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?
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.
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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.
Tall Texas Tales, Dayton says, is his "writer's record." Recorded on the cheap in Houston and released through Dayton's own Bullet Records imprint, Tall Texas Tales is so packed with syllables that Dayton's had to invent a new category for his own material: "too-many-word songs."
"Never Turned My Back on You," the CD's lead-off track, is one such. More western than country, with a touch of bluegrass courtesy of Brian Thomas's banjo break, the tune is a runaway train of hot licks (Thomas again, on lap steel) and Dayton's thick verbiage. It's also the album's strongest track. And just to prove it's a writer's record, that song is followed immediately by "Every Now and Then," the CD's sappiest track, and proof that writers need editors.
After that punch/feign opening, Tall Texas Tales evens out with "Jumped Head First" (think a Michener novella, with falsetto). Good-time country rockers like "Harris County Blues" and "Arkansas Chrome (Duct Tape Song)" chronicle Dayton's Houston travails and redneck chic, respectively, while "Creek Between Heaven and Hell" is a traditional country weeper and "Molasses Girl" taps into a previously unexpected Dixieland vein. And because there's nothing prettier (or more likely to inspire a song) than a town you've left behind, there's "One Year, Three Months, a Week to the Day," which sounds like Dayton's take on Guy Clark's own long-ago ode to leaving Los Angeles in the rearview mirror, "L.A. Freeway."
Is Tall Texas Tales the record that'll make Jesse Dayton the breakout star he's always been on the verge of becoming? Probably not. But neither is that likely to bother Dayton, who seems dead-set on scaling back. The smart people in the music biz, he says, are the rappers and the hippie bands. They're the ones, shunted to the margins of the industry's mainstream, who have figured out how to do their own distribution, how to "operate independent."
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"Independent" is Dayton's key word these days, from the in-house Bullet Records to the Internet marketing (www.jessedayton.com) to the live album, aimed at a European release, that Dayton and his band (Thomas on Dobro, electric banjo and lap steel; Charlie Sanders Jr. on bass; Eric Tucker on drums) recorded in January at the Continental Club, both in Houston and Austin. It also seems to be the impetus behind the move to Austin, where, aside from the presence of his four-and-a-half-year-old son, Sam, the perks include a pile of loose-ended musicians to jam with and hundreds of venues to hold them.
The strategy seems, so far, to be working. Dayton likes to point out that "Jumped Head First" -- the most egregious of the album's too-many-word songs -- was the No. 1 download on mp3.com's country chart in mid-January, holding the top spot against challengers like Faith Hill. And the cool thing is, mp3.com pays artist royalties, at least some of which are bound to end up in that new Ford pickup. The one he's going to park on the little ranchette outside of Austin he's still looking for.
It's a relatively modest wish list for Houston's longtime most-likely-to-succeed, and it's certainly worked over the long haul for Texas songwriters from Jerry Jeff Walker to Robert Earl Keen. Scale back, simplify, bring the business in-house, and work on translating that midsize cult into a bigger one, large enough to support a writing career.
But that's not to say that the new Jesse Dayton has completely jettisoned his greaser roots, or that the modestly hopeful Dayton has abandoned his larger ambitions. After all, he says, Jesse Dayton's self-portrait in Texana won't be complete until that big new truck is bookended by a couple of hot rods in the gravel driveway.