Jesse Dayton’s story reads like a who’s who of American music. Want to talk about being “born into it”? Imagine a 15-year-old kid born and raised on the Texas/Louisiana border, playing his Telecaster guitar in all-black zydeco bands in Lake Charles, Louisiana; honky-tonk country bands with members left over from the Starday Records’ George Jones days around his hometown of Beaumont, Texas. Dayton was underage and sneaking into night clubs to play shows ’til 3am with east Texas blues legend Little Mack Minor (cousin of Lightning Hopkins and Mance Liscomb), until eventually he was spotted by Gulf Coast hit producer Huey P. Meaux. Mr. Meaux approached Dayton and asked him to record with zydeco star Rockin Dopsey at Houston’s hit factory, Sugarhill Studios. And the story just keeps getting better.
As he enters early adulthood, Dayton begins packing clubs and theaters on the Texas scene with his trio in Houston, Dallas, and Austin. He records his first solo record titled “Raisin’ Cain” for Justice Records with featured guest luminaries, Doug Sahm, Flaco Jiminez and Johnny Gimble that hits Number 1 on the Americana Radio Charts. Jesse tours around the world opening for punk legends Social Distortion, The Supersuckers and X. Jesse is then asked to help arrange and play guitar on The Supersuckers biggest selling record, “Must’ve Been High.” While in Nashville doing press, Waylon Jennings spots him on Nashville TV show ‘Crook & Chase’ and calls Jesse out of the blue at his hotel to play lead guitar on his record, “Right for The Time.” Dayton blows off his flight back to Austin, heads to Woodland Studios where Waylon has sent a car for him, and knocks on the door. Johnny Cash answers it and says, “we’ve been waiting for you.” This leads to Dayton recording guitars on records and film with Cash, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Johnny Bush and Glen Campbell.
While Dayton is ignored by mainstream country radio, his cult following in the US and Europe continues to grow. A whole new crowd of Americana listening room folks, young college alternative rock fans & disenfranchised aging punk rockers embrace him. He embarks on headlining tours without any tour support from a label.
Just when you thought the story couldn’t get any cooler, horror director/rockstar, Rob Zombie hears Dayton’s record at a party, hunts him down, and calls him to write and record a soundtrack for his film ‘The Devils Rejects’ which lands him in Rolling Stone magazine. Then they co-write songs for Rob’s follow up franchise film, ‘Halloween 2’ (which Dayton appears in playing the part of character ‘Captain Clegg’). Then Dayton writes and records songs for a thirdRob Zombie film (this one animated) titled, ’The Haunted World of El Super Beasto.’ After years of pounding the pavement day-in and day-out, Jesse buys a house in Austin, and heads back on tour in his 40-foot redneck RV with his band of hillbilly punks.
Dayton has had over 50 songs licensed to film and television and even ended up writing and directing a horror film shot in New Orleans called ‘Zombex’ starring Malcolm McDowell, Sid Haig, Lew Temple from Walking Dead and John Doe from the band X. The film was sold to a distributor and got a theatrical release. After stockpiling songs during his film work, he heads into the studio to record “The Revealer” (back where it all started at Sugarhill Studios in Houston), and the first single “Daddy Was A Badass” becomes a hit on SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country channel. As this is happening, Dayton gets a call from the aforementioned, John Doe and is asked to fill in for guitarist Billy Zoom on 40-city U.S. tour with the original line-up of iconic punk band X while Zoom was taking time away from the band to undergo cancer treatment.
