Since 2006, Indiana’s hardest-working Americana trio has been on the road almost non-stop — until COVID-19, anyway. Reverend Peyton’s had enough time at home and his Big Damn Band is back out, touring on last year’s outstanding release, Dance Songs for Hard Times (2021, Thirty Tigers Records). Here, the Rev talks about losing and then finding again his ability to play the guitar, the joy in singing sad songs, and touring during a pandemic.
French Davis: Tell me about putting together a tour when the pandemic is still a factor.
Reverend Peyton: Well, people would probably not believe it, but it’s a lot more work to get together a tour right now. It’s been tougher to get a road crew together… In the last few years, a lot of people got out of the game. They just either quit being musicians or they quit being crew, or both. That was never going to be an option for me. I was put on this earth to do this right, right? People say that kind of thing, and it’s hyperbole or whatever, but it’s the God honest truth. If this pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that is 100% a fact. I am absolutely, completely looking forward to this one. It really feels like maybe the shows are going to happen, and they’re going to jump off, and it’s going to be a good year… I’m not really a person who’s cut out for being home… I’m ready to be back out on the road. What we’ve got planned for this year is a pretty extensive tour. We’re going to be all over the United States, and hopefully, fingers crossed, knock on wood, we’ll be back in Europe too.
FD: I have this question I’ve wanted to ask you for a long time. Dr. John had to switch from guitar to piano after his hand injury. When you were going through your tendonitis issue, did you ever think about switching to a different instrument?
RP: You know what’s crazy is I didn’t. Maybe that would’ve been a wise decision or something else to focus on, but I always say this, and it’s sort of a silly analogy, but when I was a little kid, I was pretty lost. I just hadn’t figured my way out. Because of that, it kind of affected every aspect of my life. I just had no confidence, no nothing. When I first started playing the guitar, it didn’t take long. I really felt like a fish that had been put back in water. I say that because when you pull a fish out of the water, and you throw it up on the land, it bounces around. It looks silly and stupid. It’s like, “Oh, look at that thing’s mouth move and look at that thing wiggle.” Then you put it in water, and it’s a miracle. It’s like this magical thing. It can move through the water in such a way that it’s hard to fathom. It’s hard to even wrap our minds around. And I felt like that when my dad handed me a guitar. It was like I’ve been put back in the water… Pursuing it when my hands didn’t quite work… It definitely made me a better slide player. It made me the fingerstyle player that I am. So I think, ultimately, it was kind of like the path I was supposed to take. Sometimes that’s the way life is. You get thrown this obstacle or whatever, and you got to figure out how to soldier through one way or another. It’s like Dr. John. I guess his path was to the piano. Mine was just back to the guitar… It’s like with music, you have to have one foot in the past and one foot in the future, but really both of them have to be completely, totally attached to that self, that actual consciousness that is in you. That’s where you go to the well of real emotion… You have to study like crazy; the greats, the legends. After having just pored over that, you have to somehow forget all that a little bit and try to tap into that kind of secret well of consciousness that’s inside of you. That may sound like some crazy mumbo jumbo, but it’s kind of how I approach things.
FD: “One foot in the past, one foot in the future” sounds like you just started writing a new tune right there. One thing that’s always been interesting to me is there is this palpable joy when you play, when you’re on stage. That can be a bit of a paradox when it comes to the blues, which you embrace. I mean Dance Songs for Hard Times, like the joy in the face of struggle. Is that something you think about when you’re in your creative process?
RP: Well, it’s an interesting question, and I like that question. Years ago, I had a friend who said, “Man…” He was actually a music writer. He said, “Man, Rev.” He’s like, “All of your songs…” He said, “When you really get down to it,” he said, “There’s all these songs that sound happy, but aren’t.” He said, “They’re like dance songs about hard times.” … I was like, “…that’s the name of the record. It just feels right.” There’s a ton of songs like that, where the song kind of sounds dancey or happy, and the lyrics are dark. I think there’s a big history of that, especially in blues, but in all of the American songbook. You really delve into the lyrics of old-time or bluegrass or Johnny Cash, it’s all pretty dark when you get there. Somehow when you listen to it, it doesn’t necessarily always feel that way.
FD: The Rattle Can video. Dug the hell out of that. I loved the blend of the Americana and then the whole urban graffiti scene, which is pretty big out here, too. How did that all come together?
