“I’ve had a really weird career,” says Austin-based singer, songwriter and guitarist Jesse Dayton. “I mean, I really have. I don’t say that in a kind of boastful way. I say it in a kind of…I’m scratching my head as much as anyone else is. What do Rob Zombie, Waylon Jennings and Bill Clinton all have in common with Jesse Dayton?”
Zombie first heard one of Dayton’s albums at a party. Impressed, the ex-White Zombie singer turned solo artist and filmmaker tracked the guitarist down and had him write music for his 2005 film, The Devil’s Rejects. A few years later, Zombie and Dayton co-wrote songs for Zombie’s Halloween II.
“Those soundtrack records did well,” Dayton says. “And it was funny, because I don’t think the people at the studios realized that they had a full-on rock star directing our movie. He might sell some soundtracks. I don’t think they realized that. It was a big deal. And in fact, it was such a big deal that I actually ended up writing a script, and Rob got it to Malcolm McDowell, and he agreed to do it.”
That film was Zombex, and McDowell suggested that Dayton direct the low-budget Roger Corman-esqe zombie film that also features Devil’s Rejects actors Lew Temple and Sid Haig as well X bassist and singer John Doe and Slayer’s Tom Araya. Thanks to Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett screening it at Orion Fest, Dayton says word spread like wildfire about the film.
As for Jennings, the outlaw countryman saw Dayton on the Nashville TV show Crook & Chase and asked him to play on his 1996 album, Right for the Time. If a guy like Waylon Jennings recruits a guitar slinger like Dayton, you know he’s got some serious country chops.
Dayton also recorded with Johnny Cash, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Johnny Bush and Glenn Campbell.
And Clinton? Well, Dayton and Lucinda Williams played at the former president’s second inaugural ball.
“I went and got in my room and then met him right before I smoked out,” Dayton says. “And he walked in, and he had a Jack and Coke in his hand, and he goes, ‘Hey, I play a little sax. Too bad I didn’t bring my sax so I could sit in with you guys.’ And Hillary was looking at him, just glaring. She looked super-uptight. He was pretty much the David Lee Roth of politicians. He was having the biggest time of his life. And he ordered us all Jack and Cokes. But he’s still a fan.”
X’s John Doe is a fan, too, and Dayton performed with him at the Lion's Lair about three years ago, when Governor John Hickenlooper, who’s rumored to be big X fan, was in the crowd.
“He was super-nice,” Dayton says of Hickenlooper. “I asked him how it was being governor, and he goes, ‘It was a lot more fun being mayor.’”
Doe later asked Dayton to tour with X when the band’s original guitarist was diagnosed with cancer.
While Dayton has come through these parts many times, last year he formed a bond with Yawpers frontman Nate Cook after their two groups played at the Oriental. During a day off, Dayton and his band ended up recording “May Have to Do it (Don’t Have to Like It)” and “Hurtin’ Behind the Pine Curtain” at Cook’s friend’s studio with Cook singing background vocals.
The two songs ended up on Dayton’s new album, The Outsider, which he recorded on tour in cities including Atlanta, Los Angeles, Austin and Nashville.
“We were touring nonstop, and the label was like, ‘Well, why don’t we just take some time off,’” Dayton says. “And I was like, “Man, some of my favorite rock records from the ’70s were recorded on tour.”
Dayton says he wanted to make The Outsider a sister project to his last album, 2016’s The Revealer.
“But I wanted to make it even more raw and even more about my guitar,” Dayton says. "And I wanted the lyrics...the songs that really hit home on that Revealer record were ‘Daddy Was a Badass’ and ‘Mrs. Victoria,’ and stuff where I was being super-vulnerable about personal journey, life and all that. I was like, ‘Well, I think I’m going even deeper on this one.’ There are some songs about redemption and civil rights.”
Dayton wrote “Charlottesville” after seeing last year's Unite the Right rally on television.
“Charlottesville was a big deal for me, because my grandfather, who was the chief of the Beaumont Fire Department, helped liberate the Jews from the Nazis in World War II and was a decorated war hero,” Dayton says. “Then I married into a Jewish family. My wife is my manager. I’ve been with her for a long time. She’s Jewish. I was raised by this nanny named Mrs. Victoria who was an old African-American woman. So when I saw that Unite the Right rally going on the TV and saw KKK and Nazi flags, I freaked out.
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“I grew up on Neil Young and Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer, and those guys were all protest singers," Dayton adds. "I was like, ‘Where are the protest songs? Like, are you that worried about hurting your audience? There are eight billion people on the planet, man. Surely you can lose a few assholes. Surely, you can replace some people.'”
Dayton says he just doesn’t want to lie to people in order to make money off of them, and he’s done pretty good writing and licensing songs for film and television.
“I’m a still a pretty working-class guy, but I’m not freaking about money like I used to, so it kind of made me say,
'Hey, man, what are you really into this shit for? I think leaving some really cool shit behind is what it’s about. Leaving some really important stuff behind that people are going to care about long after we’re gone. That’s the only thing you can do. I try to inspire people.”