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The Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter scored his skin art 12 years ago, when he was a 17-year-old, greasy-haired rockabilly guitarist who opened a show for Brian Setzer.
Setzer (a Jersey boy) advised Dayton to celebrate his status as a born-and-raised citizen of the Lone Star State. "He said there was strength in that heritage," says Dayton, who grew up in Janis Joplin's hometown of Beaumont. "I was just a kid, so I didn't really know what he meant, but I figured I should at least look like a true Texan."
Thus the tattoo--a five-inch-tall, four-color, pinup-style cowgirl, straddling a guitar on Dayton's right shoulder in all her buxom, come-hither glory. Ride me, cowboy.
Yes, sir, Jesse's a Texan--he looks Texan, talks Texan and sure as hell plays Texan. Dayton's debut solo album, Raisin' Cain, is a barnstormer sampler of his home state's manifold native musical styles. It's as pure and potent as a shot of roadhouse whiskey. Houston Press recently named it album of the year in an annual survey of Texas music.
Released in late June on the Houston-based label Justice Records and recorded at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio, Raisin' Cain has more flavors than California yogurt--no two of the album's 12 tracks sound the same. Rockabilly, blues, zydeco, hillbilly boogie, honky-tonk, Tex-Mex and jazzy Western swing are all represented in fine form.
There's even an acidic rock guitar bite to"Boystown," and "Carmelita (show me how to dance)" is a buoyant conjunto tune about a gringo who makes a fool of himself trying to salsa dance in a cantina with a fine-looking woman.
As you might guess, the story is semiautobiographical. The way Dayton tells it, this pretty, young thing filled him full of tequila and Dos Equis, then took him in a peach truck to a bar "where I was the only white boy in the place."
"We were somewhere on the outskirts of Santa Fe." He pauses. "Hell, to tell you the truth, I don't know where I was. I told her, 'Honey, I can two-step, but I can't do this.' I tried anyway, and everyone had a laugh. It was all innocent and friendly like."
Dayton was in New Mexico for a Pam Tillis video shoot. He performs as the front man for Tillis' band in the contemporary country star's two latest videos--"Spilled Perfume" and "Mi Vida Loca."
Although Dayton's mug is in heavy rotation on Nashville's CMT video channel, he has little good to say about mainstream country music. The reason "alternative" or "roots" country music is catching on with urban teenagers and twentysomethings, he says, is because it's real--no fakey-breaky heart.
"These kids know genuine music when they hear it, and they all want something gritty to hang their hats on," he says. "What's going on in mainstream country isn't all that real or gritty. It's cheesy, and they see through it.
"They think that Johnny Cash is cool, they think Willie and Waylon and Hank Williams are cool, because they listen to them and they hear music that comes from someplace real--a musician's heart."
Dayton cut his musical teeth playing blues and rockabilly as a teenager (including a stint with the rockabilly outfit the Road Kings). Then he joined the Alamo Jets, an Austin-based alternative country act. When the Jets disbanded earlier this year, Dayton was courted by several Nashville labels as a solo artist. He told them, "No go."
"They wanted to bring in all these other songwriters and have me do their songs. I told them I didn't want to lose my identity. I think it's important that I sound like I'm from Beaumont. Country music is getting too homogenized. It's losing its regionalism, and I didn't want to be a part of that."
When Justice offered him a deal, however, Dayton whipped out his pen with gunslinger speed. Justice has a reputation for living up to its name in how it treats its artists, and label founder Randall Jamail is an enthusiastic supporter of regional talent.
Once Dayton had his songs together and was ready to record a debut, Justice pulled out the stops on session men, bringing in a virtual who's who of Texas back-up talent that included Flaco Jimenez on accordion, Doug Sahm on bajo sexto and Johnny Gimble on fiddle (Gimble's eerie solos on "Blood Bucket Blues" are worth the price of the CD alone).
Raisin' Cain's release coincided nicely with Dayton's performance before a crowd of 30,000 at Willie Nelson's annual Fourth of July Picnic free festival (Nelson's first in five years because of his well-publicized problems with the tax man).
Shortly after that gig, the 29-year-old Dayton--who still sports the big, black hair of a rockabilly cat--started touring. "The road is a funny thing," he says. "Sometimes, it's the most romantic life you can lead, and sometimes, it's the worst ditch-digging job you can have."
Still, it's the only way Dayton can implement his career strategy--"Build a cult following rather than have one big single." The ultimate goal? "To make recordings that some kid can pick up 40 years from now and say, 'So this is the music that a musician with a dream from Beaumont, Texas, made.'"
Jesse Dayton is scheduled to perform on Thursday, October 12, at the Rockin' Horse in Scottsdale, with Monte Warden and the Lonesharks, and Grievous Angels. Showtime is 8p.m.