The pot roast really is so delicious.
Delicious enough to inspire an entire song. Hell, delicious enough to name an entire new album after – and delicious enough to inspire a brand new finger-style guitar technique, invented and executed by The Reverend Peyton, then put to tape by his Big Damn Band for that new song on that new album.
It's damn good pot roast.
And I know, because I've eaten it. It's what Breezy Peyton – wife of The Rev and certified washboard-playing badass – whips up when I wind my way down to their Nashville cabin to spend the day talking with the pair about their brand new album, So Delicious, and the brand new (but very old) label it came out on yesterday.
But I'll get to that. First, we've got to talk about Mellencamp.
"When I heard songs like 'Small Town,' and saw John was from Indiana and he stayed in Indiana, that affected me," The Rev says. "That was a monumental influence on me."
I meet with the Big Damn Band three times before the release of So Delicious to conduct a series of interviews on the topic of their new album and upcoming spring tour. We do spend a ton of time talking about those things (hours, in fact), but we also always talk abut John Mellencamp.
The Rev is quick to note that the first concert he ever attended was one by Mellencamp, in 1988 at what was then Deer Creek. But was that really his first?
"Your mom says she saw John Mellencamp right before you were born, when you were in the womb," Breezy says to her husband during our first interview. "And you were going insane the entire time. ... She said she knew that you were going to be really into music."
"Really into music" and "really dedicated to staying right here in Indiana" are two understatements when it comes to describing The Rev. If this is your first time reading about The Reverend Peyton – he's got a legal name but it'd never feel right for me to call him by it– I'll trace his origin story out quickly. Born in Eagletown, Indiana, ("a country place," he describes it), The Rev became obsessed with the music of Charley Patton and other country blues musicians. But try as he might, he could never quite master the country blues finger style technique his heroes played.
Never could, that is, until a surgery to remove ganglion cysts and scar tissue opened up The Rev's hands like some sort of magic trick. After recovering, he found himself suddenly able to execute he quick-flying, hyper-complicated metacarpal tricks that'd before eluded him. And so The Rev was on his way to becoming one of – if not the – best country blues guitar player in the United States. With Breezy on washboard and brother Jayme on drums, the Big Damn Band criss-crossed the country, spreading the gospel of blues greats like Patton and amassing a congregation in the process.
Of course, if you've been following the Big Damn Band, you'll know that was all more than a decade ago, of course. Thousands of shows ago. Five drummers ago.
Current Big Damn Band drummer Ben "Bird Dog" Bussell is the third full-time drummer the band has employed. The first drummer, Jayme Peyton, played, toured and recorded with the band for years, departing in 2009 after a blockbuster show at the Vogue, to be with family. Somewhere in there, Josh Contant and Patrick McDaniel filled in on a few tour legs. Then, Aaron Persinger took over for a few years, recording 2010's The Wages, 2011's Charley Patton tribute album Peyton on Patton, and 2012's Between The Ditches. But when it came time to once again tour through Europe – the band returns there at least once a year for an extended run of shows – Persinger made a quick, unexpected exit.
Waiting in the wings was then-tour manager Bussell.
"The thing about Ben is that he's always wanted to tour full time," Breezy says. That's part of the reason the band hired him on as tour manager in 2011. Bussell had previously tour managed for groups like Murder By Death; The Builders And The Butchers; and Damion Suomi And The Minor Prophets, filling in with restaurant jobs and other odd jobs in between legs. He managed Big Damn Band for about 14 months before Persinger dipped out at a rather inconvenient time: the day before a European tour.
Luckily, "I had mentioned being a drummer before, just offhand in conversation," Bussell tells me, when we sit down at Nashville's Muddy Boots Cafe a week or so later. "We have a lot of time to talk about things in the van. But I'd never played for them before, they'd never heard any of the bands I'd been in before. ... I remember I woke up that morning [before leaving for tour] and was laying on the couch, and Rev's already up and is on the phone. He hangs up the phone and says, 'Ben, you say you know how to play drums, right?' And I said, 'Yeah, I know how to play drums,' and he says, 'And you know our songs?' And I say, 'Of course I know your songs, I've heard them every night for a year and a half. And he says, 'Well, you want to play drums in Europe?' And I said, 'Yeah, of course I do!'"
"The first day we showed up for that European tour, we had two sold-out shows in Norway," Breezy says, laughing. "And we showed up and the promoter was like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, I thought you were the tour manager.' And we were like, 'Yeah, he's the drummer now.' And they were like, 'What, how long is that?' And we were like, 'This is his first show. Can we practice?' "
"I actually booked that gig," Jan Rustad of Norway's Østkanten Bluesklubb says, when I call him to talk about those sold out Norwegian shows. Rustad is quick to note that Norway has a bit of an obsession with the blues; his blues society is one of about 60 in the country, an outrageous number when you consider the entire country only has a population of about five million. He loves the Big Damn Band.
"They were kind of nervous before going on stage," Rustad says of Bussell's first show. "Ben was extremely energetic. He really pounded it out that night. He was dynamite. And I told him when they came off, 'Yeah, well, that wasn't anything to worry about. You killed it tonight!' "
And he kept killing it.
"We did a whole European tour with a drummer we weren't rehearsed with," The Rev says. "And he nailed it," husband and wife say in unison.
"At the end of the tour, I'm going, 'Why am I even talking about [holding tryouts for a new drummer?] This guy saved our asses, and he killed it on this tour,'" The Rev says. "I always say, whenever we have like a merch person, we pull them up to be tour manager. We've done that a bunch of times. We've rotated people in. It's just natural for us."
