Jesse Dayton’s been a fixture on the Texas music scene nearly his entire life. As a teenager in Beaumont, Texas, Jesse got his first guitar and began sneakin’ into the honky tonks and bayou juke joints to learn from the natural masters. His skills took him throughout the Lonestar State and on to Nashville where a chance appearance on television led to a phone call from none other than Waylon Jennings who put Jesse to work immediately. Jesse’s solo career started in the mid-1990s and today, he’s known as much for his mastery with a guitar as he is for his film career. He’s also developed a strong writing style that evokes his Texas singer-songwriter heroes while counting on a unique sense of humor and connection to the music. His latest album, The Outsider, is twangy, crunchy, and a perfect follow up to the lauded and applauded 2016 album, The Revealer. I actually caught Jesse during a rare week off at home, and he seemed perfectly willing to let the “tape” roll as long as I had questions to ask. We covered his early years and influences, his legendary love for George Jones, his time with Waylon and Johnny Cash, and of course, his experience in the movies.
AI: I know you are from Beaumont, TX– Starday Records, Pappy Daily, Moon Mullican, George Jones, of course… Tell me what got you into music in the first place. Was it just somethin’ in the water? And where did you get your first guitar?
JD: It’s interesting… Beaumont, TX is basically right on the Texas-Louisiana border. So I grew up around a lot of Cajun people. I mean, it was closer for me to go to Lousiana than it was to go to Houston, which was the next big city. So I grew up around a lot of Cajun people, and I grew up around a lot of honky tonks… This was before these huge corporations like CMT and all that stuff came in– and I don’t have anything against them, but it was just a different era and it was more of a colloquial, regional time. I mean, we had hit songs in that area that people in Des Moines, Iowa didn’t know about.
And what actual time frame are we lookin’ at?
Late ’70s, when I was a kid. I would hear “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” by Freddy Fender, which was cut in Houston, or I would hear a lot of the old Starday stuff– George Jones or “Jole Blon”… they still played all that stuff in the ’70s. It was just fascinating! I got my first guitar from a guy who played in Edgar Winter and Johnny Winter’s White Trash Band…
Yeah, yeah! And for [readers] who don’t know, Edgar and Johnny Winter were these famous, albino blues musicians who played with everybody. So these guys grew up two blocks away from me, and their parents were friends with my parents. Their parents were older than my parents, but they all went to the same church. And my dad went to the same high school as George Jones… Beaumont’s not a big town. It’s a lot bigger now, but I got my first guitar from a guy who played with them– and then I think probably six weeks later, I was playin’ in a zydeco band in Lake Charles. And I was the only white boy in the zydeco band.
So you were sneakin’ into these clubs when you were really young?
Yeah, and you could do that back then because everything wasn’t so… There wasn’t as many people on the planet! I always joke about this… There’s almost 8 billion people on the planet now, but there was only 2.8 back in the 70s– so yeah, we’re gonna have some problems! But you could just get away with a lot more back then and the PC police weren’t everywhere. We were ridin’ in the backs of pick-up trucks, drinkin’ beer, and smokin’ in bars, and all that stuff that you weren’t supposed to do… I would go into these clubs and play… There’d be some old guys playin’ in a country band, and I would go sit in and play with them, and I would be thinkin’ to myself, “Wow, this is so boring!”, ’cause I was a little kid and I wanted to rock out. Then I would realize– that guy played guitar on “White Lightning” by George Jones at the original Starday! He would sit me down and he would show me stuff– and these guys would all show me stuff! I started really… Getting’ this red light goin’ off in my head sayin’, “Wow, this is a really amazing place that I’m from! I should start embracing it.” So I did pretty early on.
That was basically your education– goin’ from these clubs, learnin’ from these cats that had been around for years and years.
It really was! And it prepared me for so much because, with the country stuff, they would play some hillbilly jazz stuff, and would be kinda advanced guitar playin’. I mean, it wasn’t just 1-4-5 hillbilly blues. Later, when I would go play a gig with Glen Campbell… That stuff would help me to be able to play on a Ray Price orchestra record where it’s all really sophisticated jazz musicians playin’ on it. I just learned so much from all those guys!
At what point in time did you say, “I have to see how far this can go,” that you made this a career choice?
