Ready to Rise

Raisin' Cain may give Jesse Dayton his long anticipated push into prominence

At 10 p.m. on a Thursday night, Sugar Hill Studios in southeast Houston looks quiet. Four or five cars share the parking lot with an 18-foot Ryder truck, and you can hear the crickets complaining. But walk through the open door, across the lobby plastered with Freddie Fender's gold records, down the hall to Studio B, and the music pulses through the walls. It's country music, with ripping rock and roll guitar solos and a honky-tonk beat. Or maybe it's actually just rock and roll, loosened up to accommodate country songwriting. It's bluesy, foot-stomping music, and it's being played tight.

Studio B is also called Goldstar, after the gold star design laid into the five-sided slab of linoleum in the center of the acoustic-tiled room. Mick Jagger pranced on this star when the Stones recorded "Street Fighting Man." The Who cut "Squeeze Box" in this room and, more to the point, George Jones cut a string of hit singles standing in this very spot.

Right now, though, it's Jesse Dayton's microphone that's centered in the gold star, while Dayton rehearses his new road band with a run through of Ray Price's "Playing With a Memory." Music fans of the future may or may not ever have cause to care that Dayton played this room, but ever since he took his first real band, Houston's Road Kings, into the upper echelons of local popularity, critics and fans both have predicted big things for the boy from Beaumont. Now -- two bands, tons of gossip and countless glimmers of progress later -- Dayton finally has the CD that he thinks of as "the foundation album," the one that will pour the slab for a long-term career as a viable artist.

It's called Raisin' Cain, released this week on the Justice label, and with it, Dayton finds himself on the verge of making the leap from regional phenomenon to national commodity. It's not something he's entirely comfortable with, but it's something he wants, and wants bad.

The band in Studio B backing Dayton is made up of bassist Charlie Sanders (familiar from his eight-year stint fronting the now-defunct Missiles), drummer Johnny Benoit (formerly with the Forbidden Pigs) and veteran pedal steel virtuoso Brian Thomas (who's played with most everyone who matters). There's a certain irony in the fact that this group operates as a real, live, interactive band now that Dayton has left behind band-billed tenures with the Road Kings and the Austin-based Alamo Jets. But after years of playing the sideman to countless blues and rock and country and Top 40 cover groups, Dayton, it seems, is destined to be the focus. It's his name that will be up front. Indeed, the reason his most recent band effort, the Alamo Jets, sputtered was that all of the not-insignificant label interest shared one demand -- they wanted to sign Jesse, and only Jesse.

The label that finally did just that was Houston's Justice, and so now here he is, standing on the star, wearing corded brown cowboy boots, light blue jeans and a denim work shirt unbuttoned over a T-shirt, with his cream and white Telecaster swinging off a shoulder. The band bounds through "Broken Down in B.F.E." and "Letter to Home," two new songs not on Raisin' Cain. Dayton's a country singer, no doubt about it, but he's no hat-head strummer on the guitar. He's a picker, and a pretty damn hot one. Thomas' steel work stings, and Benoit and Sanders do what they're supposed to, which is make the beat sound inevitable. Granted, we're in an almost perfect acoustic environment, but it sounds like music that can support some hype.

Dayton hasn't actually traveled that far -- physically, at least -- to get here. He grew up in Beaumont, playing his first gig behind a drum kit at ten and playing guitar in a bar band for the first time at 15. When he talks about not wanting to take the Nashville route of committee-written songs and Wranglers and pressed shirts and Resistols, he knows whereof he speaks. "Man, I grew up with those guys," he says. "I'm more like that than you think. But that's just not me. I love rock and roll, too."

He indulged that love when he moved to Houston in 1985 and started the rockabilly oriented Road Kings, which he says was the perfect outlet for a young roots-rocker more interested in playing guitar than writing songs. He doesn't disown it, but he refers to what the Road Kings accomplished as "shtick." And it was when he started concentrating on songwriting, Dayton says, that the Road Kings format lost its viability.

When that happened, Dayton moved to Austin to be closer to the songwriting action. There, the musicians who made up the Alamo Jets were recruited to cut a demo to take his songs to the various labels. But when the attention the Alamo Jets gathered made it clear that Dayton, and not the rest of the group, was the real product, that band disintegrated as well.

So Dayton went with an offer from Justice Records, an offer he describes as very accommodating, and went into Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studios with producer (and Justice president) Randall Jamail to cut the tracks of Raisin' Cain. Gathered to work with Dayton was an all-star assemblage of session men: John Mellencamp's Kenny Aronoff on drums, Floyd Domino on piano and Hammond B-3, legend Johnny Gimble lending his sawing authority on fiddle, Flaco Jimenez on accordion on one track and Texas legend Doug Sahm on hand to pass the torch. The result is a good, clean sounding record, fat on the rhythm and appropriately rough on the vocals and guitar, and Justice obviously has high hopes that it will produce the genuine hit both Dayton and Justice want. "Kissing Abilene Goodbye" -- a song Dayton says he wrote on a Whataburger wrapper at 5 a.m. in the back of a van -- is already a CD single, and it wouldn't be terribly strange to hear it popping up on the new Americana format rapidly making headway on adult alternative radio. But Dayton doesn't seem to much mind whether it does or not.

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