Mar 27, 2020

Everyone’s got their own story to tell: A conversation with Jesse Daniel

By Kevin Broughton

I work this room on Tuesday nights
It isn’t much, but it pays alright
From 9 p.m. until last call
Sometimes I’m playing to the wall.

            Jesse Daniel, “Old At Heart.”

On a rainy Tuesday night in Atlanta, Jesse Daniel isn’t “playing to the wall,” but the room at Terminal West has plenty of space, even with Jason Boland and The Stragglers for a headlining act. The Wuhan Virus isn’t really on the radar yet; a week’s worth of monsoon rains are the likely culprit. But as the Stragglers’ diehards continue to filter in during the 27-year-old’s half-hour set, there’s minimal chatter. He’s gotten their attention, and makes the most of this exposure to a new audience.

“I try my best to live with humility and thankfulness,” says Daniel as he posts up at his own merchandise table after his set. “I want to make the most of the opportunities I have.” He engages with every customer he can as the Boland crew and band set up. The lanky, square-jawed Californian is making the most of this chance. His album release date is six weeks out, and one can sense momentum building for this troubadour of the Bakersfield sound.

Halfway through the Stragglers’ set, Daniel will pack up and drive, hoping to make it to “someplace right outside Mobile, I forget the name” in time for a few hours’ sleep before doing it all over.

Rollin’ On, out today wherever you purchase music, is the culmination of Daniel’s remarkable life turnaround and one of the finest country albums of the young, crazy year. (This will be true in December – mark it down.) Poignant lyrics and a first-rate studio band and producer make it a must-have for the serious, intelligent country music fan.

About four years ago he was dope-sick with track marks up and down his arms. Today, he’s on the cusp of greatness, and too grounded to let anything go to his head. No one knows what the next few months will hold in the Age of Quarantine and Social Distancing. Daniel, no doubt, will emulate the title of this magnificent album.

It was a real treat to chat with him about his punk-rock roots, writing songs by candlelight with his best friend and partner, and an unlikely part-time rehab worker who helped him “put down the spoon and pick up the pen.”

You were a punk rocker growing up. It’s fascinating to me that some of the best roots/country acts today were heavily influenced by punk. It seems counterintuitive; what do you think the common thread is, if there is one?

You know, Kevin, I think it’s individual and varies from person to person. But I definitely know a lot of people who were in punk rock bands and in that scene, who later got into country music. I think when you’re talking about a lot of the older country music, there’s a kind of punk ethos to it, a do-it-yourself mentality. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but growing up there was always such a parallel between punk rock and country for me. Just listening to it, it kind of soothes the same part of my soul.

Sticking with influences for a moment: Rollin’ On just oozes that Bakersfield sound. But you’ve mentioned that you found your way to your producer (and steel player,) Tommy Detamore, by listening to the likes of Doug Sahm and Jim Lauderdale. What is it about those two artists that resonate with you?

Yeah, the way I found Tommy was listening to that last album [The Return of Wayne Douglas] he did with Doug before he passed. That album has so many good songs, and the production is so great, and so is the steel.  I was already a huge fan of that record, and also This Changes Everything by Jim Lauderdale, which was also produced by Tommy. He also played steel on it.

So I had been listening to those, and had my eye out for a producer. Tommy’s name kept coming up. There were so many times I’d hear a great song and think, “I wonder who’s playing steel?” And it would turn out to be Tommy on steel, and a lot of times he was the producer, too. So I basically just reached out; cold-emailed him. That’s what set everything in motion, but it started with my being a big fan of those two albums. It couldn’t have ended up any better, and we ended up being great friends.

There are times on this album when your voice reminds me of Gram Parsons. Have you ever heard that comparison? Are you at all influenced by his music?

Man, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard that one before, but I really appreciate it. But I love Gram Parsons, and he certainly was a big influence on me, especially early on. I loved his work with the Burrito Brothers, and I listened to that GP album over and over. Just wore it out. So I don’t doubt that some Gram influence got in there somehow.

Did Tommy put the band together for the recording sessions?

