In His Own Write

Jesse Dayton knows a great many words - and how to sell them

Where do you start with Jesse Dayton? Do you go all the way back to a Beaumont childhood spent begging licks from itinerant blues players and soaking up the reflected glow of then-local George Jones? Do you jump ahead to Austin, the early patronage of Clifford Antone, a honky-tonk apprenticeship with the Alamo Jets, and a hairdo revelation at the feet of Jimmie Vaughan? Do you start in Houston with the rockabilly launch of the Road Kings, all pompadours and swivel hips and suede shoes? Should you mark the beginning in 1995, with the Justice Records release of Raisin' Cain and Dayton's ambitious solo trajectory toward the then-burgeoning Americana charts? How does an as-yet-unreleased slick Nashville country record fit into the history? Or several years spent holed up in Los Angeles, gunslinging for CMT videos and writing with Jim Lauderdale and nosing around studios with Pete Anderson and Dwight Yoakam? If you can nail down where Dayton's been, will it give you some idea of where he's going?

Probably not.

If ever there was a musician who hated to be pinned down, Dayton is it. A chart of his career might resemble nothing so much as the path of a man zigzagging across open pavement, trying to dodge a sniper's bullets. It's tough to draw a bead on a moving target. Probably the best you can hope for is to figure out where Dayton is now.

Jesse Dayton: Found the exit off the L.A. freeway, straight back to the Hill Country.
Deron Neblett
Jesse Dayton: Found the exit off the L.A. freeway, straight back to the Hill Country.

After the lost L.A. years (lost, anyhow, to Houston, which has always jumped to claim him as its own), Dayton has lit, for a while anyway, back in Austin, released a self-produced CD heavy on regional bravado, and started shopping simultaneously for those twin talismans of true Texas loyalty: a little spread outside of Austin and a big old Ford 250 pick-'em-up truck. If it weren't for the implications worn into Dayton's old van -- the one the truck is meant to replace, the one with more than 250,000 touring miles logged on the odometer -- you might guess that Dayton had come home.

The way Houston saw it, Dayton went to L.A. in the flush of Raisin' Cain's success -- tours with George Strait, picnics with Willie, guest spots with the Supersuckers, backslapping with Flaco Jimenez and the late Doug Sahm, a No.1 flag planted on the Gavin chart -- to become a star. Justice, with owner Randall Jamail's connections to country heroes like Waylon and Willie and Kris, had greased plenty of wheels to put Dayton in the spotlight, placing his songs on television, recruiting the old-time cred of fiddler Johnny Gimble and the prescient glamour of the pre-craptacular Dixie Chicks to record Hey Nashvegas! in the rhinestone capital, a breakthrough shot that would surely be heard round the alternative-country world.

But to hear Dayton tell it, that's exactly when things started to fall apart, or to take a bold new direction, depending on your perspective.

With Nashvegas! recorded and in the can, Dayton's contract with Justice came due for renewal, and at the same time, Dayton started receiving plum offers for another tour and record with the Road Kings.

"We just wanted to do different stuff," Dayton says of his eventual parting of ways with Justice. Which is to say Dayton wanted to go in more of a rock direction, in part to avoid the No Depression tag then being applied to anything with six strings and a twang. Dayton asked Jamail not to release Nashvegas!, begged out of his contract and moved to L.A. Justice began restructuring itself toward an uncertain future, but it retains some of Dayton's publishing rights and the masters to Nashvegas!, which Jamail says he may eventually release, should the right time come. It is, Jamail says, a great unheard country record.

More than a little good came out of Dayton's L.A. years, including the acquisition of a top-flight management/booking/legal team. He toyed with a screenplay and started recasting select songs as short stories for a possible book. The once-defunct Road Kings revved again with European tours and a new record on California's Surfdog label. Solo-wise, Dayton made his presence felt on an Antone's Young Guns duet with Yoakam guitarist Pete Anderson and an appearance as a hired gunslinger for the Ray Price Orchestra.

What didn't come out of L.A. was the full-bore Jesse Dayton solo record that everyone and their brother seems to believe he can make, the record that will break him out of the long cult shadow of the Road Kings, a group that Dayton has disparaged in more than a few interviews as a "strictly below-the-waist party band." What his followers -- and maybe Dayton himself -- wanted to know was this: Where was the record that would make good on the promise of Raisin' Cain, the record that would give full play to the scattered whims of an artist for whom niche labels (honky-tonk, blues, roadhouse, Americana, rockabilly, etc.) had always pinched, the record that could accommodate the increasingly intellectual grasping of a guy who was starting to name-drop Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt -- songwriter's songwriters -- as inspirations, alongside a reading list heavy on authorial biographies? The rambunctious kid who used to drive to Amarillo to see ZZ Top for seven bucks, the line-crosser who introduced hard country to punk clubs years before Hank III and Wayne Hancock jumped the bandwagon, found his tastes changing. And Dayton's changing tastes were changing him. They were turning him into a writer.

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