On September 11th this year, while many artists were sharing a multitude of “never forget” memes to be liked on Instagram, Jesse Dayton was posting hard truths.
“15 of the 19 terrorist who attacked America were from Saudi Arabia & we still continue to do multi billion dollar arms/weapons deals with them, massive oil deals & even cover up their killing of an American journalist,” he wrote in a lengthy three-part post that also championed 9/11 first responders and the comedian Jon Stewart’s efforts to help them receive healthcare. “We should at the very least ban all relations with the Saudi govt.”
With songs titled “I’m at Home Getting Hammered (While She’s Out Getting Nailed),” “Daddy Was a Badass,” and “Three-Peckered Goat,” and a leatherclad image that screams “I’ll steal your car,” Dayton may not seem like the kind of guy you’d expect to parse the nuances of U.S.-Middle East relations. But beneath the rough exterior is one of Americana music’s most fascinating and, for the time being, under-the-radar figures, a songwriter and performer who mixes political acumen, social activism, and East Texas attitude to create a beguilingly book-smart brand of greasy country-rock.
He also has an opinion on everything.
At a recent concert at Nashville’s the Basement, he talked as much as he sang, and attracted a raucous crowd of country fans, rockabilly punks, and hipsters, along with famous faces like Lucinda Williams, who watched alone from a spot near the stage. Dayton and his tight three-piece tore through fan favorites like “Possum Ran Over My Grave” and “Holy Ghost Rock n Roller,” and peppered in covers off his latest album, Mixtape Volume 1 [Blue Elan Records], a collection of songs by the Clash, AC/DC, Elton John, Gordon Lightfoot, and others. At one point, he snatched a beer bottle from a patron in the front row and used it to play slide. The guy didn’t seem to mind that Dayton spilled half of it.
“We have a high-energy show and there’s a punk rock element to what I do. I think that scares some people off who are, like, wearing fannypacks. But I read The New York Times, too. I listen to NPR, too,” says Dayton, sipping a decaf coffee at the counter of an East Nashville breakfast spot.
Six years ago, Dayton kicked caffeine, ate vegan for eight weeks, and dialed back on the whiskey after his doctor said his blood pressure and cholesterol were off the charts. He’s since added dairy and fish back into his diet, but early-morning gym workouts and long-distance runs satisfy him more these days than cheesy enchiladas.
“Do I want to be some macho badass that drops dead at the buffet and everybody goes, ‘Well, Jesus called him home?'” he asks. “No, man, Jesus didn’t call him home; his arteries failed for eating like shit for 50 years.”
Born and raised in Beaumont, Texas, to parents who encouraged him and his brother and sister to escape the East Texas oilfields, Dayton hightailed it 250 miles west to Austin right after high school.
“When you’re listening to the Clash and protesting against KKK rallies in downtown Beaumont when you’re a kid, you probably should go to Austin,” he says. “I almost have survivor’s guilt that I made it out. I love [my friends in Beaumont] to death, but I couldn’t live there and be into art. It’s changed a lot now, but it was hardcore, right-wing conservative.”
Dayton is not. He’s friends with Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke (“He’d be a great VP to start with and get his legs”); calls himself a “believer” but says that “religion without science is superstition”; and, despite growing up as a hunter and having 13 guns, says he’s a very “middle of the road gun owner” who doesn’t need “military assault rifles.” “That being said, I’m not waiting eight minutes for the Austin police department to get there if you break into my house,” he says.
In 2018, he wrote and released a song called “Charlottesville” in response to the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the death of protestor Heather Heyer. He says he received threats on his life, but the song also helped weed out some fans who maybe figured that Dayton was a good ol’ boy like them.
“I got rid of some of the nuts, who are these really brash hardcore people who are putting their party before the country. I don’t want to be around that,” he says. “But I never really appealed to a lot of those people anyway. Without sounding like a dick, what I’m doing is too smart. It’s not, ‘Let’s drink beer and wear camo.'”
But Dayton — who also cultivated a horror-movie audience by working with Rob Zombie on two of his films and writing and directing his own, Zombex — is committed to expanding his base even further. He views Mixtape Volume 1 and its accessible genre-crossing track list as a “gateway drug” for fans who may not know who X are, let alone that Dayton once played in the L.A. punk band when their guitarist Billy Zoom fell ill.
According to Jeremy Tepper, program director of Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country channel, Dayton has resonated with Outlaw Country listeners because of his play-anything chops and a grind-it-out work ethic.
“He’s not afraid to do the work that is involved with going out there from town to town and recruiting fans one at a time. Which a lot of people aren’t. They want to sit at home and chatter away on Facebook and Instagram, and they’re wondering why things haven’t happened for them,” Tepper says. “Jesse has the attitude, the skills and the personality, and he’s put in his 10,000 hours.”
He’s also a wicked guitar player and it was in that capacity that he caught the eye of Waylon Jennings when Dayton drove to Nashville from Austin to perform on a Nashville Network talk show in the Nineties. Jennings was watching from home and called him at his hotel to come record a guitar part on “I Never Cared for You,” Jennings’ offering on a Willie Nelson tribute album.
“He goes, ‘Hey hoss, I saw you on TV last night and I cut my finger cooking with Jessi. You wanna come down and play guitar for me on this song?'” recalls Dayton, who says when he got to the studio, Johnny Cash greeted him at the door. “There was a film crew following them around back then. If you go to YouTube, there’s a ton of footage of me and Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, and I look super young. I could barely grow facial hair.”
Now 53, he’s collecting some of those had-to-be-there anecdotes and writing his first book, a lifestyle guide in the vein of Duff McKagan’s How to Be a Man: (And Other Illusions). The pair share a publisher and became friends when producer Shooter Jennings recruited Dayton to play guitar on the Guns N’ Roses bassist’s solo album Tenderness.
“Duff’s book had a big influence on me changing my life. I was never a junkie, but I did need to get my shit together. He said, ‘The good thing about you getting a book deal is you have your own voice when you write. They’ll hear your voice in their head.’ Which is a great compliment, but the jury is still out,” Dayton says. “I’m still slaving away.”
Both at the computer and on the road. He’s on tour all over Texas and the Midwest through December, and in January will return to the Outlaw Country Cruise, where he won over new fans on last year’s voyage playing with fiddle great Doug Kershaw and singing “Marie Laveau” for Bobby Bare.
His own tongue-twisting “Daddy Was a Badass” didn’t hurt either. He says that song best combines two inspirations who don’t appear on Mixtape Volume 1: Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.
“I tried to do it like a Dylan thing lyrically, but musically like a Cash thing,” Dayton says. “It has a lot of words, man.”
Just like the guy who wrote it.