Jesse Dayton has been on tour non-stop for four years all over the US and Europe. His new record “The Outsider” was literally recorded while on tour in Atlanta, Denver, Nashville and Austin and mixed by Grammy Award winning engineer/producer Vance Powell (who has worked with the likes of Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and Jack White). About “The Outsider” Dayton says, “It’s a lot like ‘The Revealer’, but even more stripped down with some sweet acoustic guitar songs and some raw electric guitar work”. All the influences are there; the George Jones-inspired singing on “Changin’ My Ways,” the Outlaw country twang of Waylon and Jerry Reed on “Belly of the Beast,” the angst and energy of The Clash and X on hillbilly protest song “ Charlottesville,” and the deep east Texas blues and Cajun rockabilly of “May Have To Do It” and “Hurtin Behind The Pine Curtain.” While there are many different sides to him musically, this all rolls into one big hybrid that Jesse Dayton has been honing for over 20 years.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Jesse Dayton to discuss his life in music, the moments that have impacted him as an artist and the making of his latest album, ‘The Outsider.’
I wanted to start by giving everyone an idea of where you came from musically. How did music come into your life and begin to take hold?
I was thinking about this the other day for the first time. I mean, really, the first time! The three things I distinctly remember are these – First, I remember falling asleep in a coat rack in a honky tonk and Johnny Bush and Willie Nelson were playing! That’s one of my first memories of music. I was a little bitty kid and I couldn’t stay up and I would fall asleep, so they brought me back to the coat racks where I fell asleep on the coats! Another one was seeing Chuck Berry on “The Tonight Show” doing the duck walk. That just blew me away! I was like, “Man, I’ve got to do that!” [laughs] Then, I also remember putting a Beatles 45, which was my older sister’s, on the record player for the very first time as a toddler. I remember the Apple label! In our house, we had mandatory piano lessons. The folks were the first ones to make it out of the oil field and they became pseudo-academics in terms of their college education, they went and studied. They were trying to bring their kids up like that, so we all had to take piano. I thought that was boring! I wanted to play Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” but instead I was playing Chopin or something! [laughs] Then I got a drum set — a 1966 Ludwig Blue Sparkle set. It’s still in my parent’s attic in Beaumont, Texas! I was a little drummer boy who used to go play with all of these old country bands. They would give me 20 bucks. I met this guy named Granville Cleveland. What a great name, huh? [laughs] He had played with Johnny Edgar’s White Trash Blues Band. Johnny and Edgar are from my hometown and they lived about 2 blocks away from me. When he found out I was from Beaumont, he gave me some guitar lessons. He kind of showed me where to put my fingers and from there I was off and running! I had a gig 3 months later! That was the first thing! The first three songs I learned on the guitar were “Hey, Hey, My, My” by Neil Young, “Hey Good Lookin'” by Hank Williams and “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix. I call ’em the three heys! [laughs] That was the beginning, man! Once I learned to play the guitar, I was like, “Uhhh, I’m not going to let this fat redneck coach on the baseball team ever yell at me again. I’m done with you guys.” I never looked back.
The life of musician isn’t an easy road to take. When did you decide to pursue your passion as a profession?
It’s tough to be a musician and make a living. It doesn’t matter who you are, from Elvis to Keith Richards. I just kept getting opportunities to play. When I first started playing guitar, it came to me super quick. I was a really horrible 3rd baseman on the baseball team but I could play guitar! People in school started to say, “Hey, why don’t we get Jesse to play at our party?” So, naturally, I would play guitar and sing. Opportunities just kept happening for me. It’s crazy! There’s a famous producer, who produced all the Doug Sahm stuff and all of the Freddy Fender stuff like “Before The Last Teardrop Falls” and “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.” I went to Houston and I bugged him to get free studio time. He put me on a Zydeco record by a guy named Rockin’ Dopsie. I was literally the only white boy on the session.
Things like that just kept happening. Waylon saw me on a little TV show. I’m not sure if I’ve ever told you that but that was kind of the beginning of me saying, “Okay, I’m a guitar player.” This big-time publicist in Nashville by the name of Evelyn Schriever saw me play at the Continental Club in Austin when I was super young. She said, “I want to get you on this TV show in Nashville.” Keep in mind, I didn’t have a record deal or any support system. I drove my truck up to Nashville and got on this cheesy Nashville show with all these guys with mullets. It was kind of the beginning of bro-country, and I didn’t fit in at all. Kris Kristofferson was on the show that night, so I met him and he was super cool. We hung out, I did my song and he did his song. I was like, “Okay, I’ll just drive back to Austin. At the very least, I got to meet Kristofferson!”
