Unsung Heroes of Americana Music: Jesse Dayton & Real Country Music
After hanging out around the Americana scene over the last 20 years — from Nashville to Austin, with a layover or two in Los Angeles — it’s a wonder that Jesse Dayton’s name is not the kind you hear among roots music fans from coast to coast. While so much in the Americana music landscape has been trimmed, hedged, and made safe for easy listening and feel-good digestion since 1995, Dayton is as wild and untamed as his Texas country musical heritage would require of him.
His latest album, The Revealer, resonates with the soul of authentic country music, wrapped in punk energy and pure rootsy rock and roll inspiration. It is a full feast of what is best in American music today.
Dayton comes by his brand with credentials that include concert and studio gigs with personal heroes Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Glen Campbell. His career has been diverse enough to allow him to whet his whistle in horror filmmaking with the likes of Rob Zombie while maintaining a close relationship with the great L.A. punk band X.
Raised dangerously close to the Louisiana border, in the swampy terrain of Beaumont, Texas, Dayton’s musical vocabulary was formed by George Jones, Lefty Frizzell, and Hank Williams. But, a child of his times, he also absorbed the classic punk sounds of bands like the Clash. So, it wasn’t much of a stretch to move into the rockabilly revival of the ’80s, which eventually found him enough of a guitar slinger by reputation to land prime spots playing with Waylon, Willie, Cash, and Ray Price. But, it was his 1995 solo album, Raisin’ Cane, that put Dayton on the Americana music map when the genre was still in its infancy. Dayton was among the first artists — along with Wilco, Robert Earl Keen, and Old Crow Medicine Show — to be marketed as “Americana,” following the forced exodus of many of the most authentic country artists from mainstream country radio in the early ’90s.
What set Dayton apart from the crowd of mostly low-key mellow alt-country artists who would eventually crowd the field of Americana bands was the triple threat of strong, soulful vocal talent, skillful and original songwriting, and a guitar ability that is equally at ease with country western and the hardest edges of blues-soaked rock. In his time, this was new ground in country music. His approach was never imagined in the Americana music of two decades ago, which was emerging as a backlash against the increasingly watered-down country music of the ’90s. Today, Dayton could be considered a musical father to chart-topping artists like Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson.
In 2002, Dayton began his own Stag Records label to help better adjust to the swiftly changing marketing practices in the business of music. It was a wise move that allowed his career and reputation to continue to grow. This began his most productive and creative time, which included five solo albums of mostly original material that varied in style from hard-core country western, to Ameripolitan-Hot Club, Tex-Mex, and punk-infused rock ‘n’ roll.
Dayton also connected with Rob Zombie, who loved his uncompromising approach to music and songwriting. Zombie enlisted him to record two soundtracks (Devil’s Rejects, Halloween 2). In 2014, he wrote and directed his own independent horror film, Zombex, which starred Malcolm McDowell.
Currently, Dayton has just finished touring as an opening act for his friend, John Doe, of L.A.’s veteran punk-band, X. Last year he toured with the iconic band on lead guitar when Billy Zoom was diagnosed with cancer. For the next few months, Dayton will be touring with the alt-country, cowpunk Arizona band Supersuckers and Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band.
The recent release of The Revealer further confirms Jesse Dayton as one of the most important artists in Americana music today. The album opens with “Daddy Was a Bad Ass,” a song that rebelliously invites us to respect our elders for their stubborn, durable, wild nature rather than their bland respectability. It’s the flip side of John Prine’s, “Grandpa was a Carpenter,” but through the lens of a considerably harder remembered Texas childhood.
The remainder of this dynamic collection of diverse country, blues and rock songs never comes up for air as the hellfire possessed boogie keeps us drenched in the truest nature of what makes great American roots music hard to categorize and yet so engaging.
The festivities just keep rolling from the vintage, Jerry Lee Lewis-inspired piano-driven, “Holy Ghost Rock ‘n’ Roller,” giving hell to rock ‘n’ roll condemning preachers, to “The Way We Are,” an Outlaw-era Waylon influenced ode to the veteran musicians who helped to make country music great.
“Eatin’ Crow and Drinkin’ Sand” tells the story of the Texas drought of 1931 through a Tom Waits dry throat, underpinned by a Texas blues soundtrack. The narrative is one that shows how oral history and storytelling is handed down by our elders and then turned into a song.
“Possum Ran Over My Grave,” shows how it takes a songwriter with personal memories of a legend to rightly pay tribute to the death of an artist as great as George Jones. “Possum Ran Over My Grave” calls to mind that distinct feeling of loss alongside the treasure of the memories of one of the great country singer. Dayton cleverly arranges the song and delivers his vocal in a way that allows him to easily slip into a hauntingly beautiful imitation of Jones’ tear-in-your-voice style.
“Take Out the Trash” hypnotically calls up the spirit and style of Warren Zevon in a way that is engaging and unabashedly beautiful, real, and original. You can almost feel the late singer-songwriter give a bit of a nod and a chuckle.
As hard as this album rocks, with such abandon, when Dayton begins to revel in acoustic blues on “Mrs. Victoria (Beautiful Thing)” none of the creative momentum is lost. The story of an African-American maid and her relationship to a white family is expertly molded into the Piedmont style of blues from the lyrical perspective of a small boy as he reveals, “that black old lady was my best friend, made me who I am today.” It’s a perfect tender moment of compassionate storytelling in an album full of rough edges.
The collaboration with Hayes Carll, “3 Pecker Goat,” returns the proceedings to their ornery roots with a humorous song delivered in a hard-rocking Tex-Mex fashion that would make Doug Sahm proud.
A strong honkytonk aura is produced by the teaming up with Texas singer-songwriter Brennen Leigh on “A Match Made in Heaven (Started a Fire as Hot as Hell).” Once again, it’s a reminder of how good true country music can be when it’s allowed to breathe without commercial considerations.
The same can be said of the over-the-top comedy song “I’m at Home Getting Hammered (While She’s Out Getting Nailed),” complete with soaring mando solos, blazing electric leads, and a tagline that really should win some kind of award for clever song titles.
The final two tracks slow things down, allowing us to take a breath and reflect on some truly soulful lyrics beginning with the confessional anthem “Never Started Livin’ (’Til I Started Loving You).” It is a classic country love ballad in the truest sense delivered with unflinching conviction.
“Big State Motel” opens with a beautifully earthy Dobro and turns into a road metaphor for a Texas singer-songwriter whose path may seem weary at times, but it is always calling him onward. It’s a fine way to close one of the best Americana albums of 2016.
According to Dayton, who recorded this album at Houston’s legendary Sugar Hill studios, there was a feeling of a great ghostly presence during the making of the record. He explained, “Once we got in the studio it felt like the ghosts of Freddy Fender, George Jones, and Doug Sahm were in the room with us. They all recorded massive hits there with Huey Meaux and there’s just such a powerful vibe. You’re surrounded by all this Texas music history and that’s inspiring.”
With the help of producer, John Evans, his childhood friend and musician, Eric Tucker, singer-songwriter, Mike Stinson, Eric Hughes on drums, and Austin musicians Riley Osbourne on piano and B3 organ, and Beth Chrisman on fiddle, a sense of honor and love has been created on this new album that brings the same inspiration once created at the legendary Texas studio.
Jesse Dayton’s new album lives up to its title in that it reveals to us the fact that the return to country roots did not begin over the last few years with artists like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton.
In fact, the revelation lies in the fact that Jesse Dayton is as much an innovator as he is a preserver of country music traditions and American roots celebrations.