With The 9513 having closed its virtual doors last year, the management has kindly agreed to let me republish some of my better contributions here for posterity.
This article was originally published at The 9513 in January 2011.
You might know him as the former rockabilly Road King with a standing gig at Austin’s Broken Spoke. Or as a Cajun crime lord in the upcoming film The Sinner. Perhaps you’ve heard his guitar work on albums by Waylon Jennings, Ray Price or The Supersuckers. Over the past couple years, you might have run into him touring arenas as the frontman of a fictional horror movie band called Captain Clegg and the Night Creatures, or heard his music on an episode of the HBO series True Blood. If none of that rings a bell, you might recognize him as the jilted boyfriend in Hayes Carll’s “She Left Me for Jesus” music video.
Jesse Dayton can be a hard guy to pin down. Singer, songwriter, guitarist, actor, producer of music and film, head of his own Stag Records, the Beaumont native has been doing things his way for more than 20 years.
Dayton called us last week to talk about the “top-to-bottom, straight country record” he funded with the help of Rob Zombie and his connection to two of the albums recently named among our Top 10 of 2010.
The new record is One for the Dance Halls. I want to talk about some specific songs, but before that, can you say a bit about Texas dance hall culture and why this was an important record for you to make?
Yeah. Texas dance hall culture is something I grew up right in the middle of. There’s a lot of classic dance halls around the state that are from the late 1800s or early 1900s, and most of them have been preserved. But, you know, I grew up seeing people like Johnny Bush, Willie Nelson and Ray Price. Since the Texas music rock n roll thing started coming out of Texas in the ’90s, a lot of these dance halls have been turned into concert halls, meaning that you’ve got a bunch of kids with ball caps on with lighters standing in front of the stage.
The whole Red Dirt thing, huh?
Yeah, which I don’t care about one way or the other. But I thought, after playing the Broken Spoke [weekly for the past few years], that’s kind of a special place, because if the Broken Spoke was anywhere else in America, it would probably turn into a sports bar in about two seconds. You know what I mean? People in Austin have a connoisseurship for country music the way New Yorkers have a connoisseurship for theater and musicals. And so after playing the Broken Spoke, I was like, we need to do something that’s got that dance hall feel, because it’s kinda been forgotten and I think it’ll be something fresh and different, and I can kind of get back to my roots after being Captain Clegg.
You mentioned Ray Price and Johnny Bush already, and it reminds me of them the way you’re ‘singing out’ more, projecting more on this album. So that was a conscious decision to borrow from them a little bit with that style?
I am borrowing from them. But you know, the whole time I was doing the movie stuff with Rob Zombie, I was playing the Broken Spoke. What a lot of people don’t understand is that when you play a dance hall, it’s not about being a singer-songwriter. It’s about being a dance band leader.
Keeping them on the floor.
Keeping them on the floor. Playing music that really inspires them to go out there. That’s what Bob Wills did and that’s what Ray Price did. They played dances all across America. People that are younger than me that are maybe into the singer-songwriter, Texas music, Red Dirt thing, they might think it’s hokey. They might not get it, which is a shame. It’s basically just kids that were raised in the suburbs whose parents never taught them how to two-step.
But yeah, I played with Ray Price on a record called Prisoner of Love, and I think in order to do those songs justice you have to sing them like that. You can’t have a smoky, growly voice.
You mentioned Rob Zombie. This might be one of the first honest-to-God Texas dance hall records partially funded, in a roundabout way at least, by Rob Zombie.
(laughs) That’s so true, man.
Would you mind filling our readers in on how that whole thing came about?
He called me out of the blue one time to do the Banjo & Sullivan record that was inspired by The Devil’s Rejects movie. I thought it was a friend of mine pulling a joke on me. He was like ‘Hey, this is Rob Zombie,’ and I was like ‘Yeah, right.’ Then he goes ‘No, it’s really Rob Zombie. I got one of your records last night at this party. I want to do this fake record called Banjo & Sullivan for The Devil’s Rejects.’ Anyway, we did it, and it did really well. We sold it to his fans mostly, and then my fans too, the ones of them that are into it. It widened my audience big-time.