The next morning, my phone rings. I’m staying out in the bricks, because I can’t even afford to stay by Music Row where the action is. I answer the phone and this voice says, “Hey Hoss, I saw you on TV last night with Kris. I cut my finger last night cookin’ with Jessi Colter. You wanna come out and play guitar for me?” He said, “This is Waylon Jennings.” I just stared at the phone for a while! [laughs] I snapped back into it and said, “I’ll be right over.” He said, “Come to Woodland Studio. Get a cab and I’ll pay for it.” I go over there and knock on the door. The door opens and it’s The Man in Black, Johnny Cash, standing right there! I’m standing there with my mouth wide open! [laughs] He says, “We’ve been waiting for you. Come on in!” If you Google “Jesse Dayton, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings,” footage from that day comes up! They were older then, so they had film crews following them incessantly because it was like when dinosaurs walked the Earth! It was like, “Yeah, we need to get footage!” They were filming them constantly! Some of that footage got leaked and there I am — playing guitar with both of them! We had a great time and they made me feel super comfortable. Two weeks later, Waylon called me and said, “Hey, do you want to play guitar on my new record?” I was like, “Of course!” That kind of started it and I went on to play on some Willie Nelson tracks, Johnny Bush tracks, and the whole Waylon record. I also cut some stuff with Glen Campbell. I played on the whole Ray Price record and that’s what started my career. That’s how I got going!
There is no doubt that you’re one hell of a guitar player. When do you feel you really came into your own as a performer and songwriter?
Well, I wrote some songs and I got a publishing deal. They put me on a monthly draw and that led to getting a record deal. I always felt pretty confident with my voice. Even early on, I had gigs where I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna get up there and sing tonight!” I’d rip through 30 classic country songs. We’d all make a couple hundred bucks and go home. So, I knew I could do that. When I got offered a record deal, that’s kind of when it started. To have a record with pedal steel, fiddles and all that, at the time was pretty rare. Now, you can’t swing a dead cat in East Nashville without seeing somebody in a Nudie suit playing traditional country. This was before Hank III and before Mike Ness put his solo country record out. I was doing it really early and people just did not know what to think! I couldn’t go out on tour with any of the bands from Nashville because they didn’t get it. They were way to square to understand it. They were like, “What’s this? Why is he playing this old, 1960s honky tonk stuff?” That led to me going out with punk bands! I went out with Social Distortion, X, Supersuckers and a bunch of other people. Unknowingly, I started to build this cult following that carries on to this day!
In your time in the business, you’ve seen the music industry change exponentially. What do you consider the keys to longevity?
For me, diversifying has been a big way of sustaining my career. For example, creating new revenue streams through things that I’m actually good at. I do all kinds of stuff! A big thing for me that really helped my career was when a friend of mine introduced me to Rob Zombie. Rob Zombie called me and said, “Hey, we’re making a white trash horror movie called “The Devil’s Rejects” and we’d like you to do the music. We want this kind of 70s, hillbilly crazy stuff.” That was the second movie he had made, and it was a big deal. A lot of the critics didn’t get it because they didn’t realize he was doing this B-movie-esque, Roger Corman-esque type of thing, which was very 70s. What was so cool about it was that the movie studio was behind it. I mean, no matter how great a director Marty Scorsese is, he’s never sold millions of records! [laughs] Rob had, so when I put this soundtrack out and I had the publishing on the songs, it did really well for me. It helped me tremendously! It helped me reinvent myself. I went on and did three films with him, and I even ended up writing and directing a film called “Zombex” starring Malcolm McDowell. That helped pad my financial situation, so I could get in an RV, go out on the road with the guys and not freak out if we bombed in Boise or if we sold out in Denver!
