” he suggests. “My voice on this record is about an inch from your nose.”
And so it is. Backed by his solo band of Charlie Sanders on bass, Brian Thomas on pedal steel, banjo and dobro, and Road King Eric Tucker on drums, Dayton tries on a dozen different songwriter coats, with local guests piping in flourishes of piano, harmonica, fiddle, clarinet, mandolin, tuba and organ.
It’s long been a cliche, especially in Austin, to tag “serious” songwriters as “literate,” but the lyric-heavy railroad rush of the album-opener “Never Turned My Back On You” announces Dayton’s focus on the words. Lots of them. “Jumped Head First” is a historical family saga worthy of Michener, while “Harris County Blues” chronicles Dayton’s Houston-era travails. And “One Year, Three Months, A Week To The Day” owes more than a little to Guy Clark’s own long-ago ode to leaving California, “L.A. Freeway”.
Dayton also continues to try on voices; there are hints throughout of Elvis, George Jones, Merle Haggard…hell, even Randy Travis. But the voice that comes through most strongly is Dayton’s, though it’s the voice of an artist still experimenting, still looking for his place and unafraid to search for it wherever the whim takes him, whether in the Dixieland stroll of “Molasses Girl” or the lovelorn strumming of “Every Now And Then.”
Dayton says simply of the album: “It sounds like what I hear in my head.” If he has proved one thing over the years, it’s that what he hears in his head is an ever-changing soundscape, and it bridles at containment in one style. Nowadays, Dayton apparently just wants to be known as a tunesmith and let the attitude fall where it may. Too ambitious to be wholly satisfied with the Road Kings, “too country” for Nashville, too contrarian to adopt a roots identity, he’s looking for artistic sanctuary, and finding it, in the broad tradition of Texas songwriters who sooner or later figure out that being a star is too much trouble, that all they really wanted was the freedom to follow their instincts. And maybe a loyal little cult following willing to follow those instincts as well.
That, and maybe a little ranch in the hill country outside Austin. It’s not so much to ask.