Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band Preaches the Gospel of Mixing It Up
Reverend Peyton is the first to admit that the name of his outfit – Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band – could appear to some like mere hyperbole, or worse, wholly misleading. “We’ve had so many soundboard people ask us over the years, ‘How many channels do you need? I don’t know if our board is big enough!’” He laughs. “I tell them, ‘Your board is probably big enough.’”
Any confusion is only natural. For one thing, his Big Damn Band is just a trio. For another, Peyton is no reverend, at last not in the strictest sense. He insists on keeping his real first name a secret, adding that even his mother refers to him as “Rev.” As far as the exaggeration suggested by the band’s handle … well, that’s easily explained, too. “When we were naming the band, I had this tendency to identify things as a ‘big damn’ this or a ‘big damn’ that,” he says, “and it became almost like an inside joke. So I came up with the name ‘Reverend Peyton and His Big Damn Band’. … It just felt ironic to call this small band the ‘Big Damn Band.’ So I researched the name, and I just couldn’t believe that no band had ever been called the Big Damn Band before. It was just too good.”
It’s not only the irony of their name that some have found confusing, it’s their entire modus operandi. On first listen, it’s unclear whether they’re aiming to be a blues band, a jam band, a rock-and-roll band, a funk band, or an archival Americana band. Not that it matters; they offer elements of each. While their new album, boldly titled So Delicious, offers a predominance of bluster and boogie, its songs also encompass a casual country ramble, plenty of stomp, and even more assertion. It becomes clear that the Big Damn Band’s biggest strength lies in not fitting squarely into any single niche.
Apparently, that’s way they like it. In fact, it’s a source of their strength. “The average music listener doesn’t know where to categorize us,” says Breezy Peyton, Rev’s wife and constant collaborator. Sometimes it’s frustrating from a publicity point of view, because it’s hard to know how exactly to pitch us. But we don’t really deal with [the question of] comparisons and whether it fits into some specific mold. I hear all the time that we are someone’s favorite blues, bluegrass, punk, or country band. I don’t care what people call it, so long as they like it.”
That stylistic mutability has also provided them with a wide array of performance possibilities. In fact, few other outfits can claim to have played so many different – and distinct – venues. They’ve fit just as easily into the lineup on the Warped Tour (where they were named “Best Band” in 2010) as they have into the rosters at Telluride Bluegrass Festival, WOMAD, the Cambridge Folk Festival, Glastonbury, and Bonnaroo.
In fact, the diversity can be dazzling. One wonders how they’re able to keep track of what kind of audience they’re entertaining. Nevertheless, Peyton has no complaints. “It’s interesting,” he insists. “It’s one of the ways we’re able to do so many shows and keep it interesting … not just for the fans, but for ourselves. I remember one time when we played a bikers rally, and then we played a date on the Warped Tour, and then we played a Canadian folk festival … all in the same week! The only thing we might have had to adjust was the set list, but a lot of times we [don’t] adjust anything at all.”
At the same time, the Big Damn Band’s ability to defy definition allows them not only to straddle traditions but also to set new standards. It’s a quality that makes them extraordinarily intriguing, but also somewhat unique among their peers. In fact, their ability to broaden those boundaries has given them an added attribute all their own. As a writer on the music blog MXDWN.COM once commented, “The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band is a 20-year-old bourbon in a room of vodka Red Bulls and PBRs. Vintage yet timeless, exciting and still welcoming … ”
Biker Crowds to Bonnaroo Hipsters
This depth and variety is the attribute that allows Peyton and his bandmates – Breezy on washboard and vocals and Ben Bussell on drums and backing vocals – not only to multitask in their designs, but also to find a fit with different audiences without alienating anyone in the process. That’s quite an accomplishment, considering the band averages some 250 dates a year.
“Sometimes audiences don’t know what to expect, but that’s what’s so fun about it,” Rev admits. “A bunch of hardened bikers react to music in a different way than people at, say, Bonnaroo. … If you play straight honky-tonk country, there are only certain places you can play, and that’s it. And if you play punk rock, there are only certain places you can play that, and that’s all there is there, too. You’re not going to be able to play just anywhere, because you’re limited. On the other hand, I don’t know if there’s a type of venue in the United States that we haven’t done. We’ve done blues festivals, folk festivals, punk rock clubs, hillbilly clubs, blues clubs … we’ve played with Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. We’ve played with Flogging Molly. We’ve played with Clutch. We’ve done shows in tents, and we’ve done Austin City Limits. I feel really lucky in that way, because that’s part of what keeps it exciting for me. If we showed up for every show and we knew it was going to be the same thing, same exact setup, same exact kind of crowd, then maybe it would be boring and maybe it wouldn’t be so easy to keep it so fresh.”