The beautiful thing about it was, this is where people scratch their heads: ‘How’d this guy that was a country guy end up with Rob Zombie?’ Well, this is where the rubber meets the road: People who listen to Rob Zombie hate Nashville radio music, but they love Johnny Cash. Once people understand that, they’re like ‘Well goddamn, this is perfect for us!’
So we ended up doing that, and a year later I’m in L.A. playing with Social Distortion at a big theater. Rob calls me and goes ‘Hey, you’re playing tonight, right? Me and Sheri are going to come out.’ So him and Sheri come out and he offers me the part of Captain Clegg for the Harvey Weinstein movie [2009's Halloween II]. So we work on all that stuff together. We work on the music, on the songs, on the videos, on all the webisodes. He kinda brings me into his whole world and teaches me about film. The Captain Clegg record did really well with his audience. We played a 40 show arena tour as Captain Clegg, opening for Rob. Sold-out shows. It changed my life. After the Captain Clegg record came out, [my label] Stag Records was completely out of debt.
Yeah, so you’re exactly right, man. Rob Zombie actually helped pay for One for the Dance Halls.
The two Jesse Dayton records you’ve released since [first working with Zombie in 2005], the Holdin’ Our Own album with Brennen Leigh and the new one, seem like they’re even harder country than the earlier ones. You’ve always been country, but these are more straight-ahead, traditional, classic country.
My earlier records were more me learning how to write songs and [coming out of] playing rockabilly music. Eventually I’m gonna do another record that’s gonna have a bunch of different styles on it. But I wanted the new record to be a top-to-bottom straight country record, because I don’t really have one of those in my catalog except for the one I did with Brennen… and that one’s still got some ’50s stuff on it that’s kind of different.
I have a few questions about particular songs on the record, if you don’t mind. “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide” might be your greatest accomplishment here as an arranger. When I listened to it, I thought it was the coolest classic country song, and it turns out it came from somewhere else…
It was originally a Nick Lowe song that I heard him do one night when I saw him in an acoustic show. So I went out and got the record, and I was like ‘Wow, you know, this song could be a Willie song.’
It’s an interesting thing. People don’t give much credit for arranging stuff anymore. That’s kind of a bygone thing. I worked with some really great guys learning how to arrange stuff. I played on that Ray Price orchestra record. They would take songs and completely redo them, like I did [a few years later] with “Just What I Needed.” When I came out with “Just What I Needed” by The Cars, all the traditionalists were like ‘Oh my god, he’s doing a Cars song!’ Yeah, but I’m not doing anything remotely like the original version.
I saw this one band… it was hilarious… they were opening a show for us, it was one of these Texas music bands, and they did “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes exactly like Yes. And we were all just like gut-belly laughing. On the ground, dying laughing.
My point being, if you’re gonna do something, make it your own. I know Nick Lowe was married to Johnny Cash’s daughter. He wrote “The Beast in Me” that Johnny Cash covered and he was married to Carlene Carter. I just thought ‘Let’s make this something that he’ll be proud of.’ I don’t know if he’s heard it yet, but I’m sure I’ll find out at some point.
Another song on the new record is “The Years,” which has sort of a Waylon vibe to it with the harmonies and the harmonica… which, I think it’s Mickey Raphael playing that, right?
You played on a Waylon record too, didn’t you?
Yeah, I did. I played on this record called Right for the Time.
So, was that something you were drawing on for this song in particular?
Yeah, totally. When I first heard it, I was like ‘Wow, let’s do this like a Waylon song.’ So anyway, keep your fingers crossed. I hope people get it.
I think they should. There’s another song on here with a little more of a contemporary sound, that could have a little more mainstream appeal, called “The Good Times Are Now.”
Yeah, “The Good Times Are Now.” When I was doing the record, I thought I really wanted to do a modern straight 8, like what I would like to hear George Strait doing now. We needed a song like that on the record because in the ’80s and ’90s, people were still going two-stepping in dance halls to that kind of song, whether it was George Strait or John Anderson or Randy Travis or whoever else. And it was right before everything started sucking really bad. (laugh) So, I wrote that song in Nashville with my buddy Trent Summar.
Any plans to try sending that to radio, or are you pretty much done with them at this point?