That leads us to your new album, “The Outsider.” What can you tell us about the headspace you were in on this one?
This record was recorded on the road. It was recorded on tour and a lot of those classic 70s rock records and country stuff that was coming out of California were done that way because they were traveling all the time. On this record, there were two songs done in Atlanta, two in Denver, 3 songs in Austin and 4 songs in Nashville. What I wanted to do, to keep the record cohesive and have a thread running through it, was strip the whole thing down and build it around my guitar. There is barely any pedal steel or fiddle on it. When we’re playing country stuff, stripped down like that, it’s more of a Jerry Reed thing. It has this kind of southern 70s vibe to it and that’s what I wanted to go for. I wanted to create that vibe because it’s something I love! I love those Jerry Reed, Tommy Joe White, and Bobbie Gentry records. I’m really happy with this record and I can’t wait for people to hear it! It’s a real hybrid thing! We’re not trying to be a perfect recreation of Buck Owens and The Buckaroos or anything like that. There is some of that in it, but it also has some different influences like blues, folk, Cajun and stuff like that.
With this album being recorded on the road, I can’t imagine there were quite a few adventures along the way! What are some of your favorite memories form this unique recording process?
Check this out! Our upright bass player’s bass, just crapped the bed. This friend of ours called us and said, “Oh, man! You should take it over to my buddy’s place and he will fix it for you before you get to the next town. We go over to this place in Denver. We didn’t know where we were going to a until we got there! We go in and this guy has an amazing recording studio! We said, “Hey, uh, who owns this studio?” He said, “Oh, I do! You wanna come in listen to some stuff we did?” We had the next day off, so we gave the guy $300 for the day and went into the studio to work up some new originals! We did this song called “Hurtin’ Behind The Pine Curtain.” The Pine Curtain is a reference to East Texas. It’s a nickname for it because there are a lot of pine trees. We also did a song called, “May Have To Do It, Don’t Have To Like It.” We just kind of started to do that! We got to a spot in Atlanta where we were going to be off for a couple of days. I asked a friend of mine where we should record, and he said, “Oh, you should go to this guy’s house. He’s got all this old gear in his basement and he’s like a total mad scientist.” So, we go to this guy’s house and it looks just like a regular house. We walk in and say, “Okay. Where is the recording studio?” He said, “Well, it’s a 2,500 square foot house but I have 2,500 square foot underground!” So, we go down there and sure enough, he’s got all this old gear. He’s got 1/2″ tape and so on. It’s not straight up Pro Tools! It’s the real deal! [laughs] We just went down there and started playing around. It was so cool because there was no pressure to go into a big studio and have record executives coming in and out, checking on a single and seeing how their money was being spent. There was no pressure! We just went in and kind of goof off!
That sounds like a pretty good way to approach it! [laughs]
It is, man! I tell younger guys all the time — “You don’t need to sign a bad bank loan with these people. You can go and do this stuff on your own. That way you don’t have to be indebted to them. You can actually own your masters. You don’t have to go in and record a record all at the same time. Go in and concentrate on two songs. Make them the best you can ever make them! Live with them for a while and if you want to change something, change something!” The days of being told, “Okay, you guys go in and cut a record. Do 12 rhythm tracks in 2 or 3 days and then we’ll start the bass…” — Those days are over for me! I’m not worried about that. I just want to make great songs, one song at a time!
What can you tell us about your songwriting process for this album?
