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"Sometimes," says Jeff Dayton, a Valley musician made good, "I sort of forget who I'm up there on the stage with. You know, after three years of doing it, you can start to take things for granted. And then we'll be playing somewhere, and I'll be standing behind him, and there'll be about four of these huge spotlights on him. And all of a sudden I'll look up and see this big ol' silhouette. Then I'll hear the crowd: this hum of ten thousand people. And this buzz just lights up inside me. I'll think to myself, `Yeah!'"
The way Dayton paints a portrait of his work, you'd think the 37-year-old guitarist/singer/songwriter was pickin' out tunes behind the Almighty God Himself, or at the very least a resurrected Elvis. You could picture any number of superstar singers in that four-spotlight silhouette--Springsteen, McCartney, Sinatra--and still Dayton's deification would tend to sound a little overstated.
That's why, when you discover Dayton is talking about Glen Campbell--Glen "Rhinestone Cowboy" Campbell, for crissakes!--you're inclined to ask Dayton to open wide and say, "Ahh," so that you can check the tongue in his cheek. Surely this working-stiff picker, who has laid tracks with some of L.A.'s finest studio musicians and gigged around his home state of Minnesota with players who would later work with Prince, has been around the block enough not to be starstruck by a famous face on the comeback trail. Especially one whose five-year retirement from the stage often shows up glaringly in his performances.
"Yeah, once in a while he'll add a verse or drop a verse or segue into a song we've never done," Dayton admits. "Or he might change keys in the middle of a song. But it's not like he's messing up," he quickly adds in Campbell's defense. "It's just that he's so creative that he can take a left turn at any time, and you'd better be there for him."
Certainly, for most of the past three years, Dayton and the six members of his Phoenix-based Jeff Dayton Band have been there for Campbell, often putting their personal lives and their own musical ambitions on hold whenever Glen calls with some gigs. Is the 52-year-old Hee Haw semiregular really that good? Or is the work the star still can offer a back-up band the real attraction?
"That's probably a good part of it," says a former Phoenix country picker now living in L.A. "Jeff's band was working real solid before the Glen thing. They had reached the highest level of success Phoenix had to offer a band: steady work. But when they hooked up with Glen, they jumped beyond the local level, pay-wise. The way I see it, the situation they're in now is a blue-collar musician's wet dream."
The gushing comments offered up by Dayton and his bandmates support that sticky analogy. "It's a pretty neat job," says steel guitar and mandolin player Kenny Skaggs. "We travel to all kinds of places we'd never have the opportunity to visit otherwise, and that's a real treat."
"The traveling is a real bonus," agrees Dayton. "We've been to Ireland, England; we've probably been to fifteen cities in Australia. And the money's good. I haven't made enough to buy three homes yet," he laughs, "but I think we're all very happy with the way things are."
"DADDY! DADDY!" The tiny but demanding voice of a two-and-a-half-year-old girl suddenly forces its way into the interview.
"Can you hang on a second?" Jeff Dayton asks. "My little girl just stuffed an eight-millimeter video cartridge in the regular VHS machine, so I've got a little fishin' to do."
Back home in Phoenix for a scant day-and-a-half before heading back out on the road with Campbell, Dayton barely has time to sit down for an interview, let alone school his daughter in the intricacies of videotape formats. So he's arranged to make himself, Skaggs, and bassist Bob "Willard" Henke available for a few minutes on a telephone conference call.
"I'm sorry about this," Dayton says. "But it's the only way I could get this much of the band together while we're here. Tomorrow we take off for Denver for a couple of nights. Then we'll be off to Montana, Virginia, Maryland, Georgia. Just boppin' all over the U.S. and Canada for a while."
To anyone who hasn't heard much about Glen Campbell since Michael Jackson replaced him as the butt of every Tonight Show comic's jokes about men with high speaking voices, the hectic touring schedule might seem at odds with the crooner's popularity. Even die-hard country fans haven't heard a whole lot from Campbell since his 1987 duet with Steve Wariner, "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," which peaked at No. 6 on the country singles chart.
Nevertheless, the Campbell name still attracts the bookings, particularly in other countries, where marketing miscalculations and international distribution snafus have delayed the release of some of his biggest hits by as many as fifteen years. His 1967 smash album By the Time I Get to Phoenix wasn't released on a U.K. label until 1982. At this rate, "Rhinestone Cowboy" should just now be tearing up the charts somewhere.