About Jesse Dayton
I was standing backstage at the Continental Club one night talking with rockabilly legend Billy C. Riley while Jesse Dayton set up. Riley had his back to the stage when Dayton looked at his band, gave the nod, and jumped on the accelerator. The opening salvo was so highly charged and super-amped that Riley involuntarily ducked. Recovering from his surprise, Riley jerked his head around, shook his hips like Chubby Checker doing The Twist in a little moment of dancing joy, and hollered, “Yeah, man! Go, cat, go!” Riley later told me “that guy coulda made it in the old days.” He called Dayton “one gone cat.”
A lot of people have called Jesse Dayton a lot of things. When he was the guitarist in country legend Ray Price’s orchestra, Price affectionately called him “Beaumont.” After hearing Dayton run through a few songs in a Nashville studio, Johnny Cash respectfully called Dayton “different.” After injuring his picking thumb, Waylon Jennings called Dayton to play Waylon’s guitar parts on Right For The Time. Seattle rockers The Supersuckers called Dayton North to help them record what has become an alt-country classic, Must’ve Been High. The Austin American-Statesman simply but quite accurately called Dayton “turbo-country.”
Jesse Dayton just doesn’t do it like everyone else. Raised on the Gulf Coast musical gumbo that accepts everything from the classic heartbreak honky tonk of George Jones to the honking classic rock of the Big Bopper to the blue-eyed soul of RnB outfits like Cookie and the Cupcakes, Dayton’s musical vision goes far beyond the boundaries of what we usually consider “country music.” In fact, his vision is so big and so different from the restrictive notions of industry bigwigs and record companies that after years of working within the system, Dayton has chucked the whole chase, starting his own Stag Records label, producing his own records, going his own way. His latest Stag recording is a great example of what freedom and independence have done for Dayton the artist. Heavily influenced by ’60s soul artists and soulful country artists like George Jones, Conway Twitty, Charlie Rich, and Jerry Lee Lewis, Country Soul Brother mines Dayton’s blue-eyed soul side, yet everything is done within Dayton’s exciting and highly volatile turbo-country template, making for an entirely unique album that stands out from the lumpy mass of albums known collectively today as alternative country.
So how did a Gulf Coast kid from a blue-collar industrial town arrive at this particular musical place? Given his independent maverick streak, it’s not all that surprising that Dayton began his music career as a self-starter playing house parties that he and his drummer Eric Tucker (“my best friend since sixth grade”) organized. The young musical entrepreneurs would work the door to cover expenses — like the keg, — then move to the stage where they’d play anything from George Jones to the Clash. Jason Burns joined the band on bass, and they began their long stint as the energetic party rockabilly outfit, The Road Kings.
By the time The Road Kings were tearing up stages all over the U.S. and Europe, Dayton was coming to the realization that he had more music in him than rockabilly would allow. Dayton segued from The Road Kings into alt-country outfit Alamo Jets, which became local favs in Houston and Austin and brought Dayton to the attention of Texas-based independent label Justice Records.
He did two records for Justice, only one of which saw the light of day. His debut solo recording, Raisin’ Cain, reached #1 on the Americana Music radio chart and introduced the world to Dayton’s unique brand of country music, labeled “turbo country” by the Austin American Statesman. New Country Magazine called Dayton “the most promising country debut since the Mavericks’ From Hell To Paradise.” Raisin’ Cain raised eyebrows all over the country music industry and identified Dayton as a truly gifted guitarist. Legendary artists like Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Ray Price, and Waylon Jennings took notice. Waylon hired Dayton to play on his Right For The Time recording. Dayton simply says “spending that time with Waylon changed me forever.”
A difference of opinion ensued at Justice, so the follow up to Raisin’ Cain was shelved. Dayton then moved to Los Angeles where he reformed The Road Kings and recorded an album for Surfdog/Hollywood Records. The Kings toured both nationally and internationally with several acts, including Chris Isaak.
While in L.A., Dayton began work on a collection of songs he felt highlighted his “writers voice.” Deeply influenced by Justice Record labelmates Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver and by Townes Van Zandt, L.A. seemed to be at odds with the musical direction Dayton felt pulled in. He felt Austin calling. He settled into the South Austin music and art community just a stone’s throw from the legendary Continental Club. Hanging out with Austin’s elite musicians enlightened Dayton to the D.I.Y. way of releasing music, leading him to record and release Tall Texas Tales himself. But due to limited reach and resources, the album found few listeners (or buyers, if you will) but had a hugely successful run with the pioneering Internet music website Mp3.com, where Dayton’s “Jumped Head First” hit #1 on both its Pop and Country charts.