It’s weird because I think I’ve become a real hybrid from all the stuff I listen to. I mean, there is no one, firm process for me. Sometimes, I will go the Roger Miller route. I will hear somebody say something witty. For example, I heard a guy say, “I’m home getting hammered while she’s out getting nailed.” I heard a carpenter guy say that at a bar one night! BOOM! — White trash Shakespearean epiphany! A light bulb went off in my head, and I ended up writing that song on the back of a Whataburger bag! Then there are times when I’m sitting down with somebody and we are going for a certain thing. Other times, I might start with a title or a melody. I might be tuning my guitar and I will accidentally play a melody and say, “Oh, that was cool!” I will record it in my phone and two weeks later I will sit down in a quiet room and try to bang a song out! The songs come to you in all different way! Another example – I saw a picture of me and this elderly African American woman who helped raise me. She was an old Creole woman from Louisiana. I saw this picture of her and I together. She was walking me home from school and I was probably 5 years old. I wrote this song about her called “Miss Victoria.” That happened fast. I wrote the song in about 15 minutes with tears in my eyes and I haven’t changed a word of it! The point is, sometimes you bang ’em out in months and other times they come really quick! The important thing is to just keep writing! It’s a discipline. You’ve gotta turn your phone off, go into a room, shut the door and tell everyone to leave you alone! Then you can think about what you’re doing!
You’ve had the unique opportunity to work with some legends in your time. Who’s had the biggest impact on you and your approach to your career?
As far as lifestyle, it’s probably Willie Nelson. When I first met Willie, I was scared to death! It seemed like we always had that 8-track in the car and the records in the house when I was growing up. I can’t stress enough to your listeners what a God he is in Texas. The only thing I can think would be pseudo-close would be if you grew up in New Jersey on the shore and you’re Springsteen fan. Maybe that! The colloquial power that he has is unbelievable. Willie is a very Zen guy. He’s a country boy in his heart but he’s also learned how to life! He exercises, drinks a ton of water and stays away from hard drugs and pills. He smokes a little weed and I’m sure he drinks a little tequila once and a while or whatever! He’s figured out how to manage his life in the middle of this crazy career that all of us have! So, what I learned from him isn’t so much about the music part, as it is the lifestyle part. I’ve changed a lot over the years as well. I’ve changed my diet and I exercise. Sure, I’ll still go blow it out with the boys every once and a while if I need to, but lifestyle is a big part of your career. The road is literally trying to kill you! There are bad roads, bad weather, booze, drugs, crazy women, and unsavory characters! [laughs] When my band is on our bus, we tried to put a lot of healthy food in there and drink a lot of water. We also turn down a lot of stuff that people want us to do because at the end of the night they get to go back to their house, which is 10 or 15 minutes away. Meanwhile, we have to drive to the next city and do it all over again! So, yeah, as far as lifestyle, Willie’s had a big impact.
What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey as an artist?
I think I’m the last of a generation. I grew up when there was still regional radio and before there was MTV. It’s nothing now but when it came out, MTV was huge. Before that, I got to play with a lot of these guys. Sadly, we’ve lost a lot of them along the way. We’ve lost Merle, John, and Waylon. Kris and Willie are still out there kicking ass, but it’s because they take care of themselves. I think if people want to hear an extension of all the real American roots music, they should listen to me! [laughs] I’ve put my whole life into it! Our show is kickass, man! We can’t go out and open up for bands. They don’t want us to open up for them because we go out there and destroy the place! We’ve been on tour for 5 years. It started when Billy Zoom got sick and John Doe called me to fill in and play guitar for X. It seems like ever since then, I’ve been on tour! It’s really that Malcolm Gladwell thing of “Ten Thousand Hours.” That’s a really big part of it, ya know? I guess some people get squirrely, write a hit song, it gets huge and they get signed. Maybe that’s their career. For me, it’s always been, “I’m just workin’!” [laughs] Really, what we’re doing is building this cult following. We just did our first headlining tour of Europe. We did not know how it was going to go. In fact, we played a couple of really big shows to help pay for the whole thing, just in case it was a total disaster. We got over there, and we did 21 shows and 19 of them were packed! It was just word of mouth! We had a good publicist in London and I got played on the BBC. What we’re doing right now is trying to bring more people into our tent. That’s all I care about. All I care about is growing gradually. What is it they say? “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Well, my biggest competition is me. I’m running my own race. When I pulled into Des Moines, Iowa, I started playing there for 23 people but now we get there, and the club is sold out! That’s pretty awesome considering that I play a style of music that’s not super popular, I have no major corporations funding me and I’m totally punk rock and do-it-yourself. The crowds just keep building! So, to anyone out there saying, “Oh, remember that guy? Is he still around? Is he still out there doing it?” I would say the reason you are asking that question is because you got the minivan, you moved to the suburbs, you have 2.3 kids and your life has changed, but I’m still out here doing this! Some of those people still come and see me but we also get tons of new people every year! It’s just getting bigger and bigger, and that’s all I care about. I don’t care about hit songs or any of that stuff. I’m still doing movie stuff and I just wrote some songs for a new film with Shooter Jennings. It will be out this year! What more can you ask for? I’ve got a beautiful wife and I bought a house in a cool neighborhood in south Austin. I can park my bus behind there and I’ve got a studio. I think the more independent you are and the less you have to depend on the tastemakers, the happier you’re going to be, man!