Yeah. You know, Tommy is very linked in with all the Austin players, and some of the ones in San Antonio, too. I reached out to him and told him I wanted to have some professional players on the record. Without saying too much – he was very nonchalant about it – he said, “Yeah, I’ll put together a good band for you.” He got Kevin Smith on bass, who plays with Willie Nelson; Tom Lewis from Heybale – he also played on a lot of Jim Lauderdale’s records; Michael Guerra on accordion, who plays with the Mavericks. John Carroll on guitar – he plays with a lot of people, like Corey Morrow. Tommy played steel of course. On fiddle we had Bobby Florres and Hank Singer.

That’s quite a lineup.

Yeah, he sent me that list and said, “These are the guys I have who will be on the record,” and it blew my mind. I was even more excited to get into the studio. They’re all Texas players, but at the same time realized that my sound is steeped in the Bakersfield stuff; that was the sound I was going for. They really met me in the middle. We got that “sheen” production I wanted without losing the Bakersfield grit.

Do you have a touring band?

Yeah, I do. The band I’m touring with is kind of evolving, but I have the same core group of guys (rhythm section and what not) that I stick with. They’re great. They really bring it, and we’re about to hit the road with Jason Boland after the record comes out for some full-band stuff.  

Are you on a label?

Yeah, it’s called Die True Records. Jodi Lyford – she’s my manager and partner – she started it. We put the last album out on it, too.

You’re touring with Jason Boland & The Stragglers, giants of the Red Dirt scene. What’s that been like, and what kind of exposure have you gained, being exposed to new audiences?

I joined up with them in Virginia Beach, then we did New York City, Sellersville, Pennsylvania, Richmond, and now Atlanta. I was joking around with them and said I’m calling this the “Chasin’ Jason” tour, because I’m following their tour bus in my car.

But yeah, their fans are really dedicated and devoted, and I’ve gotten to share that following with them. When bands like Jason’s tell their fans something is good, the fans tend to listen. So I’ve been very fortunate. Red Dirt is really not my sound or a demographic I’ve played for, but ultimately they’re country music fans. Any doubt I had that they would be picking up what I was putting down went away pretty quickly. It’s been a blast so far.

You won an Ameripolitan Award a couple years back, for “Best Honky Tonk Male Performer.” They have four sub-genres, I guess, honky tonk, western swing, rockabilly and outlaw. I guess you could put them all together, and you’d have something like, I dunno, “Country Music.”

[Laughs] Yeah, exactly!

If you had to slap a label on what you do, what would it be?

Ah, I really just tell people “country music.” I really respect what Dale [Watson] is trying to do with the Ameripolitan Awards, by bringing a new term and trying to generate new interest; you know, bringing some new eyes to a lot of music that might be overlooked by radio. So that’s really great. But I tell people “country music” because that’s what I play and that’s what I love. Music fans are intelligent. They’re able to tell the difference between pop country and more authentic stuff. 

The album exudes resiliency and hope, yet makes references to some of the darker times in your life. You’ve been sober for three years and have made no secret of your past troubles with addiction, and you even did some time. If you don’t mind, can you point to one event or set of circumstances that led to your getting clean?

Yeah, man, absolutely. The last record was really more about some of those things, and this one has a more “forward” feel to it, a little more hopeful.

One of the biggest events that really sticks out in my mind…there was a gentleman who was working at a rehabilitation facility that I went to. He worked there part time and he would come in and play guitar as part of the group exercises we’d do. I was a heroin addict, de-toxing off of it, and I was very sick. Finally after about a week when I was able to get out of bed and start functioning again, I went into the room where he was playing old Hank Williams songs. He also played some Billy Joe Shaver and Emmylou Harris – a lot of great country covers, and even some artists I wasn’t familiar with. So I would ask him and he would tell me all about them.
He was a really good guy. After a while I started playing some songs, and we’d go back and forth. At some point I said, “I really wish I could play country music and do what you do.” And he looked at me like I was stupid or something and said, “Why don’t you?” That shook me to my core. And I thought, “Yeah. That’s true.”

And this is the craziest story, man, that happened just the other day. The rehab facility was in Oakland, California. And I was sitting down with Jodi for some lunch in Austin, Texas, and I see this guy walking down the street who looks just like him. So I chased him down to see if he was the guy, and he was!

Oh, wow.

