Two of a Kind
Jesse Dayton and Brennen Leigh are holdin' their own
Brennen Leigh has a shotgun leveled at Jesse Dayton's head. Inside the rusting heap of a trailer, Dayton is still asleep, sprawled, hung over, beside a young brunette. When he turns and opens his eyes, he's greeted by the double barrel, Leigh's pursed lips, and a steel-eyed glare.
"It's like a trailer for an old Seventies grind-house movie," says Dayton excitedly about the promotional short. "At the end, the background blows up, and I'm walking out of it. You think you're watching some excerpt from Burt Reynolds' Gator or something!"
The video, directed by local filmmaker Ben Foster and circulated on YouTube, presents itself as excerpted from a 1953 film called Holdin' Our Own, a black-and-white rampage of liquor, guns, and guitars soundtracked with classic country duets. Only at the finale, as Dayton struts from the flames, is Holdin' Our Own revealed as the title of Dayton and Leigh's new album.
Out next Tuesday on Dayton's Stag Records, the album, like the video, pays homage to a classic style with a contemporary zeal that marries Dayton's hard-drivin' honky-tonk to Leigh's distinctive twang. It's also a self-conscious reclamation of the classic country duet from Nashville's corporate grasp.
"There's a whole new generation of kids who have never listened to George and Tammy or John and June or Conway and Loretta," says Dayton. "We're appealing to all these kids who used to be into punk rock and now have mortgages, who now know that Johnny Cash is cool and have never heard a country duets record in their life. They're gonna love this."
While Holdin' Our Own pays due tribute to country's archetypal pairings with remakes ranging from Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty's "Back Street Affair" to Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons' "Brand New Heartache," seven originals and the chemistry between Dayton and Leigh welcome the album accordingly.
"I think everyone in the crowd thinks we got a thing going on, and then when they listen to us, they definitely think we got a thing going on," Dayton says with a wide grin. "We don't have that kind of relationship, you know what I mean?
"But onstage, we try to go for the same thing. If we know we can get a rise out of somebody by doing something, we'll do it, just shamelessly."
"To be a frontman, you have to be somewhat full of shit, and if you don't have good bullshit, then people aren't interested," offers Dayton.
Dayton is a natural bullshitter. Lounging easily, off hours in the deserted and darkened back room of the Broken Spoke, he tells stories with a thick, Beaumont-bred drawl and natural country flair. No shortage of stories here.
"I've gotten to play with Johnny Bush, Willie Nelson, Ray Price; I did a TV thing with Cash, but Waylon was like my runnin' buddy, and I'm most like him out of all the other guys," he says. "He wasn't like an old grandfather guy at all. Waylon would steal your girlfriend, man, up to the end of it. He was a player."
Across the table, Leigh laughs and shakes her head at the cup of coffee between her hands. Dayton flashes his sly smile.
"Brennen is like a female version of me – except for all the bad stuff," he counters. "We love the same stuff. The thing about Brennen is you could fill the Astrodome with girls with pretty voices and that look good, but you can't fill the batter's box with girls that can play mandolin, guitar, and sit in with a bunch of old-school people.
"She knows more songs than anybody I know."
Leigh accepts the compliment with a slight and graceful "thank you." The two actually seem diametrically matched. In the face of Dayton's charismatic energy, Leigh is reserved and speaks with a careful, forceful conviction. As much as Dayton's extroverted swagger overpowers Leigh's quiet resolve, his easygoing demeanor also slowly draws her out and into its orbit.
"His whole persona onstage actually makes it easier for me," admits Leigh. "I'm kind of uptight and strung out and nervous all the time. Jesse's more laid-back, so I can just sit back and lay in my 2 cents."
Later that night, with the Spoke packed for Dayton's regular Thursday-night gig, Leigh joins the band onstage, and the connection between the two becomes more tangible. Leigh stands demurely to the side, hands behind her back, swaying to the beat, but as she steps up to share the microphone, her voice is solid country gold and engages Dayton with a confident force.
Launching into George Jones and Tammy Wynette's "Something to Brag About," the two locals trade verses in perfect complement and competition, Leigh matching Dayton's vocal fluctuations as the dynamic builds in a pendulous swing. Leigh's harmonies on "Brand New Heartache" are soft and aching, while their original "Let's Run Away" kicks up the dance-floor dust as Leigh slaps out rhythm on her hip. Dayton's range hovers expertly between Jones and Jennings on "We Lost It," and Leigh shadows his deep lead with a soaring heartache.
Johnny Cash and June Carter's "Long Legged Guitar Pickin' Man" captures the duo at their best. As Dayton swings his guitar into the air, Leigh interjects with an incendiary sass. Segueing seamlessly into "Jackson," she rolls her eyes, and they banter back and forth in ornery and passionate provocation. Even if the emotion between them isn't real, the chemistry is as natural as any country-music couple airing their fondness and frustration in song.
Let's Run Away
Dayton and Leigh's teaming was the product of error. Traveling with a host of Austin artists to the Mirande Country Music Festival in southwestern France during the summer of 2006, the two were separated from the rest of the group by a mistake with their airline tickets. Forced to take another flight across the Atlantic, they sparked an instant affinity over country classics, and Dayton invited Leigh to join him onstage at the festival.
