A Pair of Aces

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

John Evans and Jesse Dayton have long been the kings of Inner Loop Houston country. Together, the two have won a score of Houston Press Music Awards, played innumerable well-attended shows, and released half a dozen albums that fans treasure years later. Both came here from points east -- Dayton from Beaumont and Evans from Pasadena. (Evans also has a Beaumont connection: He attended and played football for Lamar University in the early '90s.) Both were raised on honky-tonk and rockabilly and later got into punk. Dayton will tell you about how Joe Strummer's music saved him from a teenage life of going to Journey shows, and Evans has always touted bands like the Cramps, the Ramones and Social Distortion.

And in the next few weeks, both of them will have new albums out -- Evans's Circling the Drain and Dayton's Country Soul Brother -- both of which find their progenitors at artistic forks in the road, tweaking their sounds and targeting new fan bases.

And it pleasures me to report that both are great records. No band on earth has simultaneously as much country twang and hard rock drive -- equal parts Carl Perkins and Eddie Cochran and the '80s West Coast punk of bands like the Cramps, X and Social Distortion -- as John Evans. There's also a little distorted, '80s-style guitar jangle here and there ("No More Happy Endings" and "House of Cards"), a piano-driven slow-dance number ("Endlessly Blue") with a nice acoustic-guitar solo, a menacing Paladins-style roots rocker in "Slither," a touch of slinky cowboy jazz on "Eye Candy," a hint of the Tubes on "Four Piece Band" and some low-down roadhouse rockabilly blues on the floor-shaking shuffle "Swattin' Flies." No song breaks the four-minute mark, the album as a whole doesn't crack 40 minutes, and whether you wear your hair in a pompadour or a Mohawk, you'll find that it's one house-wrecker of a party record.

"Out of Control was where I first got into the heavier stuff," Evans says, referring to his last record. "But this one really is just a progression from that, where the honky-tonk stuff kept getting harder and harder. It's a weird thing for me, because it's almost like the country side of the music doesn't want what I think rock and roll kinda needs. It kinda goes back to some heavy shuffle stuff, and that's what I think we did on the record: some different-tempo stuff from what I normally do. We kept it simple and in-your-face, with heavy guitar tones."

Like Dayton, Evans has high hopes for his new record. "We're gonna release this thing in Texas on October 23 and see what happens. There's a label out in L.A. on the Sunset Strip that I can't give you the name of -- an indie label -- but we might do a deal with them and try to grow a scene out in L.A. And we're workin' on jumping on a tour with a couple of national acts."

Dayton has already done both of those things, so his mission with Country Soul Brother is a little different. He has cult followings all over the place, in both North America and Europe, so his goal is to make the leap from hipster fave to household name. "It's a different time right now in music, and with Country Soul Brother, I think we're opening our arms to a broader audience, but it's still for the cool kids," he says. "It's not like we're tryin' to convert the housewives."

Dayton is speaking from a suite at the Phoenix Marriott, where he's kicking back and waiting for the Astros to start bashing the Braves in game one of the National League Division Series. One thing he comes back to over and over in our interview is that he's doing quite well these days, contrary to what most of us here in Houston seem to think. "Can you believe I'm in a suite?" he asks rhetorically. "I can remember when I used to call you I would be crashing on some chick's couch." He admits that when he comes back to Houston these days, he feels like Jerry Seinfeld on one of his visits to his parents in Del Boca Vista. No matter how much he may protest to the contrary, just about everyone here sees him as the same broke-ass starving artist they knew and loved back in the mid-'90s. "I don't think my fans in Houston know I'm doing okay," he says. "I worry about them more than they should worry about me. They're all like, 'Why aren't you a star yet?' Well, what it means to be a star has kinda changed a lot lately. I'm like, 'Dude, I bought a house, I got a tour bus. Really, if you need any help, let me know.' "

And if there's any justice in the world, Country Soul Brother, which drops November 2, should help Dayton do even better. It's easily his best record yet -- a textured, gorgeously recorded realization of the talent we've always known he has, and a loving salute to the country-soul of Conway Twitty, Charlie Rich and Doug Sahm he heard on Beaumont AM radio as a kid. Dayton's songwriting and singing have finally ripened fully, as shown in his songs "Ain't Grace Amazing," "Daily Ritual," the Czech-Texas polka "Moravia" and his modern-day bad-man ballad "Talkin' Bobby Dale's Hard Luck Blues." The covers are impeccably chosen as well -- there's a killer rendition of Greg Wood's salute to Johnny Wolfe, "Tall Walkin' Texas Trash," and an ingenious honky-tonk reworking of the Cars' "Just What I Needed."

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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