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Americana artist Jesse Dayton comes from long line of 'nuanced rural poets'

Jesse Dayton

Jesse Dayton spent his early days playing alongside country legends Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson. Over the course of his career, he’s incorporated his punk, rock, and Americana influences to create a style that had him touring with heavy metal artist Rob Zombie a few years ago. Dayton spoke with WBFO’s Nick Lippa ahead of his performance Tuesday night at Mohawk Place.

You are playing Buffalo Tuesday night. As a country/americana artist, how’s this market for you?

Jesse Dayton: “It’s a great market for us. There’s kind of a great big roots/rock country/punk demo of people that come out and see us. It’s really weird. We get on the east coast, we have hardcore country fans, older rock and roll fans then we have younger punk rock fans.”

I've seen you say you've been raised on George Jones and Hank Williams, but also desrcibe your music as having the spirt of punk bands like the Clash. Would you say that’s an accurate portrayal of your influences?

JD: “It is accurate. Growing up in Beaumont, Texas where I’m from, I didn’t really think that was too weird at the time. I mean I grew up on country music. I grew up on everything everyone else did, except seven nights a week we had the biggest superstars in country music selling out in Beaumont every night. So I could go see a big rock and roll band in Houston or Austin, like the Clash or ACDC or whoever. Then that Monday night, it would be Johnny Paycheck and David Allan Coe and Hank Jr. all for ten bucks at the Palace on Monday Night.”

How does punk put its mark or influence, when talking about your music, on the country genre?

“It really started back in the seventies. Bands like X and Social Distortion were doing Johnny Cash covers. It started permeating its way to rock fans that way. Then Dwight Yoakam opened up for X. And a lot of people who wouldn’t normally be in to mainstream corporate Nashville radio found somebody they could enjoy and who they liked. I was on tour with bands like X and Social Distortion and we were out there playing old school country and I would have kids come up to me and go, ‘That guy in the wheelchair on the table steel guitar blew my mind.’ And I was like, ‘No man. That’s not a wheelchair. You have to sit down to play a pedal steel guitar. Because they’d never seen one. They’d literally never seen it.  This is right when it became super cool to wear that picture of Johnny Cash flipping a bird on your shirt. Because five years before that shirt came out, Johnny was playing fair parks and rodeos and doing Taco Bell commercials with the Highwayman. And then five years letter that Rick Rubin record came out and of course everyone, he became the gateway drug to cool country. Everyone all of sudden, ‘Well of course I like Johnny Cash. I just don’t like the line dancing stuff.’ That’s what they would say. I’m a product of all that stuff. I’m a product of all that music. We’ve never really appealed to super mainstream NASCAR right-wing type Nashville country music folks.”

What kind of audiences have you been drawing out to your concerts recently?

JD: “My favorite country song writers were guys like Roger Miller and Kristofferson and Willie. People had real wit. It wasn’t just about tractors and all these kind of buzz words. So, the people who I attract, a lot of them are either people who are really in to real country music, who aren’t in to what’s going on in mainstream radio, or they’re rock fans who are disenfranchised musically and they’re looking for something different.”

Your solo album in 1995 was a hit on americana charts. How has the platform of radio and its audience changed of the course of your career with your music? The niche audiences you seem to be hitting now don’t have their music played on the radio currently.

JD: “Not at all. Basically I’m building a cult following. That’s the only thing I’ve been doing the whole time. I’ve never felt estranged or I was shunned because I never wanted to be a part of that. I was on this hokey Nashville show in the mid-nineties called Crook & Chase. Like if you would have turned the sound down, it would have looked like a Christian Broadcasting Network that was selling bibles you know what I mean? I’m on there and there’s all these guys with kind of like mullets and these pastel bright colors and I don’t fit in. And Kristofferson happened to be on the show tonight and he befriended me and we hung out and the next day, because Kris was on the show, Waylon (Jennings) was watching the show. And that’s kind of how I got plucked out of obscurity, was Waylon found me at this hotel room and said, ‘I watched you play last night and I cut my finger cooking with Jessi Coulter and you want to come play some guitar for me?’ And since then, I’ve seen it gone from this really small kind of cool country scene we had in Austin because we had it here first. Everyone else in the United States was swing dancing to rockabilly and swing. But we were down here on Tuesday nights at the Continental Club two-stepping to Buck Owens with pointed tow cowboy boots on when no one was. And I’ve seen it grow and grow and grow. I love Nashville. I love this history of Nashville. I couldn’t live there because, A—they sell too many bibles and B—there’s not enough Mexicans for me. I got to have Mexican food I’m a Texas guy.  It just felt like, now there’s this tiny scene over in East Nashville. There’s a scene over in Brooklyn. There’s a scene in Silver Lake in LA. It’s kind of a hipster kind of thing. Their just now finding out who Townes Van Zandt is. And they’re just discovering Johnny Paycheck’s records on the Little Darlin’ record label. God bless them. I hope it keeps going. But I see this thing go in and out and in and out. It’s just a circle.”

You’ve played with legends like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and you grew up listening to a little bit of everything. On your 2016 album The Revealer you can hear the diversity. It sounds like a culmination of a lot of these things we’ve been talking about.

