The one and only Reverend Peyton and his Big Damn Band find a delicious balance.
By Steve Houk
It’s been kinda the “thing” for a while now for young bands to make music that sounds old. Well, not really old per se, but music that has that true sense of authenticity and history and the magic of those musical spirits of yore that hover in the air. Bands like Mumford and Sons, The Avett Brothers, the North Mississippi All Stars, even others like the Black Keys and Kings of Leon before they got too arena-ish, or true retro acts like Carolina Chocolate Drops, all have tried to create moods using simple instruments and sounds that elicit thoughts of front porches, campfires, and sitting on tree stumps playing your ass off while the jug with the three xxx’s is passed around.
But the key is to not only evoke the vibe of the front porch, but to try and carry it forward, not just be a Smithsonian Folk Archive rehash, but to bring the feel of this exceptional indigenous music to the modern day, while putting a personal spin on it. That’s the prime goal of Reverend “Sean” Peyton, to a tee. He wants people to feel when they hear him and his amazing Big Damn Band, that they get not only a shining glimmer of the past, but also a big flash pot of the present.
“That’s the hope. At the end of the day, if you can make music after people have been playing guitar, recorded guitar, for a hundred years, if you can make things sound original, then I mean, that’s one of the toughest things to do, and something we literally work on every day. I’m always trying to take finger style guitar to new places. That’s the idea, to keep making music so it does go forward. In the right way. From the heart. Made by hand.”
There isn’t really another act out there like Brown County Indiana’s Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band. They’re a rousing, unabashed, highly animated trio that delivers a truly unique mix of blues, ragtime, folk, country and do-it-yourself, homespun, even some say punk fueled rock. Led by Peyton’s large carnivalesque bearded look, astounding finger style guitar playing and extremely unique vocals, the Big Damn Band is rounded out by Peyton’s buxom wife Breezy with her gloved thimbled hands pickin’ on a mean washboard, and drummer Ben “Bird Dog” Russell, who augments his small drum kit with a five gallon plastic bucket fitted with drum hardware. They would feel at home on the album cover of The Doors’ “Strange Days” for sure.
But rest assured, you have never seen anything like the Big Damn Band before. And after a dozen or so year run exhaustively playing over 250 dates a year and churning out more than half a dozen records, it may all have finally come together with their latest country blues fueled romp, “So Delicious.” Peyton’s intended delivery of retro meets the modern day with a twist all their own has finally jelled just the way the Reverend was hoping it would.
“I’m really proud of (the new record), I felt like when it was done, I was just like, you know, if people don’t like this, I think they just don’t like me,” said Peyton during a break out on the road. “That’s all there is to it, I just don’t what else I can do. This is the most me of any record we’ve ever done, I’m just really proud of the songs, I’m proud of what it’s about, I’m proud of the innovation on the finger style, I’m proud of the way the band sings the background vocals, I’m proud of it all, just top to bottom. At this point during a record I’m usually kinda like ehh, wish we’d done this, wish we’d done that. I really just don’t have anything like that with this record. I just feel like we finally did one just like we should. I also feel like there’s a little bit of somethin’ for everybody on this record, that’s somethin’ I’m kinda proud of too, ya know.”
And that’s key to Peyton, that he and his band don’t come off like a retread act, but combine the charms of the old with the dynamics of the new and appeal to a bit wider audience. “My whole goal whenever I do anything is timelessness. I don’t want it to sound necessarily like there was an era. I want it like maybe you could have come out of any decade. That’s my goal, is to make timeless music. Make it feel timeless.”
Peyton is a finger style player, a rare breed of guitarist that uses the technique of playing the guitar by plucking the strings with the fingertips, fingernails, or picks attached to fingers, as opposed to flatpicking or picking individual notes with a single pick. He has worked hard to perfect the style and has reached a point where he is proud of what he’s able to do, and sometimes, even who he is able to fool.
“The guitar playing might not sound overly difficult, but it is,” the good-humored Peyton told me. “It’s alot harder than it sounds. It’s one of those things where I’ve never heard anybody else finger pick in quite that same way before. It’s all one guitar, the whole record. i Tunes editors, they gave the record five stars, but they talked about the interweaving guitars. And it made me laugh, because there is no interweaving guitars, it’s one guitar. I love that. I was able to literally trick music reviewers into thinking that it was two guitars, or maybe three! To me that’s part of the idea, is to take finger style to places that people can’t believe. But also write songs that are accessible, that aren’t just songs for musicians to listen to and go, oh man, this guy’s cool. Listen to him play guitar. I want to make songs that are accessible, that you don’t have to be a music nerd to be into it.”
After playing guitar as young boy, Peyton’s hands betrayed him in his late teens, and his guitar playing future looked like it was in real jeopardy. “I was lost for a while, almost two years, I didn’t know what I was gonna do. It was cysts that grew on my tendons. Why, we don’t know. Both hands. And on my left hand which was the worst, they were almost miscroscopic and they caused all this scar tissue to grow. And once they were cut away, man, I was fine. It was all after I’d been playing guitar for years. I started giving lessons when I was 13, and this happened when I was 18. But I met Breezy one week after my hand surgery. Things were looking up.”
Peyton has a stable of heroes that he has modeled his unique sound after that reads like a who’s who of country blues. But for him, it always comes back to not letting yourself get mired in reproducing the same ol’ music. It’s cool to pay homage, but it’s critical to put your own exciting and individual, contemporary spin on it.
“When we say country blues, they don’t know what that is,” Peyton continued. “It means rural blues, really, it starts with people like Charlie Patton, John Hurt, Furry Lewis and Fred McDowell, Bukka White. But over the years, I don’t want to just be like a museum piece throwback to that. I’m never one to be that. I want to be next in line. I work really hard to take the concept, those styles, the finger style country blues guitar, and really try to take it to places it has never been, with new melodies, new fresh stuff, not just the same old regurgitated stuff.”
And as for Peyton’s very distinctive, idiosyncratic vocals, well, just play the song below and you’ll see what I mean. And it leads this wonderfully energized, fun loving band right down the path the Reverend wants them to go.
“I just sorta sing from real deep in my gut. It’s wild, that’s just the voice I got. I think some people they think that’s it’s like affected or something. It’s the just the voice that I got. I was told one time by someone who was trained and they said that I actually sing in a similar way to an opera singer. A beat down like an operatic singer does. And I think some musicians as they get older, they get tired, or they get burned out. I feel like I’m just gettin’ warmed up, you know. I’m figuring myself out.”