The deal about it is that if it happens organically, great, but I’m an independent record company owner and I don’t have the money for radio promotion that MCA does. The truth of the matter is that it’s so bad out there right now with radio that the people who are spending a lot of money to get their records on Triple A, cool stations like KGSR or whatever, they’re not selling enough records to make it worth their money to pay to get on radio. That’s how bad it is out there. But luckily I’ve got a cult following, and luckily I’ve got the internet, and luckily I’ve got satellite radio, who play it to death. I mean, XM-Sirius, I don’t know what I’d do without them. They play my records all the time. God bless those guys for having the balls, the big enough balls, to play it.
I have a couple questions about a couple of your friends, just because you have ties to two of the albums that recently made our Best of 2010 list. One of them is Brennen Leigh. You had a duets album with her in 2007, and you sing “Back to Back” with her on the new record. What’s that partnership like, and are there any plans to put out another full album with her at some point?
I’d love to do another duets record with her. To me, Brennen Leigh is the most underrated talent out there. Her voice is pure and unaffected and honest, and her songwriting skills are deep. I told this guy one time, ‘You could fill the Astrodome with girls who can sing passable versions of “Crazy,” but you couldn’t fill the batter’s box with people like Brennen, someone who’s a songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist.’ I mean, you couldn’t. She’s up there with… what’s the little bluegrass chick who has won all the Grammys and who’s huge?
She’s like Alison Krauss, but she’s more diverse. Alison Krauss is kind of a one-trick bluegrass pony, even though she’s ultra, super talented. Brennen can do it all. Brennen can do bluegrass, singer-songwriter, straight country music… If I was a Nashville executive, I’d do everything I could to make her the next Emmylou Harris. I love her dearly and she’s also one of my best friends.
I also wanted to ask about Mike Stinson, whose album [The Jukebox In Your Heart] you produced last year. You wrote a couple songs with him on this album, too.
We wrote the title track and “Pretty Girls Make the World Go ‘Round.” Stinson is unbelievable. He’s my favorite songwriter, as far as contemporary guys.
One of mine, too. Great writer.
He’s like if Warren Zevon and Willie Nelson had a kid. It’d be Mike Stinson. I’m a huge fan and I do everything I can to promote Mike. We’ve actually done pretty well with that little record. It kind of became a critic’s darling record. It made the Top 10 for a bunch of people for 2010. Actually, me and Mike are fixing to do some shows together.
You’re someone who did the Nashville thing in the ’90s but has had a lot more success on your own label since then, including through some unconventional channels like music licensing for film and TV. Given that history, what would be your advice for people trying to make it in the music business now?
I see a lot of people in the music business now who seem to be in it because they want to be famous. I see it on TV. You’ll see some guy who has a pretty good voice who’s never really been on tour, but looks good or whatever. But my thing is always the same: If you want to do anything–not just the music business–just be honest about it. That’s the big thing, I’d say. Be honest about what you’re doing. Don’t try to emulate other people because you think that’s an easier path. Find out who you are and sell that.
The whole TV and film licensing thing has been a huge boon to me. I’ve had over 41 songs in film and TV. I was talking to my buddy Ryan Bingham, who won a Grammy for the song in Crazy Heart. That was a huge movie, and Halloween II was nowhere as big as that movie. But it still did very well and I had 10 songs in that movie. So that means every time they play it on HBO or it gets rented… It’s almost like doing film has enabled me to support my honky tonk habit in the fashion that I’m accustomed to.
I’m working on another couple movies right now. Zombex is a movie I’m set to direct this year. This is my first time to direct a movie. I’m not gonna be in it, but I wrote it and I’m gonna direct it. It takes place in New Orleans. We’re in talks with a couple studios, so it’s a real exciting time right now. And they’re talking about turning The Sinner [an upcoming Charles Weidman film in which Dayton appears] into a TV show. If I could play a Cajun crime lord in Austin, Texas, on a TV show and go home to my own bed every night, that wouldn’t suck.
Final question we like to ask some of the folks we talk to: What is country music to Jesse Dayton? Uh, of course, when we ask other people, we usually put their names in there instead of yours.
Country music to me is working class rural American folk music. If it’s not working class, and if it’s not rural, and if it’s not dealing with real folk kinds of topics, then it’s not really country music. To me, at least.