"When we first went into it, we were pretty much planning on faking it," Bussell says. "But by the end of the tour, we weren't faking it anymore. We were playing as a band."
This record is the first time Bussell has entered the studio as part of the Big Damn Band. All three members are quick to express their excitement over the release.
"[We have] progressed in a way that I don't think anybody could listen to our records and go, 'Oh, no, their old stuff is the best.' Because it's not!" The Rev says. "Our new stuff is better. And we've gotten better, and we've honed it."
Longtime producer Paul Mahern (Iggy Pop, Over The Rhine, Afghan Wigs, Lisa Germano, Mellencamp) agrees.
"The first time I worked with them, I think we recorded their record in about two days, all live in one room." Mahern remembers, when I ring him up to talk about So Delicious. "I just really remember being blown away by how easy it was, how easy they were to work with, how talented they were and how focused they were. And they've maintained that focus all of these years, but just have gotten better. [The Rev has] become a better writer, a better singer."
The challenge in the studio, Mahern says, has always been capturing the kinetic energy of the live shows. It's a bit like trying to catch lightning – or a washboard lit on fire – in a bottle.
"[Our job] is to capture it in a way that makes it feel as big and full as possible, but also completely honest. That's the Rev's whole thing," Mahern says. "He doesn't want to do any overdubs, he doesn't want to do anything that you can't experience live. There's never more than one guitar going on at a time on those records. He plays so much, he's got that country blues style, so he's playing bass lines with his thumb, he's playing rhythm parts with some fingers, he's playing high-fly stuff, and it's all happening out of one instrument at one time."
"Have you ever seen his spiel on bass players?" Ha Ha Tonka's Brian Roberts asks me when I dial him up to trade stories about the Big Damn Band. I had, in fact, at both a show and in the Peytons' own living room. I'll let Roberts, whose band was the first the Big Damn Band ever tapped to open for them on tour, retell it here:
"The first show we played with the Rev, one of the early shows as we were getting to know them, building friendships, our bass player — a pretty colorful character as well [named] Luke Long – [was setting up]. Of course there's no bass player in the Big Damn Band. At one point, during soundcheck early on in our touring with them, Rev called up Luke during soundcheck ... and said, 'Hey, everybody! Listen up! Listen up! Do you know who plays bass in the Big Damn Band?' – and as he's telling this, he's holding his guitar and starts plucking on the E string with his thumb – 'My thumb plays bass in this band!' We were just in stitches dying laughing."
Playing all those different parts at one time is what makes The Rev's guitar work so mesmerizing – and what makes recording so difficult.
"It's really tricky, and it's been really hard, and it's been something that we've worked on and perfected over the course of several records," Mahern says. "I feel like the new record, we kind of nail it."
"Part of that is just touring and playing more," Breezy says. "Also, we have a better drummer that has deeper pockets that just blends in with us so much better."
The drums (which include an upturned bucket furnished by Burton Maplewood Farm) are a particular area of focus on the new album.
In the studio "we would start by cutting the drums in half," The Rev says. "Almost everything. We were like, 'Let's cut the [amount Bussell was playing] in half, and build it up from there.' I think that's one of the reasons this record is so good, too. There's so much space on it."
Bussell says the band had a bit of shorthand for that in the studio: WWLHD. As in, What Would Levon Helm Do?
"Sometimes a song would just take on a whole new attitude," after the band WWLHD'd in the studio, Bussell says. "We would all be like, 'Man, that sounds better.'
Peyton took on more of a producing role during the recording process of So Delicious, which the band recorded once again at Bloomington's Primary Sound Studios (formerly Farm Fresh), with Dan Figurelli engineering. (Mahern mixed the record). It's the third record The Rev has produced at that studio in the last year or so (the other two are Cari Ray's Swagger and Kenan Rainwater's The River Flows). And it signals a pretty drastic change from his attitude about recording not so long ago.
"I didn't have fun making records, didn't like it. It was like a chore. It felt like work," he says of previous studio sessions. We're chatting after an impromptu release party at the Melody Inn for the new music video for So Delicious' second single "Pot Roast and Kisses," a sweet ode to that very pot roast Breezy cooked the first time I headed south to the Peytons' cabin, and a dish The Rev declares is "his favorite thing." (In a smart bit of vertical integration, the band included the recipe in the new album's liner notes.)
But on So Delicious: "I felt like I had a real vision for this one, and where I wanted it to go," he says. "Between the Ditches taught me a lot. With this one, everything I've learned and thought about, everything I've always wanted to have happen, or wanted to try, we did. I think sonically, this record is more exciting. ... That was the goal. I wanted it to be exciting sounding, I wanted it to sound fun. I wanted the record to feel like maybe, whenever they finished recording like, [The Kingsmen's] 'Louie, Louie,' or [Van Morrison's] 'Gloria,' we went in there and picked up those instruments and did a record like that."
A big part of capturing The Rev's vision is using vintage gear in the studio, including a vintage washboard for Breezy and antique guitars for The Rev.
"We use a lot of really old equipment when we're recording the Rev," Mahern says. "Nothing that is in the signal chain that's newer than the '60s. The older stuff just sounds better. It's warmer, it's fatter, it's not as bright. There's not that many of them, there's only three of them, which means that each person can take up a lot more space. ... And that always translates into older gear, older gear that's bigger and warmer, and has more distortion in it."
Another, bigger part is just plain hard work.
"Rev is just better; he's got an ear for it, and he's been working on other people's albums so much, that that just helps," Breezy says. "He knows what we feel comfortable with in the studio; we're better in the studio. We're more rehearsed than ever, because we tour so much that it doesn't take much in that aspect."