The critics seem to concur. Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band has consistently dazzled both pundits and audiences, due in no small part to Peyton’s ability to make a single guitar sound like it’s coming from a pair of pickers. More than one observer has marveled at the simultaneous sound he makes by using his fingers to play different parts and then mold them into the melody. “The band is amazing live,” a writer for Examiner.com in Orange County, Calif., wrote after seeing a show. “[Reverend Peyton] is truly one of the best guitar pickers I have seen. Seeing the fingerpicking style – where the thumb plays the bass line and the other fingers play the guitar part – was a real treat. You don’t get to see many players like that anymore.”
It’s to the Big Damn Band’s credit that, after eight years, five full-length albums, and a handful of EPs, they still manage to retain their roots. Then again, those roots run deep. Ask the Peytons about the source of musical inspiration and the answer comes quickly: their hometown in Brown County, Indiana, a hilly stretch of terrain located near the border with Kentucky.
“It’s a secluded, rural place that few folks are even aware of, but it’s always influenced the content of my songs,” Rev explains. I get messages all the time from my friends – ‘Man, why don’t you come to Austin? It’s really happening here.’ Or, ‘Man, come to Nashville, that’s where it’s all going on.’ But I refuse to leave my home and I refuse to sing songs that don’t reflect this place that I’m from. It makes me feel good that we have so many fans from Brown County, so many fans close to home. I appreciate it. They know what we are and what we’re all about, and they know that the songs that we sing are for real. Whenever I read that someone from far away didn’t get where we’re coming from, I figure they just don’t know, because they’re not from here. But the people that are from here know what life is like in this area.”
Clearly, the Peytons’ hometown pride runs deep. That’s in no small part due to the fact that Rev knows true rural voices are rarely embraced by audiences outside of their hometowns. So he takes his role as a sort of ambassador seriously. “People are so used to hearing this characterization of what life is like out in the country, so I think when they hear a song describing what life is really like out here, they don’t quite understand. My wife says I could work for the local chamber of commerce with all the good things I say about this place. Maybe that’s true. Indiana is a little state, and so it is underrated. Oftentimes people that live in a small town like this say ‘Oh, there’s nothing to do here.’ But when you get here, and you really look into it, you see there is plenty to do.”
“We love having a home to come back to, where we can have some peace,” Breezy adds. “Brown County is a beautiful place and it’s home to some of the most interesting people in the world. We’re surrounded by some amazing artisans, and that’s extremely inspiring.”
A Lot More Blues to Make
Indiana hasn’t been the band’s only inspiration, however – far from it. Rev’s infatuation with some early idols had a lingering effect not only on his music, but also, more importantly, on how he opted to take a sound soaked in tradition and translate it into music that’s creative and contemporary. Many of the musicians he came to admire helped affirm the sound of the blues, then helped advance it into the modern era. It’s a lesson Peyton was eager to emulate while he was shaping his own sound.
“One thing I love about my heroes – Charlie Patton, Furry Lewis, Mississippi John Hurt – is that they didn’t live by any set rules for what their music was,” he maintains. “They only put out stuff they thought was really great. … On this record, I wanted to really push myself. It was like, how much further can we take this? What can I do with finger-style country blues guitar that’s never been [done] before? A lot of the songs on the record, particularly the first two – ‘Let’s Jump a Train’ and ‘Pot Roast and Kisses’ – allowed me to take a unique approach, and I’m really proud of that. When people hear those songs, they’re going to think its two guitars. It’s not. It’s one hundred percent me laying it down live. Blues is the oldest genre of uniquely American music and there’s a lot more to make, but only if we keep pushing it and trying to make it sound fresh. We have to understand where it comes from, and also ensure that it remains in the here and now.”
Nobody understands Rev’s allegiance to the blues – and the importance of approaching it authentically – better than Breezy. It’s a love and commitment they shared right off the bat. “Before I loved Rev, I loved country blues,” she says. “There are a lot of people in blues today that are talking about keeping the blues alive, but I believe the best way to keep it alive is to create new blues. Any artist can regurgitate music from another artist, but it’s rarely better than the original. There are too few artists in blues that are making new blues music for modern times while still giving a nod to the old greats. I think that is Rev’s biggest strength, and his true gift.”
On that point, Rev is especially adamant: “You can cover Son House all you want, but you’re never going to do it as well as Son House, because he lived those songs. And that was one thing I figured out early on. If you’re going to play the blues, then you have to write about stuff you’re living. … In certain genres of music, you can make up stories and write songs that are fiction and it can work. But not in blues. Blues music forces you to open yourself up, and that can be a scary thing. When you take a song that’s one hundred percent autobiographical, and it’s so incredibly personal, you run the risk of [the audience] not liking you. … [But] I have nothing to hide.
