Texas guitar-slinger Jesse Dayton rides into Tucson

With his prized King hollow-body electric guitar in tow, veteran roots rocker Jesse Dayton presents his new Shooter Jennings-produced album, “The Hard Way Blues” (Blue Élan Records, 2024), at 191 Toole on Wednesday, June 12.

With a resumé that includes work with a diverse mix of artists, from, as he puts it, “Johnny Cash to Mike Ness (of Social Distortion), Lee Scratch Perry to Glenn Danzig,” this country outlaw’s repertoire knows no bounds.

Here, the infamous raconteur shares his story with the Tucson Sentinel.

Where it began

Jesse Dayton was raised on the Texas-Louisiana border in Beaumont, Texas.

With crude oil shooting upwards of 150 feet in the air, the discovery of the Spindletop oilfield placed Beaumont at the epicenter of the oil boom at the turn of the 20th century — the same “black gold” that forever transformed the lives of the Clampett’s (the fictional family) from the 1960s television series The Beverly Hillbillies.

“I grew up around a lot of Cajun music, blues and country music, and amazing food,” Dayton recalled. “I feel like I caught the romantic tail-end of America, before the corporations took over.”

Fast-forward to the 1980s, during the mega-corporate world that Ronald Reagan’s economic policies facilitated to create — forsaking founding father Thomas Jefferson’s belief that the purpose of representative government was to curb the excesses of the monied interests.

A little bit country, and a little bit punk rock ‘n’ roll

Dayton’s earliest exposure to music were with the musicians from his hometown.

“Johnny Winter and George Jones are both from Beaumont,” Dayton said. “We would see them at the Dairy Queen, then hear them on the radio on the way home.”

As a kid, in addition to Winter, he assimilated the music of other Texas-centric musicians: The blues-based rock of ZZ Top (“That Little Ol’ Band” from Houston), the outlaw country of Willie Nelson (from Abbott) and Waylon Jennings (from Littlefield) from his parent’s record collection.

“I grew up in a town where people wore cowboy boots and AC/DC T-shirts. It was totally normal,” Dayton reasoned. “I tagged along with some older guys to Houston once. We saw The Clash (Joe Ely opened the show).”

“That was a big deal-changer for me,” he said.

Formation of a habit

“My first instrument was piano, then drums, and then finally guitar,” he said.

Dayton first learned to play “Johnny B. Goode.” The 1958 chart-topper written by Chuck Berry, America’s first guitar hero, is semi-autobiographical. The song’s narrative follows the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer’s rise from poverty to stardom. Hailing from Beaumont, it may have been almost compulsory that Dayton learn Johnny Winter’s cover version first, before taking on Chuck Berry’s original.

“I was obsessed,” he asserted. “I only took my guitar off for class at school and to sleep.”

When Dayton was 15 years old, his parents insisted that he accompany them on a trip to Colorado. 

“I didn’t want to go,” he recalled. “I knew my older brother was going to be throwing raging parties at the house while my folks were away. But, I was the baby in the family.”

“At the motel in Boulder, I met a guitar player. He showed me a few chords.”

In an interview with Guitar Player magazine (March 2023), he expanded. “When I was learning how to play guitar, a guy by the name of Granville Cleveland said to me, ‘Man, I’m gonna show you how to play the three heys.’ They were “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” by Neil Young, “Hey, Good Lookin’” by Hank Williams, and “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix.”

“I took to it like a duck in water,” Dayton enthused. “I’ve been doing variations of those three songs my entire career in some way.”

Six months later, he was playing in a zydeco band.

“I always knew I wanted to be a musician,” he said. “I started playing live at 15.”

For all that, Dayton recalled hearing a joke that stayed with him. “‘The fastest way to get a lead guitar player to shut up is to put sheet music in front of him.’ So I learned how to read music and write it, and studied jazz guitar.”

Those skills would later prove invaluable when he started doing session work in Nashville and Los Angeles.

“When I was 18, I did a session in Houston at the legendary SugarHill Recording Studios — where Lil Wayne, Beyoncé, Willie Nelson, Destiny’s Child, and many others have cut records in the oldest continually running studio in the U.S. — for producer Huey P. Meaux,” he told the Sentinel in a recent interview.

Meaux produced hit singles — “Wasted Days and Wasted Night” and “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” — for the “King of Tex-Mex” Freddy Fender and others, during the 1970s.

“Meaux paid me $50 to play on a song for (zydeco singer/accordionist) Rockin’ Dopsie,” Dayton reminisced. “I felt like I had won the lottery.”

Nicknamed the “Crazy Cajun,” Meaux sold SugarHill in 1986. A decade later, he would fall from grace after the Houston Police Department discovered his hidden “playroom” containing “a physician’s examining table, complete with gynecological stirrups, and just under 15 grams of cocaine in one of the drawers,” as the Houston Press reported. He was subsequently arrested on numerous charges and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Catching a break

“I cut my teeth playing juke joints and honky-tonks throughout Texas and Louisiana. I got to play all those old-school blood buckets before they all closed down,” Dayton said..

He clocked years of experience — “one night playing country and rockabilly, the next blues and zydeco” — on the early Austin music scene before landing coveted gigs with country legends.

“A lot of things happened along the way — like signing a record deal, getting a songwriting deal, being on David Letterman or having Waylon Jennings pick me out of obscurity to play guitar on his record,” Dayton ruminated. “But the biggest thing for me will always be Clifford Antone — who owned the legendary Antone’s Nightclub in downtown Austin — driving (250 miles) to Beaumont to offer me a chance to play at his club.”

