By Kevin Broughton
If tomorrow brings me pain and strife,
At least I’ll always have those little simple things in life.
-- Jesse Daniel, “Simple Things”
Nearly eight months into what still feels for some reason like a new year, the pandemic looms. In a good way, though. Have you noticed how many quality movies (no, not the comic book shit) have stacked up – even to stream? It’s almost like nothing got produced in 2020 or something.
Happily, musical artists have stormed back, recording with purpose and vigor what was only written during the Lost Year, and re-emerging on the road with something to prove. Jesse Daniel’s Rollin’ On was critically hailed as one of country’s greatest albums in the early days of Year Covid. Cheated of a year’s worth of touring, Daniel rolled up his sleeves, though in a different way than he once did. Aided by partner/manager/harmony singer Jodi Lyford, he doubled down on the good habits that got him where he was.
And reunited with Grammy-nominated producer (and pedal steel ubermensch) Tommy Detamore, Daniel upped the ante with Beyond These Walls, a brilliant follow-up that shows there’s more than Bakersfield to this square-jawed caballero. Flexing the songwriting muscles he’d had a year to work in earnest, it’s fair to say Daniel has his feet firmly planted in the upper echelons of country music.
Each one of these dozen songs is a sample of not just what country should be, but the best of what it is right now: Simple, joyful, sometimes sad, but almost always content. And most of all, real.
If this guy’s not on Austin City Limits inside 12 months, something’s wrong. Let’s get to it.
We last crossed paths in February of 2020… in “The Before Time.” You’ve been far from idle since then, though. Let folks in on what you’ve been up to besides losing your razor, brushing up on your Spanish, and hanging out with Raul Malo.
Ha ha. You know, I was just thinking yesterday about the last time we talked, and yeah, it was right before everything went down. Since then, yep, those things are all true. Got myself some facial hair, and I’ve done some stuff with Raul, but mainly I just spent the last year focused on turning inward. Jodi and I both decided to use that time as fruitfully as possible and line things up for the next year. We didn’t know how long it was gonna last, or when things would get back to normal; only that eventually it would.
I’m glad we did that, because things seem like they’re getting back to normal. Other than that, just some outdoor stuff. A lot of fishing.
Rollin’ On was a heavy dose of the Bakersfield Sound. Beyond These Walls strikes me as more of a Valentine to all of country music. Sonically, the dobro and mandolin – to say nothing of the accordion -- stand out in spots, for example. How determined were you to make a markedly different record this time?
I’d say pretty determined. I feel like people have come to know me – a California guy originally – as trying to carry the torch for Bakersfield; it’s what people have come to expect. I didn’t want to make something completely unrecognizable, but at the same time I didn’t want to make the same record twice. I love the Bakersfield sound, and all the other types of music that borrow from it.
And I wanted to make a record – well, like you said, a Valentine – that captured more. There are so many great things about country music, with all the sub-genres and artists that I truly love. And I wanted Beyond These Walls to reflect that this time around.
Your songwriting seems to have matured – and I want to get into specifics in a minute. But can you point to particular vision or sensibility that guided your approach to writing this time around?
I appreciate that, man. I think one thing was definitely having that year-long gap allowed for more introspection, to really focus on the writing. A lot of polishing songs. That was a silver lining to this past year: really having the time to devote to each song.
Another benefit of this last year to me -- as a music fan -- was being able to really listen to a lot of stuff. I’ve always been really into folk music, and now having lived in Texas for a couple years, you know, I’m nearby all these great Texas songwriters and the traditions that surround them. Listening to all that made me want to hone my own craft and really get better at it.
So many of these songs are celebrations of the simple joys in life. They’re beautifully and efficiently done, but the glass-half-empty guy in me compels me to ask about a couple others first. Your overcoming a heroin addiction isn’t a secret, but it’s a subject you avoided on the last record. This time you lay it all out there with “Gray,” and I guess the first part of this rambling question is about the narrator’s point of view. Were these some of the words that a friend said to you, or more of a third-person perspective?
Definitely both. When I was writing it, I kinda went back and forth. Those were all things that family members and friends had told me. I had one particular friend who passed away and I went to his funeral last year…and there are just so many people who I grew up with…[pauses.] I don’t know if it’s something about that place in particular or if it’s everywhere, but the epidemic of drugs has just permeated into the culture there. I was thinking about that person when I was writing it, wishing I’d said some of those things to him like others had said to me before.
I wanted to write a song about how serious addiction is, because a lot of people glamorize that stuff. And I can’t help but cringe when I hear it, as somebody who’s been there. I’ve been a drug addict, literally living on the street. I was a person who a lot of people who come to my shows would have looked down on back then: “Look at this disgusting drug addict,” you know? That was my story; I was that guy. So, I wanted to write a no-frills song that got it all out there.