Realizing his quest for larger audiences could not be accomplished without help, Dayton enlisted two partners and formed roots-oriented Stag Records. The first item of business at Stag was to pull the follow up to Raisin’ Cain off the shelf and finally release it. There had been rumors for years that Dayton had a “Nashville record” that had never seen the light of day. Hey Nashvegas (STAG-003; September 25, 2001) was recorded primarily in Nashville, but featured a checklist of Texas stellar musicians, including the as yet unknown Dixie Chicks, Jim Lauderdale, piano legend Floyd Domino, fiddle giant Johnny Gimble. A tour de force of classic country styles without the saccharin and sterility that have become the staples of the genre, the album quickly entered the Top 5 on the Americana chart. Dayton took the title from some graffiti in a Nashville coffeehouse, and the album is a plea for Nashville to remember what made it great. The album also illustrated a valuable lesson Dayton has learned from his musical survivor mentors like Waylon Jennings and Jim Lauderdale: Borrow without stealing and return the goods in fine or better shape. Writing about the album, the Austin American-Statesman said, “Like the Possum (George Jones), Dayton is the possessor of a tear-stained voice, a lost soul sensibility and probably a high degree of familiarity with the kinds of places mama warned you about.” Even the European press joined the party. Mojo Magazine wrote, “It’s been ten years, when Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam emerged, since country music launched a new artist this powerful.”
With all the Justice material released, Dayton decided to put a fresh coat of paint (new, original artwork and three bonus tracks) on his “writers record,” and Tall Texas Tales (STAG-002) was officially released July 1, 2003. Dayton has made a record that self-consciously denies all the 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.”
The time since Tall Texas Tales has been spent touring the U.S. and Europe, including prestigious festivals such as the Blue Highway Festival (Netherlands), Country Rendevous Festival (France), Jazz and Blues Festival (Belgium) and countless domestic events. His tight touring band of Brian Thomas (steel, banjo, dobro), Eric Tucker (drums) and Elmo Sproat (bass) was captured on the bootleg EP, Live In Las Vegas, available only at shows and at jessedayton.com.
After getting his new business up and running and with all his recordings released, Dayton felt a need to change it up once again. Ever the fan of soulful country crooners like Conway Twitty and George Jones, Dayton set out to recharge his musical batteries with a heavy dose of soul. Country Soul Brother (STAG-006, Oct. 19, 2004) features 12 songs, most of which are in the power-packed honky tonk style that has kept Dayton in the roadhouses and rock clubs instead of the slick line dancing venues. There’s a lot about the album that should remind people of Texas music pioneer Doug Sahm, who coined the apropos phrase, “You just can’t live in Texas if you don’t have a lot of soul.”
With his Telecaster thrust up front in the mix and a voice seasoned by the nightly Jim Beam marinade, Dayton is in fine form on the album. Throw in some funky blasts from Antone’s Horns, tasty fills by keyboard legend Riley Osbourn, and the blues-soaked backing vocals of Carolyn Wonderland and you’ve got country music that harkens back a few decades. Many classic country acts perform loving tributes, but the real trick is adding a personal stamp. When Dayton belts out something like George Jones’s “The Grand Tour” or Jim Lauderdale’s “King of Fools”, he always likes to tell his audiences that “these aren’t covers, these are classics.” And when Dayton pulls a trick out his musical bag like his innovative cover of The Cars monster hit “You Were Just What I Needed” or sings his guts out on the Gulf Coast RnB classic “I’ve Got A Right To Cry,” audiences tend to howl in appreciation. Whether he’s covering a classic or singing one of his fine originals like “Jesus Pick Me Up,” Dayton’s original delivery proves he’s doing more than emulating artists who’ve gone before him. In everything he does these days, Dayton pays respect to the country tradition while forging ahead.
Jesse Dayton is often referred to as “the best kept secret in modern country music.” If you ever get down to Houston, come by the Continental Club some steaming Saturday night and let yourself in on the secret. I guarantee there’ll be a party goin’ on. And Jesse Dayton will be right in the middle of it.
William Michael Smith
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