Interview: Jesse Dayton revives the mix tape

Up until a couple of years ago, Jesse Dayton wasn’t a name on many folks’ lips despite a CV which is somewhat staggering. In addition to having released 11 solo albums he’s played guitar, live and in the studio, with a host of luminaries who straddle the worlds of country and rock. These include Doug Sahm, Flaco Jimenez, Johnny Gimble, The Supersuckers, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Johnny Bush, Glen Campbell, and John Doe. He’s also entered the world of movie soundtracks collaborating with Rob Zombie on three of Zombie’s flicks (and appearing in one of them).

The release, in 2016, of Dayton’s album, ‘The Revealer’, along with a scorching UK tour raised his profile and its follow-up, ‘The Outsider‘, brought him to the attention of Rolling Stone when they featured his song ‘Charlottesville’, written in response to the alt-right thuggery which resulted in the death of Heather Hayer. Dayton wrote at the time that it was the first time that RS had noted him as they usually just called him, “that guy who played guitar on this album.”

Growing up in small town Texas Dayton was immersed in country music from an early age but he experienced a musical epiphany when he attended a Clash/Joe Ely concert in San Antonio. He ran with the punks for a while before eventually gravitating back to hard core country, a fine example of the old adage, punks grow up to be cowboys.

It’s proving to be a busy year for Dayton. Last month he put out an excellent live recording, ‘On Fire In Nashville’, and he’s gearing up for an August release of ‘Mix Tape Volume 1’ where he delivers his versions of some classic songs from a surprising variety of artists including Gordon Lightfoot, The Cars, Dr. Feelgood, AC/DC and The Clash. “I’d done almost five years on tour,” he has explained, “Doing two original records back-to-back. I played on a lotta other people’s records. I just needed to take the pressure off, just have some fun. And that’s why this is Volume 1 – what if I need to do this again?”

Ahead of the album release Dayton kicks off a UK tour this weekend and he was happy to talk to Americana UK last week before heading over the pond. The AUK International Affairs desk phoned him and we were surprised to find out where he was

Hi there Jesse, how are things?
Beautiful right now. We’re in the mountains in Aspen, Colorado as I’m staying at Owl Farm for a few days, you know, Hunter S Thompson’s old retreat. I know Anita, Hunter’s widow, and I’ve just signed a book deal with Da Capo publishing who published some of his work, so this is a kind of writer’s retreat we can get to, a mix of a vacation and some work on a book of short stories and memoirs we hope to get out at some time. I’m hoping to get a chance to shoot with some of his guns and maybe get a little nip of his whiskey if it’s still around. It’s absolutely beautiful here and if I ever get sick of the world hopefully someone will take me here and shoot me out of a cannon, just bill Johnny Depp.

Sounds great and we’re very jealous. However, let’s talk about ‘Mix Tape Volume 1’. You say that it’s a collection of songs you loved “as a kid” but it’s an exceptionally diverse collection of songs.
Well, it’s a little all over the map but it’s a good map you know. When I was a kid growing up in Texas in a small town we had loads of country and western. By the time I was five I could turn on the radio and say that’s Merle Haggard, that’s Johnny Cash and that’s Willie Nelson. But I also listened to the same kind of classic rock stuff which was around back then. Jackson Browne and Gordon Lightfoot, kind of seventies songwriters, but this was all before my life changed when I saw The Clash with Joe Ely. When that happened it felt to me that all the music I had been listening to before was like my older brother’s music, and that this was not my music. Looking back, that’s not really true but it’s the way you feel when you’re a kid. So, when it came to doing this I got quite excited about getting out of my usual songwriter thing and getting into some songs that I‘ve always loved but doing them in my own way.

That concert with The Clash and Joe Ely meant a lot to you and it seems that the punk/country amalgamation has stuck with you.
Joe Ely is a good friend of mine, a kind of mentor and he was just as big an influence as the Clash and I kind of tried to carry that torch. I mean, I went on to play with the likes of Social Distortion and X and the audiences had never seen a pedal steel guitar before, they’d never heard of George Jones. This was back in the early  90’s and they were looking at us as if we were from another planet but we were just from Texas. One of the biggest rushes of playing in London last year was that Joe Strummer’s widow, Lucinda came to the show. She’d actually seen me in Texas but in London she came along with Chrissie Hynde and we hung out ‘till like three in the morning talking about Joe. It’s like with Hunter, these people are very important to me and they formed who I’ve become. I mean I didn’t know anything about politics until I heard The Clash. I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about so I had to go find out and it raised my consciousness.