And I almost broke down right there. I said, “You changed my life. You’re the reason I’m doing this today. You were that pivotal moment for me.” We’ve been in contact since, and he’s actually a rippin’ harmonica player, and so I hope we’re gonna play some together.

Wow. What a blessing.

Exactly, a tremendous blessing, and it was one of those moments that was so confirming for me. It’s certainly one of the biggest events that sticks out in my memory.

This is not a slight to your songwriting or vocals – because they’re stellar – but one of my favorite cuts, and one I’ve been playing over and over, is the instrumental “Chickadee.” How did that one come about?

You know, I love the tradition of instrumentals in country music. One of the guys I really love, Marty Stuart, does a lot of them. Buck Owens had a whole lot of instrumentals – The Buckaroos had at least one on every record, I think. Instrumentals are very cinematic, I think; they tell a story without words.

But I had this one riff that was kind of a Don Rich/Bakersfield sound-type of thing that I was messing around with. And one day in the studio we just worked it out with the band, and it just came to life within 20-30 minutes.

It’s amazing you say “cinematic,” because I kept thinking to myself, “That sounds like it belongs on a movie soundtrack.”

Ha. Thanks man, that was really what I was going for. I wanted to capture that Bakersfield sound, and incorporate all those instruments. It also gets to showcase all the other players who are on the record. They all get a moment to shine.

A question about your partner/manager, Jodi. Do y’all write songs together? Give us some detail about that relationship, if you don’t mind.

We sure do. We wrote a good portion, probably half the songs on the new record, together. It’s great. Our relationship started out – about four years ago – as a friendship. She was a tattoo artist and I would go to her shop and we’d just play music. She had a lot of songs that she’d written and she’d play them for me, and vice-versa. Then we started writing together just for fun.

And when I got more serious about music, we kind of got together. We lived way up in the mountains, and sometimes the power would go out for a week at a time. At night there was nothing to do; we just had candles. A lot of the songs on this record were written in the dark. It’s a huge part of our relationship, and I’m really glad she has a bigger role on this album: probably half the songwriting and all the backup vocals that she sang.

Who’s “Sam,” besides a guy who might have acquired illicit substances for you in your youth?

Sam is a real person and he’s still around. I was friends with his younger brother, and grew up down the street from him. We hit it off, and got into trouble together. My dad called us “The Gruesome Twosome.” Sam was a mythical figure to me because he was a little bit older; I looked up to him.

He was always getting into trouble with drugs or alcohol, and he would just leave for a while, just get on a Greyhound bus and go. He’d just disappear, and I always thought that was pretty crazy. And I figured I’d write a song about it.

“Sam, where did you go?”

Exactly. And now whenever I talk to him it’s interesting to find out where he is. For a while he was in Florida living on a boat. I texted him recently, and he was in Connecticut. He’s been acting in some commercials…he’s a character, man.

Do you have a goal for where Rollin’ On might take your career, in terms of exposure or critical acclaim?

Yes, I do. The goal for me with playing is to be able to put positive music into the world. And by “positive” I don’t mean that every song has to be happy. I feel right now there’s a lot of emphasis on using recreational drugs. People are gonna do that, but I think there’s enough of that in music right now.

I just want to keep it about the music. I want to make good country music that people love. I want to take it as far as I can. Jodi and I have a motto that the sky’s the limit. We’re not putting limitations on anything.

*          *          *

“Good country music that people love,” indeed.

We’ve been smitten with Daniel’s work for the last couple months, and this will be one of the best – if not the best – country albums of the year. FTM was honored to premiere a song from it, “If You Ain’t Happy Now (You Never Will Be,)” and we gave you a taste of his live chops from his Atlanta gig last month. The best, most gripping song on the record is “Old At Heart.” (It happens to be Daniel’s favorite, too.) But to hear that one, you have to buy the record.

Now, it’s time to step up. That Feb. 18 show at Terminal West seems like a lifetime ago; nobody had a clue how crazily things would change, or how quickly. Musicians in every genre have taken a pounding in canceled gigs, and nobody knows if or when things will get back to something approaching normal.

Buy this album. In fact, go to Daniel’s store and get some more cool stuff. I got one of these awesome tee shirts.

It’s cool. And it’s true.

Now more than ever, support independent musicians. This one in particular.

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