It’s kinda weird, man. I had a bunch of jobs that were brutal– you know what I mean? I think I worked one summer puttin’ guard rails up on the highway in Texas. The first day I showed up, they said Juan and Felipe quit ’cause they couldn’t stand the heat… I had a few regular jobs– and I’ll tell ya, man, there’s nothin’ that’ll make you write a better song or make you a better guitar player than workin’ in the heat in Texas in summertime. People try to paint it up, “Well, the stars were perfectly aligned…” and “I was feelin’ extraordinarily romantic that night…”, but let me just tell ya– it’s nothin’ like that. It’s basically… I’ve talked to older musicians like Willie [Nelson] and Johnny Bush and people like that, and they still say to this day, “Well, I fooled ’em again. I hope they don’t find out!” You know? You just feel so incredibly lucky! I started makin’ money at a young age. I’d go play with some little country band, or some little rockabilly band, or some zydeco band, or whatever it was… I couldn’t believe at the end the night when they gave me $100! I was shocked!
Let’s jump ahead a couple of years… Into the 90s. At this point in time, it kinda looks like you were runnin’ on rocket fuel. You’re out with X, you’re out with Social Distortion, you’re makin’ your own records… What was this part of your career like?
Well, it wasn’t exactly rocket fuel, but it was some other things– ’cause I was young, and it was the ’90s! It was a great time! I got this record deal… This guy came down and saw me play this gig in Houston, and he signed me. Then I’m playin’ at the Continental Club in Austin, and this woman comes in, this kinda stereotypical big city, Jewish music executive, and she’s like, “Oh we gotta get you on TV!” She sent me to Nashville, and I was on this TV show called Crook & Chase…
And then the phone rang?
Yeah! Kris Kristofferson was on that show, and Waylon was watchin’ the show ’cause Kris was on it– and then Waylon called me at the hotel the next mornin’ and said, “Hey, do you wanna come record with me?” And then I had this record out that had gone to #1 on the Americana charts, but I couldn’t get any tours with any Nashville people. And I kinda knew that wasn’t my audience, but it was so new! This was before Hank III came out with this whole kinda punk thing, and this was before Mike Ness from Social Distortion started delvin’ into country. This was really early, so these punks bands said, “We’ll take you out!” So I’d go out and do eight weeks on the road with Social Distortion, or eight weeks on the road with the Supersuckers, or X, or whoever. There was a natural thing there, and I started seein’ it early. This was right before all these kids had pictures of Johnny Cash flippin’ the rod… And it was interesting because this was right before Rick Rubin. I mean, those guys were doin’ Taco Bell commercials to pay the bills! Waylon did one, Johnny did one… They were playin’ fair parks and rodeos, and then Rick Rubin came in and kinda re-created their whole thing. And introduced ’em to a whole new audience. It was awesome!
Not only are you out doin’ these shows, doin’ the punk tours– you’re also an in-demand player. You talk about Waylon, you talk about Kris Kristofferson, you talk about Johnny Cash… You mentioned Ray Price, who you worked with… Johnny Bush… These were your heroes, right?
They were totally my heroes! And if there would’ve been any old, African-American blues guys around, I would’ve worked with them too! A lot of times, I would go and seek these guys out, but after I did that Waylon record, the word kinda got out. Everybody in Austin at that time was tryin’ to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Every guitar player in Texas, it seemed like… You had all these other bands like Arc Angels, Ian Moore, and other people like that who were kind evolved from that, so for me to be doin’ Jerry Reed chicken-pickin’ licks… I stood out like a sore thumb! It really worked for me, man.
Did you ever get to work with George Jones?
I never got to work with The Possum.
I know you’re a fan, so I was curious.
I’m a huuuuge fan! I still think he’s the greatest singer of all time, and I know his daughter really well– George and Tammy’s daughter, Georgette. I never got to work with him. It was just one of those things. I got to work with a whole lot of his friends, though. When I met him, I told him– and he was like, “That’s great, son. I’m glad you’re from Beaumont!” (Laughs) What’s he supposed to say? (Laughs) He’s the King of Country Music!
AI: When did you start getting into film work?
JD: Man, I tell you, that was so weird… In ’07, I got this phone call from Rob Zombie saying, “Hey, we’re making the ultimate white trash horror movie called The Devil’s Rejects, and we think your music would be perfect.”
And had you met Rob at this point?
No, no, I hadn’t met him! A friend of mine gave him my number. He just cold-called me, and I was like, wow. Okay. So he flew me out to LA, and I was put up at the Chateau Marmont there on Sunset Boulevard…
Yeah! I was in the same suite where Mr. Belushi had his “accident”! I thought my ship had come in and I was like, “Wow, you know, even a blind pig finds an acorn sometimes. So maybe this will be my big deal, you know!” So it ended up doing really well for me. I wrote this whole soundtrack called Banjo and Sullivan, which are two characters from the movie…
The great Geoffrey Lewis, who I love! And I happened to be a fan of those movies. I didn’t realize to the extent… How far y’all took that making the whole album.