“Clifford discovered Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan, Charlie Sexton, and a lot of other great guitar players,” Dayton said. “That night, he gave me five blues records out of his car and said, ‘Learn these kid.'”

“I was 15.”

“I ended up playing with all of these heavy hitters: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Glen Campbell,” he said, proudly. “And then I played with a bunch of rock bands.”

Dayton has toured with John Doe (as the opening act and member of Doe’s backing band), Lucinda Williams (performing at Bill Clinton’s second inaugural ball), and X (filling in for Billy Zoom after being diagnosed with cancer). He has contributed guitarwork on albums by The Supersuckers and Kris Kristofferson, and recorded music for “The Devil’s Rejects,” horror-film director Rob Zombie’s sophomore feature film.

In addition to music, the Texas guitar-slinger has also tried his hand at acting. He can be seen in Zombie’s “Halloween II” fronting the fictional psychobilly band Captain Clegg & the Night Creatures.”

But the list of accomplishments doesn’t stop there.

In 2021, Dayton released a book, “Beaumonster: A Memoir” (Hachette Books), in which he reveals the stranger-than-fiction encounters and outlandish experiences that have ensued across his wide-ranging career. It reads like a who’s who in American music. 

“I talked about everyone from working with Johnny Cash to Mike Ness (of Social Distortion), Lee Scratch Perry to Glenn Danzig,” he said. “They all taught me alot and I’m forever grateful.”

As an artist who has worked the majority of his career outside of the mainstream, success has been comparable to the ebb and flow of the tides. 

“But I am lucky,” he asserted. “I have a devoted cult following and love what I do. I made some good investments early on, so I’ve been off the struggle bus for a long time.”

“Success, for me, is having enough money to say no to things that just don’t feel right.”


Dayton counts a rare custom-built 1981 Martin D-45 (made by esteemed luthier Wayne Henderson) as his most cherished guitar. 

“He only made eight, and Clapton owns four of them,” he enthused.

“The electric guitar that I now tour with is a King prototype (a maker of handcrafted instruments that would later become the London-based company Blast Cult),” he said. “Its the big, black hollowbody that I used in the Rob Zombie Halloween film.”

“It’s the first one that Jason Burns ever made. Everyone thinks it’s a Gretsch, but it’s like a Trini Lopez (model) on crack,” Dayton said, bursting into laughter. In an interview with Vintage Guitar magazine (June 2023), he detailed further. “It’s got the Bigsby (vibrato tailpiece) and TV Jones pickups. I get tones that you normally don’t get out of a solid-body electric guitar.”

“I’ve been playing it more than my other guitars,” he concluded.

Death Wish Blues

In 2023, Dayton collaborated with firebrand guitarist/singer-songwriter Samantha Fish on “Death Wish Blues” (Rounder Records).

The album — “full of wicked stories, tongue-in-cheek escapades, greasy grooves, and hellacious guitar” — garnered a Grammy nod.

Dayton explained how it all came to pass.

“Samantha Fish used to open up for me, when she was 18 or 19, whenever I would pass through her hometown of Kansas City. I always knew she was going to be a big deal because her guitar playing was killer, even back then,” he enthused.

The pair of self-described “guitar savages” reconnected at a show in New Orleans. “Within a few months of writing songs together, we were in a studio in New York with Jon Spencer (of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) producing “Death Wish Blues.”

Upon the album’s release, “it took off” and climbed to number one on Billboard’s Blues charts.

“We were both pretty surprised and grateful,” Dayton demured. “We just finished a 16-month nonstop world tour. I’m crazy about Sam and couldn’t ask for a more talented and professional duet partner.”

Dayton attributes their shared passion for ’70s music to deepening their artistic connection.

Nothing but the roots

Dayton’s extensive discography dates back to the mid-90s with the Road Kings.

“Every record I’ve played on, whether it was mine or someone else’s, is all steeped in American roots music. Be it blues, rock ‘n’ roll or country, that’s what I do,” he said.

“That’s something I loved about all of the bands I grew up listening to when I was a kid. There was so much diversity in style,” Dayton said. “Back then, whether that be Led Zeppelin or James Taylor, and even some of the punk bands, they were all experimenting with different genres.”

“If you look at records from back then, many had a country and a dance song,” Dayton observed. “There was a blues song, there was a rocker, and some gospel.”

“Everything seems almost segregated and genre specific to me now, because of the corporations,” he mused.

“We are so lucky to live in America where Black people and hillbillies, Jewish people and Latinos can all get together, get in a room, and make music,” Dayton said (Shutter 16 Magazine, Nov. 2022).

That openness to diversity is reflected in “The Hard Way Blues,” Dayton’s latest release.

“My new record was written during COVID. I was listening to alot of East Texas country blues, like Lightning Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb,” he told the Sentinel, before adding, “I also took a deep dive into a bunch of Bob Dylan records.”

“The album dropped on May 31. Then, my solo band hit the road for the West Coast in June,” Dayton said, enthusiastically. “We love playing in Tucson. And, we’re pulling out all the stops. So expect a super-high energy, guitar slinging, rockin’ show.”

The Road To Redemption Tour makes a stop at 191 Toole on Wednesday, June 12. Singer-songwriter Mike Stinson opens the show.

“I don’t see myself doing this forever,” Dayton reasoned. “Yet, there’s nothing quite as exciting to me as playing guitar in front of an audience. It’s one hell of a high wire act.”