A Pair of Aces

John Evans and Jesse Dayton drop career-defining records two weeks apart

But the first thing you notice about the record is the band. It's a big one. There are a lot of horns, B-3 organs, accordions, backup singers (such as Eddie Spaghetti and Carolyn Wonderland), harmonicas and fiddles backing Dayton's distinctive chicken-picking guitar style and Brian Thomas's steel guitar and Dobro wizardry. And when you think Texas country, a multitude of genres and large bands, you think of Lyle Lovett and Doug Sahm. The ghost of the latter hangs heavy over this record.

"It's weird; I feel that kinship with Doug," says Dayton. "He played on my first record and he helped with Hey Nashvegasbefore he died. We went to Astros games together. And you just kinda wondered because he wasn't all over the radio -- he wasn't supermainstream, except when he was young, and that didn't last very long -- and you just wondered if people realized, 'This guy's doin' really good.' I feel the same way sometimes. I'm not getting played on the radio every 90 minutes either, and that's okay."

I've always thought of Sahm and Gatemouth Brown as white and black mirror images of each other -- both were genre-busting musicians who played blues but weren't bluesmen, who could swing country but weren't country artists, who kept their ears attuned to the ethnic music in their areas. For Sahm, it was most often the conjunto of his native San Antonio; for Brown, it was the Cajun and Creole stuff from the Texas-Louisiana border.

Dayton has a similar approach, and rather than being falsely modest, he embraces the comparison. "Yeah, well, before I met Doug, I met Huey P." -- Sahm's old producer Huey P. Meaux -- "and the whole time I was working with Huey P., he was pounding Doug Sahm records on me. He was like [imitates Meaux's Cajun accent], Aw, cher, you gotta listen to dis. Dis a bad muthafucka.Between him, Clifford Antone and my big brother, who was real good friends with Clifford, I felt like I had been groomedto do some of that shit."

You might not agree with that, but you'd have a hard time convincing me that Sahm wouldn't be proud to release a record as good as this one. "I think it's my best singin' ever," Dayton says. "I feel like I'm growing into a stylist at this point -- if I do whatever I do, I've put my stamp on it. And luckily I've had enough people to protect me artistically to where I can create that stamp. So vocally, it's way better than Tall Texas Tales, Hey Nashvegas and obviously Raisin' Cain. I was greener when I cut that one, and I can barely listen to it anymore. I hate to use the word 'mature,' but that's what it is."

While Evans is looking west for his shot in the arm, Dayton's looking east. Specifically, to the same Nashvegas he once called out in song. And as it happens, he's still picking on Nashville. "There's about three big labels in Nashville that have heard this record that want to sign me at the first of the year," he says. "I'm deciding if I want to do that right now, if they're gonna let me have [my record label] Stag as an imprint, I don't know. But I do know this: We've got quality issues." (And by "issues," he means the Dr. Phil kind, not quality records.)

Dayton believes he's gotten to the point where he can call some of the shots. "I've got a big enough cult following that I can tell an A&R guy that might not have his job next year this: 'Hey, man, I'm okay. I don't have to do this,' " he says. "Right now, I've got my own tour bus, I got my own record label, I bought my first house, I have a national sponsorship with Jim Beam. I got angel investors for my record label, if we need 'em, which we don't, because Stag is makin' money. I even went up a tax bracket -- by which I mean I am now in a tax bracket."

So, you got that, Houston: He's doing okay!

The John Evans Band releases Circling the Drain Saturday, October 23, at the Firehouse Saloon, 5930 Southwest Freeway. For more information, call 713-977-1962. Jesse Dayton's next Houston show is Friday, October 22, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, 713-528-5999.

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