“Waylon [Jennings] saw me on this TV show in Nashville, and it was all a big fluke," Dayton says. "He called me at my hotel and he said, ‘Hey hoss, what are you doing?' He said, ‘I saw you play last night. … Why don’t you come down to Woodlands Studio and cut this song with me? I cut my finger cooking last night with Jessi Colter.’ And I was like OK. So I go down to Woodlands Studio and I knock on the door, and Johnny Cash opens the door.”
Fittingly, Dayton acted as Jennings’ hands on the 1996 release Right for the Time. Dayton has found himself in the right places and the right times for most of his life — although perhaps it wasn’t the best time for legends of country, in an era before Cash covered Nine Inch Nails and long after Jennings' mainstream relevance had waned.
“It didn’t become a hip thing until quite a few years later,” Dayton says. “Now you can’t swing a dead cat in East Nashville without seeing a kid in a faux nudie suit, and I was wearing that stuff in '94, and people were like, ‘What the hell?’ It was weird.”
His eclectic style extended in part from his home town of Beaumont. He was perfectly situated musically — able to catch the likes of Johnny Paycheck and George Jones in town one night before seeing Social Distortion the next, an hour and a half away in Houston. The access changed his life and soon brought him as far as Deep Ellum, playing shows with a young Rhett Miller.
“Now you can’t swing a dead cat in East Nashville without seeing a kid in a faux nudie suit, and I was wearing that stuff in '94, and people were like, ‘What the hell?’ It was weird.” – Jesse Dayton
After Dayton’s collaboration with Jennings and Cash, it wasn’t long before he found himself on the radar of another big name. Rob Zombie had gotten Dayton’s number from a friend and called him with an offer Dayton couldn’t refuse.
“He said, ‘Hey, man. We’re making the ultimate white trash horror movie, and we think your music would be perfect,’” Dayton said, laughing. “It’s kind of like somebody peeing on your leg and shaking your hand.”
Despite any perceived slight, Zombie needed the right fit for his 2005 film, The Devil’s Rejects. The two also worked on a few other movies together, culminating in Dayton’s appearance as Captain Clegg in Zombie’s take on Halloween 2.
“You have to be your own philanthropist,” Dayton says, pointing out that even Cash made a few Taco Bell commercials.
Since his exposure to the world of film, Dayton says, he has been able to self-sustain his never-ending solo tour. He’s spent the past four years on the road and recorded his upcoming album, The Outsider, during that time. After years of playing behind the scenes or as replacement talent for bands like X, Dayton says this year has been the best since he struck out on his own.
“We played the Viper Room in L.A. four years ago, and there was 23 people there, and we played there Sunday night in L.A. at The Echo, and there was almost 600 people there. It was packed," Dayton says. "It makes me feel really good, man. It makes me humble."
Dayton’s latest show is Saturday at the Kessler, and his album will be available in June. He’ll be opening for fellow Austin-based musician Ian Moore this weekend and says he still has his hands in the movie industry. He’s already directed one film, 2013’s Zombex with Malcolm McDowell.
“It kind of feels like in the last six to nine months, everything’s just kind of changed," he says. "A lot more people are showing up to the shows, they’re singing the words. For me to be doing as well as I’m doing now with the kind of music that I’m playing is the biggest coup ever for the music business.”