“People are so used to being lied to,” he continues. “They’re not sure they’re not still getting lied to, even when something is for real. I always considered myself to be a student of early blues, pre-blues – what I call country blues – a student who studied at that altar. Some people call it roots blues, because the label ‘country blues’ confuses people. They think of Waylon Jennings as country blues. … That’s not necessarily what I do. Over the last few years I’ve come to figure out what I’m all about. … My goal is to play the guitar in a way that has never been done before. Of course, that’s a tall order. People have been playing guitar in this country for centuries. It’s something I literally work on every day. This new record has more of that than ever before. … Just one guitar – all me.”
Classic and Current
Clearly, the band has come a long way from their earliest albums, which Peyton now refers to as their “field recordings” due to their bare-bones production techniques and their use of studio mics manufactured in the 1920s and ’30s. To hear him tell it, he believed at the time that this was the only way to make a record sound authentic. As the band has evolved, they’ve updated their approach, but they’ve done so without muting their authenticity. It’s all part of Peyton’s desire to meld the classic and the current.
“When we first started making records, I was railing against everything in music that I thought was terrible in terms of what I thought sounded plastic and artificial,” Peyton explains. “That drove us to the extreme in the other direction. … I’ve learned over the years that we can make a vintage-sounding recording and also make it a good record. We’ve become less obtuse about it. For this record, we used ’40s and ’60s technology, so maybe we’re advancing.” He laughs. “We’re still thinking about the equipment and what we can use to create the sound we want, but we also want to make sure it sits well in people’s iPods. I never want to sound like [we’re] in a museum.”
Fittingly, So Delicious is being released by Yazoo Records – an archival label devoted to preserving vintage blues recordings. Peyton couldn’t be happier with the arrangement. “It was like a dream come true,” he says. “I’ve spent my whole life listening to Yazoo releases. It’s the number one place to find reissues of those classic 78 RPM records, and for them to believe in what we’re doing, it’s just so gratifying, so satisfying … it just really makes me feel like someone finally got it. That they understood where I’m coming from.”
Getting people to understand is something both Peytons have pursued for quite a while. And as Rev admits, it hasn’t always been easy. “I learned early on that not everyone’s going to listen to music the way I do,” he muses. “My level of passion borders on insanity. Not everyone has been studying music and pouring over it since they were 12 years old like I have. Not everyone has lived it that way. Most people listen, and either like it or they don’t. Not everyone hears a hundred years of influences. And that’s fine, of course. It’s okay. But it’s nice when someone does listen to music that way and they’re able to tell what we’re trying to do.”
To a great extent, Peyton’s succeeded. However there’s no denying his band’s well-worn template. As Steve Leggett of AllMusic.com noted, “These guys are a hillbilly blues throwback ensemble … and no amount of refinement can really push them off their mark. Peyton’s voice still croaks, shouts, and roars, and his unique, kinetic slide guitar playing, whether it’s a ’30s National guitar, a cigar-box guitar, a Gibson flattop 1929 L2, or an Airline Map electric guitar, still drives and churns like a runaway train.”
As one who refers to himself as a reverend and freely boasts – with a notable lack of reservation – about his achievements, Peyton is clearly self-assured. “I was really confident that I could take these songs, and take my vision for them, and move them forward and make the best record we’ve ever made,” he says. “Maybe that’s because of all the shows we’ve done on the road, or maybe it’s because of the handful of records we’ve made. I don’t know exactly where it comes from, but you know what? I know I can do this. All the songs were written and produced by me. That was kind of a scary thing. If it went well, it meant that I would look pretty good. But if it didn’t go so great, I’d have no one to blame but myself.”
While that may be the case, Rev also credits Breezy with helping to make things work in terms of the music and the mechanics. Anyone who claims that business and pleasure don’t mix, or that spouses who work together wreck their chances of staying together, might take a lesson from the Peytons’ partnership. “Breezy is my best friend,” Rev says. “We have so much fun together. She always believed in me and the songs that I write and the music that we make together … even before I did. We never argue in a way that leads to anything serious. We might argue about something stupid, but we both know it’s stupid, so it’s no big deal. We help each other in every way. Her ability to run the business aspect of this is at the genius level. She’s there at the exact places I need the help. And hopefully it’s true for the vice versa.”
Breezy concurs. “Rev has developed so much vocally and lyrically since the beginning,” she says. “He is a true leader and he gives great direction for his vision with the new songs. I’m very lucky to be right there beside him.”
Clearly, Peyton and his two colleagues have carved a mighty niche in the roots rock scene, courtesy of a sound that defines that genre’s very essence. With one foot in the past and the other moving them forward, this Big Damn Band is bound to a route that transcends time and technique.