Jesse Dayton could be considered something of a creative contradiction. On the one hand, he reveres the old masters — Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, George Jones, Waylon and Willie. On the other, his latest album, “Mixtape Vol. 1,” finds him reimagining classic songs of another era and putting his own spin on those standards.
Dayton doesn’t subscribe to the notion that being successful means being confined to any particular category. That’s despite the fact that he claims an impressive imprint of his own. As a former guitar foil for some of the aforementioned icons — Cash, Jennings, Nelson and Glen Campbell, among them — as well as a musician who’s worked with several accredited insurgents (X, Social Distortion, the Supersuckers and John Doe) he boasts a diverse resume even apart from the dozen solo albums he’s released on his own.
“The lessons learned were to just be yourself, because everyone else is taken,” Dayton said, speaking on the phone prior to a gig later that evening in Boise, Idaho. “The lesson is that you can grow a long beard, get some tattoos and play too many Waylon songs in your live set, but you’re never going to be Waylon Jennings. There are a lot of mimics out there and they’re really good, they’re doing the whole shtick. But even though I played with Waylon, I don’t want to be like that. I want to make American music, but I don’t want to be boxed into some specific genre, whether it’s country, rock ’n’ roll or whatever. It’s a big, wide world out there.”
A restless troubadour who performs some 250 shows a year, Dayton makes his home in Austin, Texas, in a house purchased with the royalties he received from the use of his songs in the various feature film and television soundtracks he’s contributed to over the years. However, he said he relies on roadwork to share his music with the masses.
“It’s crazy,” Dayton replied when asked about his rigorous touring schedule. “But it was the only way I could have a career. I’m like a poker player who’s just trying to grind it out. I’m basically just trying to do the same thing. That’s how we built a cult following. It’s through constant touring.”
Dayton’s career began auspiciously enough. Raised in Beaumont, Texas, he was encouraged by his parents to pursue music early on. That goal seemed easily within reach thanks to an early association with several influential icons, including legendary Louisiana musician Huey P. Meaux, who recruited him for a recording early on. Later, Dayton’s debut album would feature such Tex-Mex legends as the late Doug Sahm and accordion player Flaco Jimenez.
“I started making music when I was a kid,” Dayton said, reflecting on the trajectory his career has taken. “I was sneaking into clubs and playing with zydeco bands and sneaking across the border and playing honky-tonks with a bunch of old hillbilly guys. When I moved to Austin, everybody sounded like Stevie Ray Vaughan. But I was watching 10,000 hours of ‘Hee Haw.’ I was listening to Jerry Reed, and it wasn’t exactly the cool thing at the time. I was spotted by Waylon Jennings after playing this TV show in Nashville, and that changed my life. I started playing with all the old-school guys.”
Dayton demurs when it’s suggested that his career seems to have been carefully cultivated.
“I wish I could take credit for it,” he said. “Obviously I put a lot into my craft, but I think a lot of it had to do with the other 22 hours when you’re not on stage and hanging out with people just to have fun. Just be a part of it.”
As far as any musical crossover is concerned, Dayton dismisses any heretical intent. He said he’s simply following the path of forebears.
“You don’t have to do it disrespectfully,” he said of any shakeup. “You don’t have to bastardize the style. When Muddy Waters took up electric guitar, he became a hybrid. When Elvis was wearing pink suits and singing Bill Monroe or Big Joe Turner songs, that was a hybrid. So if you’re not pissing off the traditionalists, you’re not doing anything interesting. All you gotta do is listen to the song ‘Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.’ That’s the whole thing. Waylon and Buck Owens were using rock ’n’ roll components. If you listen to the Buckaroos, their instrumentals were not too far from the Beatles.”
In the meantime, Dayton’s strategy seems to be serving him well. “Mixtape Vol. 1” reached No. 28 on the Billboard Hot Country Albums chart on its initial release and also climbed to No. 19 on the Billboard Americana charts.
“There’s a real resurgence with my career,” Dayton said. “Things are really hot right now. The album’s become a vehicle to introduce people to American roots music.”
Still, Dayton makes it clear he’s not beholden to anyone with exacting expectations.
“Those of us who see the big picture don’t worry about those who can’t see behind the curtain,” he said. “It’s all about the songs. Nothing else matters.”
Indeed, Dayton doesn’t measure his success in terms of overall acceptance. He’s pleased to do things his way just as long as he feels satisfied.
“It’s something everyone dances with,” Dayton said. “If you’re not a true artist, the conversation doesn’t matter. I don’t go back to my hotel room and sob because I didn’t attract 1,000 people that night. I got a nice house in Austin, I have a tour bus, I have a great band and a great team behind me. But all I’m really interested in is the work. This isn’t about me and my success. It’s about leaving behind music that’s going to last forever.”