RP: Yeah, man. That was one of those things that came together in a really just sort of random, organic way, right? With the Rattle Can video, we didn’t have everything completely figured out. It’s one of the few songs on the record where the lyrics aren’t heavy. It’s just a silly dance song. There’s always “shake it like a…” lines in songs like, “Shake it like… shake it like…” You’re like, “With what? Like what? What’s your metaphor?” I always thought it’d be funny to be shake it like a rattle can because it’s got this cool sound. So when you’re talking about a rattle can, which is a spray can… When we were talking about videos, it’s like, “Well, we got to have something to do with spray paint.” …There were so many hands involved in it. There was… from the band getting it together, the dancers that were dancing in it, our friend helping to choreograph the dancers. There was Satori, the artist that painted the wall. There is Tyler Zoller, who shot the thing and edited it. The editing is crazy. There’s James Vena, who did the motion graphics… I don’t know if we’ve ever had a video that had so many different creatives just really coming in and doing their thing with it.
FD: One last question for you. I would imagine you avoid getting into this too deeply because I’m sure your fan base runs across the gamut in terms of political backgrounds and beliefs. When I was listening to the album, it struck me that “Crime to Be Poor” was probably the closest thing to real political discussion that you had on that album. Is the nature of what we’re seeing today in the political climate infusing itself at all into your subconscious? Is it something that you think about when you’re writing, or is it something that you purposely want to kind of stray away from and stick to more universal themes, or do you see yourself going down that path at all in a deeper manner?
RP: So I approach things like this. I try to regale stories or I try to really make things personal and in a way that is kind of like painting a picture in someone’s mind. I’m not trying to tell them to do one thing or another, but when you paint them a certain kind of picture, if they really look at it, if they’re really paying attention to it, then I hope that their eyes are opened to it, and maybe their heart is softened by it. I’m not saying, “Hey, think like this,” or, “Do this,” or, “Do that.” A person can go ahead, and just they think how they want to think. They do what they want to do. My hope is that by taking a story that is very, very human, very real that’s a huge problem and trying to explain it in a way that I think my granddad would have understood… You know what I mean? Very simple terms. That maybe a person’s eyes are opened to it, and it changes them because we live in a time now, man, where people are… They’ve tribed up so hard that they’re missing out on a lot, right? They’re missing out on a lot of humanity. They’re missing out on a lot of places where common ground could be met and found. I mean we tell our kindergartners to compromise and share, right? Then when our politicians do it, we’re almost mad at them. Our tribe is mad at them for finding some kind of common ground and trying to move something forward. With “Crime to Be Poor,” it’s a situation where it was born out of a real story, a very real, human thing that happened. I don’t much care what political tribe you are or think you are. It’s not fair that a kid who just can’t afford the attorneys, can’t afford to be able to go before a judge in a fair way is going to do more time than the kid that can. That ain’t fair. That ain’t right. I don’t even think that’s politics. I always say that politics is how much money do we collect and what do we spend it on. Everything else is really about society, and culture, and humanity, which actually should be outside of politics, right? It shouldn’t be a thing that we argue about. We shouldn’t have to argue that a kid who has less money is going to serve time and then the kid that has more money is not, for the same exact thing. That shouldn’t even be something we have to talk about and argue. We shouldn’t have to discuss it. Shouldn’t even be political. That’s humanity. That’s more of a sociology thing. That’s a cultural problem. That’s deeper than how much tax we collect and what do we spend it on, right? I kind of approach things like that. In writing, they always tell people. They’re like, “Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell.” I want to show, not tell because human beings… We tend to be babies about stuff. If you tell someone, “Hey, man. You should do this. You need to do that,” a lot of times instead of hearing that as maybe advice that actually could be great advice for us by someone that knows what they’re talking about… Instead, we retreat in our shell like, “My God. You’re not going to tell me what to do.” So I kind of think sometimes to show people rather than tell them, and let them come to their own conclusion if they’re paying attention at all, which maybe they’re not because so often, people are not, unfortunately. You might be able to open someone’s eyes to something. At the end of day, if they’re not paying attention to that, then, hopefully, they like the rhythm and the slide guitar. That’s all you can do.
Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band plays the Aggie Theater in Ft. Collins on March 25 at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $15 at www.theaggietheatre.com.