I’m sure some people are going to discover your work for the first time via your new album, “The Outsider.” However, you have a terrific back catalog of music. Where is a good spot for the new fans to jump in?
That’s a good question. We don’t really have hits per se, but we have crowd favorites. When we go tour, we have to play those songs! We have a song called “Daddy Was A Badass” that I wrote. It was kind of a hit song on Sirius XM. We played in Phoenix one time. My agent had booked us at this big theater and I was blown away. I called him as soon as I got there and said, “Dude, are you crazy” This is going to look horrible with a couple hundred people in it. He goes, “Oh no, dude. You pre-sold almost half of the room!” I was like, “Really?” He said, “Yeah, man!” Anyway, I get off the phone, we get there, and the place is almost sold out. It’s totally packed, and we have a great show! Every night after our show, I go to the merch booth and I meet people. There is a line of people there and every single one of them said, “Hey, man. I listen to you every day on Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country!” I was like, “Ohhhh, okay! That’s what’s going on!” So, that song, “Daddy Was A Badass” is a good place to start with me. There are some other ones as well. There’s a song called “Think of Me When You Take Out The Trash,” which is kind of a dirty rock ‘n’ roll song. I’ve got some songs that are full-on country off the record called “Country Soul Brother.” There is also a record called “The Revealer,” which I put out last year. They should go and listen to that whole record because that’s the majority of what I’m playing at my shows. Those are some good places to start!
What’s the best way for fans to support you and help you continue to thrive as an artist?
Ya know what I do? If there is a band that I like, I will go out, pay cover and buy t-shirts, vinyl or a CD. That’s a big deal. People don’t realize how powerful their economical choices are. If we all started shopping at Mom and Pop shops only, it would change the economy. It would change the world! So, when you come out buy one of my shirts or records… Let’s say you got The Revealer” on red vinyl. You buy it for $25 bucks and I give the label $5 bucks or whatever, but I have $20 bucks to put into my gas tank to go to the next town or that $20 is going to pay part of my mortgage or to put my kid through college. I try to do the same thing that my fans do for me. I went out and saw a band in Austin, a few nights ago before I left on tour, called Eve and The Exiles. It was an all-girl band and the frontwoman, Eve Monsees, is a blues player who came up with Gary Clark, Jr., and I really dug them! So, I bought the t-shirts! There is a lot of power in that! It’s so awesome just to think that we can get our friends to make some artwork, buy some t-shirts, go on tour and actually show a profit! It’s very exciting to me, still, at this age! It’s like, “I can’t believe we’re pulling this off, man!” [laughs]
Well, we’re certainly glad you are! Congratulations on everything you’ve accomplished so far. We can’t wait turn a few more people on to the awesome music you are making!
I really appreciate that, Jason! I’ll catch up with you again soon! Take care!
Jesse Dayton will release ‘The Outsider’on June 8th Via Blue Élan Records. Visit his official website at www.jessedayton.com for the latest news and tour dates. Connect with him on social media through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.