- 'Waylon called me up and said, "Hey Hoss, I saw you on the TV last night."'
'Feel better Hoss," replies outlaw Americana musician Jesse Dayton after I text him to postpone our interview because of the flu.
Hoss, I've since learned, is the "official word" of Texas, according to a Slate article called "The United Slang of America." And while the publication's research methodology may be suspect — is "shucky darn" really the most commonly used expression in Kansas? — the word does in fact come up again, a few days later, when I ask Dayton how he ended up in the studio with Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.
"It's crazy, man, it just all kind of worked the way it's supposed to," says the Texas guitar-slinger, filmmaker and troubadour. "This big publicist in Nashville named Evelyn Shriver saw me play at the Continental Club in Austin, and she was like, 'You need to be on TV.' So I went out there on my own dime to be on Crook and Chase, which is this kind of cheesy Nashville talk show, and play one of my own songs. And because Kris Kristofferson was also on the show, all those guys were watching. I ended up hanging out with Kristofferson, and it turned out Waylon had cut his finger cooking with Jessie [Colter] and couldn't play guitar. So Waylon called me up at my hotel and said, 'Hey Hoss, I saw you on the TV last night with Kris Kristofferson, you want to play guitar for me?' I flew back to Austin, went over to Woodland Studios, knocked on the door, and Johnny Cash opened the door."
While most musicians would be shaking in their boots by that point, Dayton wasn't. When he talks about playing with childhood heroes like Waylon and Willie, Glen Campbell and Ray Price, it's in an affable matter-of-fact way that bears no trace of bragging or false modesty.
While growing up in Beaumont, Texas, not far from the Louisiana border, Dayton was introduced to all kinds of music by his "cool older brother" and skipped college in order to play guitar in a Zydeco band. "We were making like four hundred bucks a week and I was like, 'There's no way I'm going to school.'"
He's since released nine albums, toured extensively with The Supersuckers, and done Rob Zombie movie soundtracks featuring original songs like "I'm at Home Getting Hammered (While She's Out Getting Nailed)" as well as a cover of "Free Bird." "Rob dared me to do that," he says of the latter, "and I was like, 'OK, let's just make this hillbilly as f-u-c-k.'"
Dayton also wrote and directed Zombex, a 2013 creature feature that stars A Clockwork Orange's Malcolm McDowell and is set in a post-Katrina New Orleans where a PTSD drug brings on a zombie apocalypse. "I actually got paid for my work," says the musician, who's begun working on a second film, "although making movies is nowhere as cool as playing music."
Back in the world of music, he just got back from a five-day Outlaw Country Cruise — or, as he puts it, "a massive redneck casino" — where he shared the bill with like-minded artists like Lucinda Williams, Shooter Jennings, The Mavericks and Steve Earle.
Dayton's latest album, The Revealer, was released in September and features the self-explanatory "Daddy Was a Badass," the George Jones-inspired "Possum Ran Over My Grave," and a reprise of "I'm at Home Getting Hammered." ("I might cut it 27 more times like Willie Nelson did with 'Whiskey River,'" he laughs.)
But The Revealer also includes sincerely moving songs like the dobro-laced ballad "Mrs. Victoria (Beautiful Thing)," in which a Southern narrator remembers his African-American nanny: "Her funeral was black and white," he sings, "but our tears were all the same."
That song, and others like it, recall the poignancy of Jesse Sings Kinky, an album on which Dayton covered the songs of fellow Texan Kinky Friedman, who's best known for tongue-in-cheek numbers like "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore." But then there are songs like "Marilyn and Joe" that it's hard to imagine anyone singing without holding back tears.
"That's one of the main reasons I wanted to make that record," says Dayton, "because people don't know he had this incredible career as a songwriter. There's some heavy songs on that record that are as good as anything Townes [Van Zandt] or Guy [Clark] wrote."
Dayton is also no stranger to being typecast — whether as a country singer-songwriter, or a rock 'n' roll guy, or whatever — but he prides himself on blurring those boundaries.
"I think the only tradition that I'm kind of holding up is that Texas storyteller thing," he says. "Because I'm not singing about pink Cadillacs or purple skirts, man. I'm singing about stuff that's really opening up a vein and getting vulnerable, talking about East Texas and families and characters that I have survivor's guilt over. All kinds of stuff, you know?"