"I was backstage singing this George and Tammy song, and she came in and started singin' with me, and I said, 'Hey, why don't we do this up onstage tonight,'" Dayton relates. "We did it, and the people just went nuts. So, of course, we had to keep her up there."
The next night, Dayton and Leigh took over the back corner patio of a bar with their guitars. "I asked, 'What do you know?' and she knew as much as I knew and more," he says. "If I knew a Porter and Dolly song, she'd know the rest of the words to it. We sat there and sang for like six hours. We were probably driving the staff crazy."
Though they come from drastically different backgrounds, the two find common ground in their determination to work outside of, and disgust for, Nashville's contemporary mainstream machine. Leigh, 14 years younger than the 40-year-old Dayton, was raised in Minnesota just across the border from Fargo, N.D., and the distinct accent still rounds her inflections. She began playing music with her brother, Seth Hulbert, at the age of 12.
"Even at a young age, I realized that the stuff on the radio mostly wasn't any good," she says. "I had an advantage because my family was into good music. My dad played guitar; my mom played piano; they could sing harmony together. There was not much else to do up there. My dad had me in the cradle singing 'Wreck of the Old '97' and 'Wildwood Flower.'"
At 19, Leigh and her brother left Minnesota in pursuit of a more promising musical environment, landing in Austin in 2002 and releasing her debut album, Lonesome, Wild & Blue that same year. Two more albums, 2004's Too Thin to Plow and last year's Devil's on My Trail, showcase Leigh's versatility and her bluegrass and gospel roots.
Dayton has notoriously followed his own path and diverse influences, as well, eschewing Nashville's draw and even asking for release from his major label deal with Hollywood Records to start his own label, Stag Records.
"I will never be the boy next door, Nashville music guy," he declares. "I like the antihero; I like the outlaws. I don't like those guys that look like they work at a bank. By the grace of God, when I put out my first record [Raisin' Cain] in '95, I didn't have a lot of Nashville acts that wanted to take me out on tour, so I went out with Social Distortion, the Supersuckers, X. And you know what? Those bands are still huge, and half of those Nashville acts I would have gone out with are probably cuttin' hair somewhere."
By the 2004 release of Country Soul Brother, Dayton had inherited the outlaw tradition from the legends themselves while melding a distinct, genre-broadening Texan sound in the vein of Doug Sahm. Dayton's greatest success came with the improbable solicitation from Rob Zombie to write songs for his 2005 horror-freak film, The Devil's Rejects. In the persona of two 1970s honky-tonk troubadours, Banjo & Sullivan, Dayton penned irreverent anthems like "Dick Soup" and "I'm at Home Getting Hammered (While She's Out Getting Nailed)." The subsequent album, Banjo & Sullivan: The Ultimate Collection 1972-1978 ("Texas Platters," Sept. 2, 2005), introduced an entirely new legion of fans to Dayton's music, even if they weren't aware of it.
"I called Rob Zombie after two months, and he told me, 'Hey man, the record's doing great!' I said, 'Yeah, but everybody thinks it's two dead guys from the movie!'" laughs Dayton. "He goes, 'Does your mailman know who it is?' and I say, 'Yeah.'
"So he says, 'Well, then, shut the fuck up!'
"I bought a tour bus, and I have my own label, so my luck doesn't suck," Dayton attests. "We don't expect the Texas music, frat-boy scene to embrace us, but luckily I've done well enough with the Banjo & Sullivan record that I won't ever have to do anything for those guys, ever."
Something to Brag About
Holdin' Our Own continues Dayton and Leigh's dogged attempts to circumvent the corporate stranglehold on contemporary country music while mining a classic sound that should remind Nashville of its heritage abandoned in the wake of polished, pop-country superstars. As they discuss the current state of the industry, there's a sense that the album represents something more important to the two Austin artists than simple success.
"People want something that's honest; that's all they want," says Dayton. "To me, country radio sounds like bad rock & roll with a fiddle player. There's a huge contingent of people out there that don't listen to Clear Channel radio who love what we're doing."
"You look at Nashville, and do you really want to be compared to those people?" asks Leigh. "Is that the pool you want to be thrown into? It's pretty much a lost cause. That whole Nashville empire – the CMA Awards, the radio – it's all bought and paid for, premeditated murder. I don't think they necessarily want something edgy or superartistically charged."
"It's helping us, because all we have to do is get up onstage and be ourselves and be honest, and people are blown away," adds Dayton. "We're not really interested in appealing to people who watch Fox News and listen to Toby Keith and are at Wal-Mart every day. If you make good music, your audience will find you. I firmly believe that. The secret is to do it yourself, and do it inexpensively, and then go work your ass off."
Expecting no help from commercial radio, the pair has planned alternative, underground approaches to help promote the album, of which the faux movie trailer is a part. California's Wente Vineyards is offering a download of the Dayton/Leigh original "We Hung the Moon" in a promotion that also includes Kings of Leon, and the two acts are plotting an extensive tour for next year. Dayton already admits to not being able to book shows without being asked if he's bringing "the girl."
"'The Hillbilly Princess,' that's what I call her," Dayton says with a wink.
"Is it stickin'?" laughs Leigh facetiously.
"Oh yeah, it's stickin'," says Dayton. "'The Country Soul Brother' and 'the Hillbilly Princess.'"
The Holdin' Our Own CD release party throws down Thursday, Nov. 29, at the Broken Spoke.