A lot of bands who started off in punk gravitated to a rootsier sound later on, bands like X transforming into The Knitters for example.
Like The Supersuckers. I made a record with them called ‘I Must Have Been High’ and that record really freaked everybody out because all these punk rock kids in California couldn’t believe that they’d made a country like record.

So, how did you go about picking the songs on Mix Tape?
I just felt it would have been very boring if I had put out a bunch of Waylon and Johnny covers, a kind of cliché really, so the songs I picked were songs that I thought maybe they would have liked. When I was hanging out with Waylon for example he was a big Gordon Lightfoot fan. But they’re songs I’ve always liked. Like ‘State Trooper’. I met Bruce Springsteen when I was on tour with Social Distortion and he was telling me what a big punk rock fan he was so I’m really trying to break down barriers here. Genres are something we create in our mind to make us feel better about our identity, they really don’t have jack shit to do with real art and music.

It’s easy to see then why you cover Springsteen, Jackson Browne and The Clash but you also include The Cars and AC/DC.
I think that The Cars number, ‘Just What I Needed’, is just a great song. I did it with a kind of George Jones arrangement and it works perfectly. We played it at some big shows in Texas and people were losing their minds when they realised what it was because it was such a huge song here in the States. As for ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’, I tried to do that like a Slim Harpo blues song. Part of it for me was to do these songs in a way I thought the people who wrote the songs would dig and I think if Bon Scott heard it he would dig it. I saw him with AC/DC about six months before he died and it was like a punk rock show, the energy was so high.

I was going to ask about the arrangements. On some of the songs, you stick closely to the original but elsewhere there’s some radical changes.
We did ‘State Trooper’ like The Cramps and tried to imagine Waylon doing ‘If You Could read My Mind’ but on the Dr. Feelgood song, ‘She Does It Right’, we kept pretty close to the original and Wilco has told me he likes it. I’m hoping that we can maybe turn more people on to Dr. Feelgood in America, that’s no bad thing. I’m really into that pre punk pub rock that was about in Britain, Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds’ Rockpile, I love all that. I covered a Nick Lowe song on the live album and I’m pretty sure I’m the only guy from Beaumont, Texas who knows who Nick Lowe is.

You’re on tour in the UK next week. Will you be playing many of these covers?
We’ll probably throw in a couple but the record’s not out, in the states at least, until August and then we’ll really start hitting on it. We’ve been playing ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ and ‘State Trooper’ but most of the set right now is the songs from ‘Revealer’ and ‘The Outsider’, I think folk would be disappointed if we didn’t play my own stuff.

The live album, ‘On Fire In Nashville’, is a great capture of the live show.
Yeah, we didn’t even know it was being recorded, we had no idea. We just got off stage and this guy from the label came up and said like, “Hey man, the sound guy was recording you and he played me a bit and it sounds good.” And I just thought this probably sucks but they sent me a copy and I listened to it and I just thought, wow, put it out, warts and all, it does sound great.

One last thing, we heard you were adding another string to your bow as a radio presenter.
There’s a new internet radio station called Gimme Country and they’re launching an Americana channel next week. Me and Leanne Womack, Chuck Prophet and a bunch of others are going to be doing shows with them. It’s going to be free, just download the app and listen. I’ll be talking about my influences, doing interviews with my friends, it’s going to be amazing. My first show goes out on the 29th May.

And with that we left Jesse to roam around Owl Farm looking for peacocks and maybe anything stashed away. His UK tour kicks off tomorrow and he’s back in July for some more shows.

Tour dates.

June 1 – Red Rooster Festival
June 2 – Putney – Country in the Afternoon – Half Moon
June 4 – Sheffield – Greystones
June 5 – Manchester – Night People
June 6 – Witney – Fat Lils
June 7 – London – Sebright Arms
June 7 – London – Sebright Arms
July 20 – Maidstone – Ramblin Man Fair
July 21 – Newcastle – Summertyne Festival
July 22 – Leicester – The Musician
July 23 – Winchester – The Railway

 

Author: Paul Kerr

Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.

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