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.
"I think there's other ways to drag my music into the mainstream other than singles or making a Nashville Record," he says. "Look at Harry Connick Jr. or Lyle Lovett. Those guys never get played on the radio, but they sell a lot of albums and they have careers. That's all I want. I want to build a family with this thing. You give me a band and a truck and a little hippie pad outside of Austin, let me make my living this way, and I'm set, you know what I mean."
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But if Dayton spends a good amount of time talking about how his outlaw country may or may not relate to the mainstream, and about avoiding Nashville homogenization and maintaining artistic integrity, it's because a little hippie-pad outside of Austin isn't, in fact, all he wants. He's a natural born performer, and he's got a sense -- like the fans who've followed his career waiting for this break -- that he could make it big. It's a sense that's been building as Dayton sold his songs to Hollywood for placement in Melrose Place and Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class, and as he appeared acting as Pam Tillis' bandleader in two country video hits.
Sitting in the Studio B control room for an interview, Dayton isn't quite the same precocious greaser who might have offered you a beer and a conversation about vintage shoes backstage at the Satellite three years ago. For one thing, Willie Nelson has just listened to his finished album and invited Dayton to perform at his annual Fourth of July picnic in Luckenbach, where Dayton will join a history of similarly chosen up-and-comers, among them Eric Johnson and Stevie Ray Vaughan. For another, these past three years have seen a goodly number of journalists following his career, pegging him as a rising star and waiting to see what would happen when he finally made his definitive move. So he's pretty well used to interviews now, and he's professionally and personally sensitive to the jealousies and second-guessing that follow in his wake as he moves from being a promising Houston boy out into the wider marketplace. For instance, for those who question his signing with a relatively small Houston label instead of one of the majors, and working with Randall Jamail, whose attention can be split between the legal and musical worlds, Dayton stands ready with a reminder that smaller labels can often give beginning performers more personal attention, and that some of the world's greatest music has been released by rich lawyers, from Leonard Chess to David Geffen.
Push him about his ambitions and he'll admit that "I want to sell a lot of records. I want everybody to know who I am, to look back in 30 years and say, man, that guy made some classy records. I think this is one of them. And I'm gonna make a lot more. But I can't get a big head about it because it's not out there yet. I don't know if people will buy it. But it's about a work ethic. That's what it's all about. Because there's a genius on every corner."
Jessie Dayton celebrates the release of Raisin' Cain at 9:30 p.m., Thursday, May 25 at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $5. Call 869-COOL for info.