Yeah. Well, the guy that played opposite of Geoffrey was a guy named Lew Temple who I grew up with and is my best friend to this day! Like if I get thrown in jail in Bangkok, I’m calling Lou Temple. So he’s my buddy. We’ve known each other since we were kids, and he’s the one who introduced me to Rob. He’s been in a bunch of Rob’s movie, so I went on to do three more movies with Rob and was actually in Halloween– which is still a trip because I can be trying to find some deodorant at Randall’s grocery store and some little kid will come up to me and go, “Excuse me, are you Captain Clegg?”
(Laughing) To which you reply?
I say, “Yes, I am, son.” But it’s amazing because people who aren’t into horror movies have no idea how big that franchise, Halloween, is. I mean it’s huuuge! It’s like a worldwide phenomenon. And Lew went on to be Axel on The Walking Dead…
Who got shot in the head out in the prison yard! Shocking! Shocked everybody, everybody talked about it for months. So me and Lew are from the same neck of the woods. He’s a Cajun guy. We grew up together.
I want to talk about The Revealer… About two years ago, I did a show with The Living Deads. And Randy from that outfit was telling me he had just got done playing with this fire-breathin’ dragon of a guitar player. He’d just played with Jesse Dayton. I said, “Daddy Was a Badass?” He said, “Yes. The very same.” He gave me a copy of The Revealer and…
That was nice of him!
Oh yeah, he was real cool, real cool outfit. But he gave me a copy of the record. I was listening to it, man. I’m a big rockabilly fan and that record really does satisfy that part of me. But I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the songs. You really joined the legacy of great Texas singer-songwriters. I know you’ve done a tribute to Kinky Friedman, and I know you hold him in high esteem…
But putting you up there working in the same vein as guys like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark… In that realm as a songwriter. You’re not just peeling off riffs. Were you “the revealer” of that record? Was that you bringin’ all of Jesse Dayton out to play?
It really was. I’d been away doing these movies, and I was just playing The Broken Spoke in Austin, which is this legendary honky tonk where Willie [Nelson] and all these people started out– and Ernest Tubb! My grandfather used to dance to Ernest Tubb at The Broken Spoke, and it holds about a thousand people. I would play there every week, and the place would be packed– and it’s a mile and a half from my house. So we made a joke about it. We called it The Velvet Coffin because we were making some good bank and having a blast and all these people, actors and musicians would drop by. We had Robert Plant and Vince Vaughn and all these people drop by… I just said, “Hey, I could just make movies and do this the rest of my life, you know?” But I just started writing songs in the meantime, and I realized that, you know, I wasn’t happy doing that. I needed to go out on tour, and I needed to go play Des Moines, Iowa on a Monday night. I needed to get out to the people. I just said, “You know what? I’m gonna make a record, and I’m just going to use my own money– ’cause I’m doing okay now. I bought a house, got some movie money put away. I don’t have to run out and sign a record label and have them tell me what they want me to do. So I just went into this legendary studio [Sugar Hill] in Houston where they cut all this stuff with a buddy of mine, John Evans, and we made that record The Revealer. And then this label in Los Angeles [Blue Elan] said, “Hey, we’ll put it out as is. We love it.” All of the songs came from about four years of just kinda… Me recharging. I got a bunch more of ’em! You know some of the other ones ended up on the new record– but some of them I wrote with friends of mine. I wrote “Possum Ran Over My Grave” about George Jones with a buddy of mine… It’s all the stuff that I love, man. It’s got some dirty white boy, rockabilly stuff on there, and it’s got some real hard, honky tonk, country stuff. And then there’s some full-blown, God-fearing, devil’s music rock n’ roll stuff.
That’s what I like about it. I always wonder, and I asked this question a lot…Our radio station here, we are formally an Americana format radio station. However, Americana? That’s a big catch-all. It can encompass so many different things. How do you describe what you do? Because you can’t call it country. ‘Cause there’s no way you would want to put yourself into the same category as some of the things that are coming out Top 40-wise in Nashville– but you get to do the country music when you want to. So what do you call what you do?
Well, I call it American music. That’s what I tell people. Ask me, “What kind of music you do?” I go, “American.” And they’re like, “Really? But you’re from Texas!” You know us Texans, we kind of get full of ourselves.