The darkness really gets emphasized with that final, loud minor chord. Were you putting a period on discussing this in song for the future?
Well, it definitely put a period on that song, right? That minor chord drives it all home.
It took me a couple listens to figure out that “I’ll Be Back Around” is from the point of view of a prisoner. And, for that matter, that the title for the album is taken the chorus. But damn, dude, it’s a happy song! Has there ever been an uplifting prison ballad in the history of country music? How do you do this?
Ha! Something else I did during the gap was re-read Merle Haggard’s autobiography. And among the things he talked about was his time in prison, and I’ve sort of identified with Merle over that: Always being in trouble and being attracted to that sort of lifestyle. But then, he found his way out of that. I’ve spent time in jail and other institutions, and I have friends of mine doing time in legitimate prison, some who’ve been locked up since they were 18. So, I’ve always wanted to write a song that highlighted some of those things. And…I dunno, that bluegrass run just kind of came to me, and I’ve always wanted to do a bluegrass song, too.
“Living in the Great Divide” is the only topical – or temporal – song I can pick out from the last two records. 2020 was certainly a tough year on everybody, and one that highlighted our great divides. Halfway through 2021, are you any more hopeful?
I am in a way, yeah. It’s been nice to see the world coming back a little bit. There was a layer of despair…and just fear that everybody had that contributed to it. People were in fear of losing their livelihoods, their lives, their family members. Nobody knew which way was up, and I think that mass-hysteria type of thing took its toll on people and relationships. That’s where I was at when I wrote that song.
You know, people getting their news from Instagram or Facebook or word of mouth…and for lack of a better term it’s just a shit storm, you know? I’ve lived a lot of different lives, and I have many friends with all kinds of points of view. And I’ve always been able to have discussions and come away – if not agreeing – certainly understanding the reasons why they have those opinions. That’s what I was trying to express in that song: We should try to understand each other better. If we’d use basic humanity a little more, we’d be a lot farther along.
As a frustrated addict of bass-fishing, I have to ask if “Drop A Line” comes from a deep and personal place within you. It certainly seems a tad autobiographical.
Oh, yeah, that one’s definitely personal. I spent a lot of time fishing this past year after not having done much of it in quite a long time, and basically fell back in love with it. The funny thing about that song is that I woke up one morning and the chorus was just in my head. It was kind of like a nursery rhyme…
…so I grabbed my guitar and started singing it, and Jodi said, “Write that down!” But for sure, I’ve spent a lot of time on the water when I should’ve been doing something else.
How much Spanish did you take in high school, and what’s your connection to the Mavericks’ front man?
I took a couple years of Spanish in high school, but for whatever reason, I was never really good at school. But my stepdad – he was married to my mom, and he’s the father of my youngest brother – was from Mexico. He spoke English but with a heavy accent. And we worked the flea markets; that’s what my mom and Luis did, making and selling metal art. So, we helped them. And the majority of the vendors and people at these things were Spanish-speaking, so we heard a lot of Mexican music – those great polkas. These guys would come out with perfectly starched Wranglers and tall hats. I just thought those Mexican cowboys were so cool when I was growing up.
So yeah, it was my stepdad who really got me into that stuff. I’d attribute what little bit of Spanish I know to that.
And Raul Malo?
Yeah, Michael Guerra who played on this album, too, was part of that group [producer] Tommy Detamore put together for Rollin’ On…he plays for the Mavericks.
We ended up becoming friends after that. And I think Michael sent a copy of Rollin’ On to Raul, saying, “I played on this kid’s record.” Raul ended up liking it. We got in touch with him, and ended up doing a couple shows with him here in Texas. So, it was all on a real “friend” basis. So that song, “El trajabador,” which means “the worker…”
Yeah, I know a few Spanish words myself. More than Peggy Hill…
…Ha! Yeah, so I wanted to send it to him and see if he’d be interested in singing on it. In my mind, I heard him singing on it, and singing harmonies. Long story short, he said he’d like to do it. He recorded his part at his home studio.
2020 has been called “The Great Pause,” at least by a couple artists I’ve interviewed recently. Assuming we don’t have another one of these for a while, what’s next for Jesse Daniel, best-case scenario?
Best-case scenario, our plan is to put out this album on July 30, and just tour the hell out of it like we’re making up for lost time. And we’re gonna be on the road the rest of this year and most of next: West coast, Midwest…and the goal by late 2022 is to hit Europe.
One selfishly hopes that Brother Daniel can squeeze in the American South between the Midwest and Europe.
Buy Beyond These Walls today, wherever you purchase fine music.