JD: “I put my 10,000 hours in as Malcolm Gladwell said. I knew how to play country music innately. So when I did get called up to play with the legends, all I had to do was just follow the singer. Now I’m at a point where… I think Willie had cut 15 or 16 albums before ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’ hit the radio. So I think I’m at 12 or 13. So maybe I got a little time,” he laughed. “I’m at the point where I just don’t care. If I want to talk about Joe Strummer changed my life and influenced my politics and opened my mind and made me quit the baseball team and told my coach I’m joining the band, then I’m going to do it. I’m not just going to sit around and try to be some gatekeeper for some genre.”

You are playing Mohawk Tuesday. What goes in to picking the right venue for music that tends to draw fans of different genres?

JD: “In sometimes it doesn’t matter where we play because are crowd is going to come out. They just don’t care. But some of the smaller markets we play, like Buffalo or something like that-- I made three movies with Rob Zombie. We have people that come out that are like these metal people who are like we hate country music but we love you. There will be punk rockers that will come out. There will be the Americana crowd that will come out who realizes that behind all the guitar licks there and everything there’s some real songwriting. There’s older people who come out who are in to country music. I give them just enough to make them feel like they’re seeing an extension of the older stuff they still find romantic. We have a very eclectic crowd. I love that man. I love that man. I just put out a new record called ‘Mixtape Volume 1’. It entered the billboard country album charts at 28. It’s got all kind of different people on it that I cover. This whole genre loyalty, it kind of becomes a little childish after a while. It’s all about good songs,” Dayton said.

“Everyone thinks Waylon and Willie were driving around in beat up trucks listening to Ernest Tubb and Hank Sr. but really they were driving around listening to a bunch of free thinking 70’s singer songwriters trying to find hit songs.”

When you put it like that, it changes the preconception many people have about country. I almost want to say it’s normal for people to think of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash ‘driving around in beat up trucks.'

JD: “It’s 2019 man. That’s why I’m glad this Ken Burns documentary in country music is out right now. I mean, Merle Haggard smoked a lot of weed man. And people go, ‘No, no! Not Merle Haggard. Not the guy who said we don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.’ Johnny Cash was an activist. These guys were not knuckle-dragging hillbillies. They were nuanced rural poets. It’s an interesting time right now. I’m really excited about it. The worlds starting to open its arms a little wider to things like me.”


Is there a song off your new album you feel really stands out?

JD: “It’s kind of all over the map. What a lot of people don’t realize is that Neil Young wrote one of Waylon Jennings biggest hit songs which is ‘Are You Ready For the Country’. James Taylor wrote ‘Bartender Blues’ for George Jones, which is arguably one of his best vocals ever. Jackson Browne wrote ‘These Days’ for David Allan Coe. People don’t want to look at it like that. ‘Oh what’s this guy doing with this long-haired free thinker counter culture guy?’ Really there’s a total organic mesh of that kind of stuff. I cut ‘Redneck Friend’ by Jackson Browne which has a line, ‘Daddy's in the den shootin' up the evening news. Mama's with a friend, lately she's been so confused.’ It’s pretty much happening right now in America and it just seemed to kind of fit.”

I've got to ask about Rob Zombie. You were in a few of his movies and wrote music for some of them. How did that relationship manifest?

JD: “I got a phone call. Rob’s an actual country music fan. He likes Buck Owens. His stuff is kind of edgy and cool and he’s a big seventies freak. He heard one of my records and got my number and he called me out of nowhere and said look, ‘We’re making the ultimate white trash horror movie and we think your music would be perfect.’ Which is kind of a left handed compliment. It’s like ok? But yeah man we made this soundtrack together called Banjo and Sullivan. It was a whole soundtrack for the movie. It ended up doing really well. Then we did another movie together, one of the Halloween franchise films. I was actually in that movie as a character called Captain Clegg. I did a soundtrack for that. There were a bunch of the song sin the film. The soundtrack came out. There were videos of the DVD and we worked on an animated thing together. Then he said, ‘Hey. Why don’t you come on tour with us as the band from the movie and only play the songs from the movie?’ Which was amazing because all the fans had seen the film. So while I was on that tour, I wrote three pages a day. We did forty big places. It was like Ozzy Osbourne type level places. I got home and had a script and a friend of mine got it to Malcolm McDowell and I ended up writing and directing this film called ‘Zombex’ starring Malcom McDowell and Sid Haig and it had John Doe from X and it had Tom Araya the singer from Slayer and Corey Feldman. Just a lot of cult people in it that I knew the horror cult movie people would dig. So the movie sold and did well and I went screaming back in to the arms of the music business,” Dayton laughed.

Could you imagine telling yourself 20 years ago you’d be playing with Rob Zombie and having a prominent role in cult horror films? That’s a wild timeline we’re living in.

JD: “It’s crazy and it makes no sense. Some of it’s very Forrest Gump-ish. It’s also stuff that, I haven’t painted myself in to any corner. It’s beautiful because now I got room to breathe. I can take chances. I know other people that are actually friends of mine that have painted themselves in to genre corners whether it be music or film or writing or art. I’ve never really done that. Sure, at heart I’m an American rural roots musician. But, my parents were the first ones to make it out of the oil field and go to college. I read a few books and made sure that I was at least not the dumbest kid in the room.”

Dayton takes the stage at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Mohawk Place.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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