BY THE TIME THEY GET TO PHOENIX . . . THE JEFF DAYTON BAND WILL HAVE TOURED THE COUNTRY ONCE AGAIN ON GLEN CAMPBELL'S GRAVY TRAIN
"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.
"He seems to have a good following in South America and Southeast Asia," reports Bob Henke. "We haven't gone to those places with him yet, but we've gotten a real good response in Great Britain and Australia. I mean, he's been a major artist for 25 years now. So he's got fans all over the world."
For Henke, who recorded and toured with Dr. Hook during that band's most successful phase, the world travel doesn't quite hold the novelty that it does for the other members of the Dayton Band. But the bespectacled bassist still is quite impressed by the prestigious one-nighters his boss is able to line up.
"Just recently, we did two nights at the White House, playing for all the foreign dignitaries," he exclaims. "That was really exciting. Standing on the stage on the lawn of the White House, with the White House in the background and the president and his wife eating barbecue in front of us. I even got to meet them. I remember the protocol introducing me to Barbara Bush, and her turning to the president, saying, `Honey, this is Bob Henke with Glen Campbell's band.' He was really into Glen. He said, `Oh, we can't wait to hear the music.' It was great!"
It was the proliferation of job offers like that one, says the Dayton gang, that inspired Campbell to come out of his retirement in the first place. "His original intention was to retire from traveling," says Kenny Skaggs. "He had settled in the Valley and liked it here."
"Like he says, `You can't shovel sunshine,'" Henke interjects.
"But he had some job opportunities that kept coming in," Skaggs continues, "and I think he started to miss it. He really loves to play. But I don't think he felt like hiring his old band back."
"He was looking for something in his own backyard," adds Dayton. "And there we were."
The fateful meeting took place backstage at a March 1987 show at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum, where the Dayton Band served as opening act to Alabama, the Judds, and Merle Haggard. "We had won a Marlboro talent search," explains Dayton. "And that was the prize, opening this concert. Well, Glen stopped by backstage to see Haggard and introduced himself to us. Then, the following night we were at a private event, playing at the opening of a golf course. And Glen, being a golf nut, was there at the banquet. He ended up sitting in with the band. And a few days later, he called me and asked if we wanted to play some dates with him."
Despite the musicians' testimonials to their long-standing love of Campbell's music, none of the players had ever bothered to learn any of his songs prior to meeting him.
"We didn't know his stuff really at all," Dayton admits. "I hate to say that, 'cause Glen's under the impression that we'd been playing his stuff for years and knew it by heart. Actually, we ended up faking most of it at first."
"We still fake it now and then, when he launches into a song we've never done!" Skaggs laughs. "He'll start doing something, and it's like, if you wanna pick up the ball and run with it, do it. If not, stay away from it!"
"It's the earn-while-you-learn program," Dayton quips. "At least it keeps us on our toes. When we're with Glen, you won't catch any of us sitting back, taking a nap."
VALLEY MUSIC FANS often have lamented the lack of any real identifiable "Phoenix sound," in the way music out of, say, Philadelphia, New Orleans, or Minneapolis often carries its own regional stamp. But around the beginning of the Seventies, when the country-rock sound was beginning to take hold nationally, a handful of Phoenix bands was brewing up a heady mix of country and rock that seemed a bit more organic and, indeed, quirky than the radio fare coming out of Southern California.
The music produced by such local outfits as the Goose Creek Symphony, the Bob Meighan Band (both signed to Capitol Records for a spell), the Normal Brothers and others blended elements of bluegrass, country, blues, folk and rock 'n' roll-boogie in ways only pickers a little crazy from the Arizona heat could imagine. The combination of fiddles, mandolins and electric guitars sounded just right cutting through the hot, dry air at any of the outdoor festivals held at mountain-cradled ballparks during those years. It was, many longtime residents agree, the closest thing to an inbred regional sound any group of Phoenix bands has since managed to produce.
It's a sound that ought to pop right off the tracks of the Jeff Dayton Band's second cassette Horizons, given that the band is comprised of alumni from Goose Creek (Henke), the Normals (Skaggs) and other influential Phoenix country-rock bands. But curiously, apart from the odd-structured fiddle melody on the instrumental "15 Minutes," and the charmingly goofy campfire feel of "Along the Navajo Trail," most of the album sounds like it could have come straight out of a Nashville hit factory.
"I think that's just what Jeff wants," says a musician who's worked with various members of the Dayton Band over the course of the past fifteen years. "I think he's directing himself towards selling his songs, Nashville-wise, and he's following the radio trends and all." In that department, the bandleader apparently knows what he's doing. Dayton already has one gold record on his wall for penning a song called "Any Old Time," covered by George Strait on his album Does Ft. Worth Ever Cross Your Mind. "But I don't think Jeff really has a Phoenix sound," says the associate.
"Kenny and Willard, on the other hand, have been around town so long, playing alternative music that, yeah, if there was ever a Phoenix sound, they were a part of it, and it still exists in the way they play. But as a band, their approach is pretty formulaic. It's not more than the sum of its parts. Sometimes it's not even the sum."
It's possible that the Phoenix flavor of the amalgam's sound is simply getting lost in the Campbell soup. "Playing with Glen has made me a more disciplined player," says Skaggs. "Glen gives a first-rate performance, and that makes me play up. But as far as my songwriting goes, it's confused my style a little bit. Because I kind of write thinking of Glen now, and that takes me away from my natural style of writing. Glen's got more of a pop heart. He doesn't really do your hard-core country material."
"Personally, I've tried to upgrade my songwriting, too, to match the caliber of the Jimmy Webb stuff Glen likes to do," says Dayton. "As Glen would put it, he's probably the premier musical poet of our time."
Dayton is so keenly attuned to the Nashville scene, he can quote you the current number of major acts making records out of the area and the number of labels distributing them. But, like most of his bandmates, he has no burning desire to move from the Valley to any so-called music capitals.
"The myth is that you've gotta move out of Phoenix to make it," he says. "But we're seeing so many guys moving back here from L.A. or Nashville now." Dayton rattles off a list of returning Valley homeboys, including Al Casey, a member of the elite group of L.A. studio pros nicknamed "the Wrecking Crew"; Doug Heywood, bass player for Jackson Browne; and Mickey McGee and Ed Black, who've backed up everyone from Rick Nelson to Linda Ronstadt.
"They've gotten tired of the big-city grind," Dayton says, "and they're finding out they can live and work out of here."
Indeed, if there's to be any Phoenix sound in the city's future, it will probably be the hum of low-profile sidemen and songwriters driving to the bank to deposit checks from their occasional tour work and royalties.
"It may take longer for us to get a record contract when we're dealing with the labels from a distance," says Dayton. "But that's okay. We're not in a big hurry. I mean, all of us are in our thirties, we've got families, and we've been around the track enough to know it all doesn't have to happen today."
A big hit album for the Jeff Dayton Band may or may not come in the future. For now, Dayton's got another business trip to make for his boss.
"It's great," he says, psyching himself up for another profitable week. "Not only do you get to do some sightseeing, but you're getting paid for it!"
Is it any wonder Jeff Dayton sometimes sees halos over Glen Campbell's silhouette?
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?
"I remember Barbara Bush turning to the president, saying, `Honey, this is Bob Henke with Glen Campbell's band.' He said, `Oh, we can't wait to hear the music.'"
"Glen's under the impression that we'd been playing his stuff for years and knew it by heart. Actually, we ended up faking most of it at first.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.