Honky Tonk Renaissance Man

It’s a Thursday night in Austin, TX. The parking lot of world famous’ Honky Tonk, The Broken Spoke, is packed full and the sounds of pounding country rhythms flood the doorway upon entering. Jesse Dayton is holding court on the stage, but is barely visible beyond the sea of cowboy hats and tattooed gals, all swaying and shaking to Dayton’s amped up country-fried version of the Cars’ “Just What I Needed.” No talk of bailouts, the recent Austin hiring freeze, or lost retirement funds here. In fact, not much conversation fills the Hall at all, just out of breath gasps between songs, and shouts of requests to the Guitar Man-In-Charge.  He swaggers across the stage, flicking out guitar riffs with a half caress, half assault at the audience, and a booming voice that is unmistakably country one minute, then brassy rockabilly-soul the next.

Dayton is what you’d call a music renaissance man, a throwback to the hard core Artists of yesterday that encapsulated writing, singing, and playing into an entertainment experience. He has been holding residence at The Broken Spoke every Thursday night since last June (in between demanding tour dates), following in the footsteps of the likes of Ernest Tubb and Willie Nelson. “You’ve got a better chance of beating out Brad Pitt for a movie role in Hollywood than landing a weekly date here,” laughs Dayton. “We’re happy to be here, and staying here as long as we can. Where else can you find a place that houses several hundred dancers and real country music?”  And he’s right. The number of real “honky tonks” has diminished in the age of Top 40 “country discos” and the rapid rate of closing venues. But the legendary Broken Spoke is still going strong, with Dayton bringing in a whole new congregation of followers.

At barely forty, Dayton has managed to rack up a number of accomplishments, impress his heroes, and wrangle control of his music and artistic direction. He’s broken barriers, toured with legends, and accumulated fans ranging from resolute punk addicts to country traditionalists. And he’s just getting started.

Born and raised in Beaumont, Texas, Dayton grew up on hard core country and blues, where he found an outlet first in drums, then on guitar.  He set his sites on a career in music with focus and determination. “I was raised by a military dad with a hardworking, blue collar work ethic,” he says.”I’ve always been really independent. I get up and make stuff happen. I go to work.”  He started his first band in his teens, and then headed for Houston and formed The Road Kings in ’91. His George-Jones-soaked vocals and the band’s energetic rockabilly sound drew immediate attention from the musical community. But Dayton wanted more from his music.  “In ’93, I met Jim Lauderdale, and I sang him some country songs, and he encouraged me to do more country than rockabilly. I was hearing bigger sounds and more instruments, and wanted to expand.”

Justice Records, (who had carried Waylon, Willie, Shaver, Kristofferson, etc), offered him a deal in ’95 and then released his solo debut, Raisin’ Cane. The album garnered a lot of attention, as did his guitar playing, and one of his heroes took notice. “Waylon (Jennings) injured his hand, and asked me to come and play on his album Right For The Time. Man, that was something,” Dayton reflects. Kristofferson and Cash also had good things to say about him, recognizing a kindred “country-soul brother.”

A move from the Justice label to Hollywood Records in California led to touring with the likes of Mike Ness and Chris Isaak, and Film and TV additions to his catalog.  But soon record company runarounds and typical red tape overrode the music, and Dayton decided to take the reins. “I didn’t last long at Hollywood,” he admits.  “I asked to be relieved. I told them I was going back to Texas and I was going to do things my way.” He met his business partner, Gary Moore and formed his own label, Stag Records, where he launched his own recordings.

Dayton’s knack for versatility (and perhaps the hint of a dark side) caught the attention of film director Rob Zombie. “I was on my way to a show at Gruene Hall, when I got a call from him,” Dayton remembers. “He told me he liked my music, and wanted me to do a record for the Devil Rejects Movie. It sold well and one thing led to another.”  The CD, Rob Zombie Presents… Banjo & Sullivan: The Ultimate Collection 1972-1978, is still selling strong, and it’s cult-classics include “Dick Soup” and “I’m at Home Getting Hammered (While She’s Out Getting Nailed).” The album brought a whole new fan base to Dayton’s music. “It’s like when I toured with the Supersuckers and Social Distortion. Those who listen to them, listen to Johnny Cash. They just want to hear real music, ” he says.

In yet another creative direction, Dayton teamed up in 2007 with acclaimed Austin roots musician Brennen Leigh, whom he calls a “musical soul mate,” for the release of Holding Our Own and Other Country Duets, a solid traditional country record showcasing the pairs’ songwriting skills and emotionally charged chemistry.  The record received stellar reviews, and managed to capture a magic that has been missing in the duet vein since Conway and Loretta. The trailer for the CD featuring Leigh and Dayton is utilized on Youtube, attracting a whole new generation to real country music.

Youtube, and the whole online revolution, sits well with Dayton, giving him a tremendous resource to expose his music without having to rely on record company bigwigs and their never-ending excuses. He recently starred in the immensely popular (and controversial) Hayes Caryll video, “She Left Me For Jesus,” which has received over 250,000 downloads and counting.  He’s his own man, doing it his own way, enjoying the freedom and worldwide exposure the Internet brings.  “Retail is always going to matter. I personally always want something physical in my hand,” he says. “But the Internet is amazing, initially the whole model of the music business has been completely destroyed. It’s completely leveled the playing field. It’s one at time, getting the music out there.”

Dayton is currently working on a 60’s Honky Tonk Halloween Record for the new Rob Zombie movie, Halloween 2, and he will also be appearing in the film.  He has a lot of plans for the future as there is more music to be made, more boundaries to cross. “There are some records I definitely want to make, ” he muses.”I want to do an Acoustic record and a Gospel record.  I just produced a new record on Mike Stintson, and I want to do more producing. I also want to do another solo record next summer and I also want to do one with The Road Kings…”  And the list goes on.

The enigmatic personality, independent streak and soul-stirring voice, as well as the hint of electric danger that emanates from his stage presence, are reasons that make Jesse Dayton a force to reckoned with. But it is his true heart for the music, you can feel the minute you open the dance hall door, that will keep him one in years to come.


~Wade Phillips

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