Stylistically, you could say, “I play Texas music”, and I believe anybody you said that to would probably understand.
Yeah, they would– but there’s a lot more to it. I mean, I love that folk-blues pickin’ style from Georgia, you know? I like all kinds of stuff, man. I love Chicago blues, I don’t love just Mississippi stuff. I like Western Swing and stuff like that, and I like rock n’ roll music from Memphis. All that stuff means a lot to me. I think what the problem with that music is, there’s a lot of people who just kind of recreate it and then there’s people like me, I think, who were not only born into it, but we’re telling real stories that have happened. So those story songs… You can get a room full of awesome musicians, man– and they don’t have a good song between them? It doesn’t matter how great they are.
At the end of the day, it all goes back to the song.
It really does! And you know, I can remember living in a garage apartment in Houston for a couple of years. I think I paid $150 a month for it, and I had a ’49 Ford and a Gretsch guitar… But I remember every day on the– this is kind of before the Americana thing was called Americana– but they played Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt constantly. All day long. Those songs are everything. You can be a killer guitar player, man, but it doesn’t really matter if you’re not playing over some great song.
So you had that itch, you had that urge to get back out on the road, to start writing. You made The Revealer, wonderful record. Now, you’ve got The Outsider due out…
I’ll tell you, another thing that helped me tremendously was a… John Doe is a singer for the LA punk band X, and we made a movie together [Zombex]. He called me. He goes, “Hey man, I’m doin’ Letterman. He’s fixing to be over. It’s almost like it was one of the last shows that Letterman did–and we went on David Letterman together and then he took me on tour– and then I never stopped touring! I left that gig at the Spoke. So I’ve been on tour… I haven’t taken more than two weeks off in four years.
You cut all these new songs basically on the road?
Yeah, I did. I cut all the new record while I was on tour because a lot of the records that I love, especially like the classic rock stuff… If you look at Allman Brothers or Zeppelin or any of that kind of stuff, they would cut on the road because they were on tour all the time. Everybody thinks that the brothers were just held up in Miami partying for six months, but they weren’t. And they would cut three songs in Nashville and three songs in LA, four songs in New York City… So I kind of did that with this one and then I got this kind of mastermind guy named Vance Powell. He worked with Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton and Jack White. He mixed the record after I cut it in all these studios.
What’s your go-to main guitar and amplifier these days?
Well, you know, I got a bunch o’ guitars– and I’ve always had a bunch because I do different gigs. Sometimes I’m making it squonk over in the corner and sometimes I’m playing some kind of countrypolitan hillbilly stuff that needs to be super clean. But with this band, I’ve been usin’ a 1965 Blackface Super Reverb.
That’s my favorite.
So many of my favorite records were cut with that! And I got some smaller ones that I’ll use too, I’ll bring out a Princeton– or I got a couple of Blues Juniors that I use sometimes for like in-stores. But my guitars… I’ve always been a tele guy, and I got a bunch of teles. And I usually carry a couple of teles on tour with me– but I got this one guitar that I played in this Rob Zombie movie ’cause Rob goes, “Hey man, we should make a really evil guitar for you.” And I was like, “Well, if you want to pay for it, if you’re gonna write the check, I’ll make it evil! It’ll blow your mind!” So I called this buddy of mine who’s a guitar maker in California, and he made this thing that looks like a Trini Lopez on crack! Everybody looks at, and they’re like, “Oh, that’s a weird Gretsch!” But it’s not. It’s one of a kind.
Is that the one that looks like it’s got horns?
Horns! Yeah, it’s got TV Jones pickups and a Bigsby, and it doesn’t go out of tune! I can just spank it to death, and it won’t go out of tune. So I use that a lot, man, because I travel with a three-piece, so it’s all about changing guitar sounds and styles. That’s a big part of it. But I’ve got a really hot band that’s been with me for about the last four years. In fact, my drummer lives in Tucker, Georgia! His name’s Kevin Charney. I tell people all the time, he can do the two things I love. He can play that little boot-scootin’-let’s-make-some-little-redneck-babies shuffle, or he can melt your face! And he sings like he’s an Everly brother! He’s been working with me… I found him in Atlanta, and I was like, “Hey man, you know the band’s doing pretty good now. You’re making good money. If you want to move to Austin, it’s awesome here! He’s like, “Nah, that’s all right, brother. I’m going to stay in Tucker, Georgia.” So we kid him all the time, and I always introduce him, “The man from Tucker, Georgia who won’t move!”