Jesse Dayton long ago gave up on mainstream success, choosing instead to lend his voice, guitar skills and can-do attitude to a renegade-country subgenre that’s found some popularity with hipsters half his age. “I’ve been very fortunate,” says Dayton from an Austin, Texas, rehearsal space, where he and his band are prepping for the first show of a tour that kicks off in London on Saturday. “I haven’t paid my mortgage or rent doing anything else since I was 22.”
Though he may not be a household name, Dayton has done quite well for himself outside his home state—mainly through a series of happy accidents. He’s played guitar with Waylon Jennings, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, X and Ryan Bingham, and he’s written soundtracks for three Rob Zombie films. “It was a total fluke,” says the Beaumont native of his fortuitous affiliation with Zombie. “I knew one of the guys who acted in his movies, and Rob called me up and said, ‘Hey, you wanna make a fake country record?’ It was for this movie called The Devil’s Rejects. Rob gave me 75 percent of the publishing, and it helped me buy a house and put my kid through the University of Texas.”
A major draw overseas, Dayton averages about 250 days a year on the road. He’s also directed his own horror flick (2013’s Zombex), licensed more than 50 songs to film and television and (somewhat) quietly put out 11 studio albums and one EP since 1995. Most recently, Dayton signed a deal with Da Capo Press to write his memoir, and he’s hosting a new radio show on @GimmeCountry. On Mixtape Volume 1 (Blue Élan), out August 9, Dayton offers his inimitable spin on a covers album, paying tribute to the music and the artists who inspired him—everyone from Neil Young (“Harvest”) to Elton John (“Country Comfort”) to AC/DC (“Whole Lotta Rosie”) to the Cars (“Just What I Needed”). “The idea was to do cool renditions of songs that I thought the original writers would dig,” says Dayton.
He also does a number on the Clash’s “Bankrobber,” available here as an exclusive download. “I saw the Clash in San Antonio when I was 14, and it changed my life” says Dayton. “The next day, I cut my hair like in a duck tail like Joe Strummer’s, got a black leather jacket and quit all sports. It’s not easy to do what’s cool, man—it’s hard. The Ramones were riding around in a van.”
These days, nothing about the music industry is glamorous. “You got to really want it—unless you’re some 16-year-old pop diva,” says Dayton. “I do everything out of my house. I bought a 45-foot RV with bus bunks in it; I got a crew. I don’t have a famous father. I don’t have big boobs. I built all this shit myself.”
—Hobart Rowland“Bankrobber” (download):