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."
When Breezy says they tour so much she means so much. This year, the band might even push that much-heralded "250 dates per year" marker they set back when they quit their jobs, put about everything they owned out for sale, climbed in the van and didn't look back. It's a lot.
"It was surprising to our booking agents [their willingness to tour]," Matt Schwegman, the band's former manager, says. "We would tell them, 'The band wants to be on the road. This is how they're connecting with their fans.' And god bless them for doing it. They're road warriors, and they love it and they're out there. I knew it going in. ... I think their success, a lot of it is based on the fact that they're willing to hit the road."
Schwegman managed the Big Damn Band for about five years, booking them yearly for killer Black Friday shows at his venue, The Vogue, where he held the position of Entertainment Manager for a number of years.
"In the early days, we were able to get legs of tours with the Avett Brothers, JJ Grey and MoFro, and then ... I was able to get them on a Flogging Molly tour," he says.
Touring with Irish rockers Flogging Molly in 2008 was a milestone for the Big Damn Band; it certainly left an impression on their drummer George Schwindt. "I think some music has the ability to paint the cultural and geographical landscape of its origins. Rev's music lives in that space," Schwindt writes to me in an email.
Perhaps it was touring with bands like Flogging Molly and Clutch that set the Big Damn Band on a collision course with the mainstream punk music scene. It certainly exposed them to a huge new demographic of music lovers. But maybe they would have ended up beloved by punk music aficionados and on a punk label – SideOneDummy, which released four of their records – anyway.
"There's a punk attitude," Kevin Lyman, founder of traveling punk megafest Warped Tour, says via phone when I call him to talk about why he loves the Big Damn Band. "They're doing something completely out of the box for their genre of music. If you listen to the way they're arranging their songs and the way they write their songs, you could take those and put it to a three-chord punk beat and it would work. ... And given how they play, you can always create a little mosh pit to it, if you felt like it." (And it's not just at Warped Tour: In our conversation, Schwegman was quick to note that the only time he's ever dove off a stage and crowd-surfed at the Vogue was at a Big Damn Band show. Indy punk spot The Melody Inn hosted some of the Big Damn Band's first shows – and one of Breezy's first washboards hangs on the wall there.)
Lyman championed the band at his festival, bringing them out for 12 dates on the "Kevin Says" side-stage (long the home of unsigned and rising bands) in 2009. "I was like, we have to spend a whole summer with these guys," Lyman says, of their short run of Warped Tour shows that year. So in 2010, they were booked for the whole tour.
"A band like Reverend Peyton has to be seen live to get them," Lyman says. "I'll never forget the time that we were doing Warped Tour in Salt Lake City. They were playing on the stage, and they start playing 'Your Cousin's On Cops.' I'm watching, and there's all of a sudden eight police officers walking by on the way to lunch or something. And just all of their heads turned, and they started watching, and they've got smiles on their faces – and they all walked over and bought the CD."
The Rev claims Big Damn Band has one of the most diverse audiences he's ever seen, and I hazard a guess that their time on Warped Tour played a large part of that. They killed it on that tour (noticing a theme?), even winning "Best Band" and, for The Rev and Breezy, "Best Couple" after the tour's conclusion. (Yes, Warped Tour gives out superlatives after each tour.) Warped's young-skewing demographic and deluge of dates brought the Big Damn Band's take on country blues to a brand new audience too young to get into the clubs they spent much of their early days playing.
"I think that their knowledge of the music that inspired and influenced them, bringing that to a younger crowd and turning a younger crowd onto the roots of the blues music that Reverend Peyton loves is ... unique because he's bringing a completely different crowd to the blues," current manager Brett Steele says of the band.
And that younger crowd is about to follow them to a label that's very, very, old.
"We had tons of offers," Breezy says, of their label options after the Big Damn Band decided to depart from longtime punk label SideOneDummy for the release of So Delicious. "From as major as you could think, to as small as you could think. And nothing really felt like it was the right thing."
Until the possibility of signing to Yazoo came around.
"We own so much old Yazoo records. It's like our favorite," she says. " I don't think we could have found a better fit ... [than] to share a label with Scrapper Blackwell and Charley Patton."
While she's speaking, The Rev is rummaging through a stack of records in the corner of their cabin. He pulls out the 1969 Yazoo cut, Charley Patton: Founder of The Delta Blues. "I think it's the most important blues record," he says.
"Yazoo is one of the great record labels that captured blues and other forms of music from the early part of the 20th century," Matthew Socey, NUVO contributor and host of The Blues House Party on WFYI, writes to me in an email. "A Yazoo album means listening to music history. The fact that the Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band is now a part of that label's history is one of the great no-brainers in music."
Yazoo, home of recordings by Blind Blake, Scrapper Blackwell, Ma Rainey, Mississippi John Hurt and many more, was founded in the late '60s and acquired by jazz and reggae label Shanachie Entertainment in the late '80s. The Big Damn Band is the first contemporary band to be signed to Yazoo, and The Rev, Breezy and Ben are the only working musicians with music out on the label.
"The good Reverend is a walking encyclopedia of early 20th century music," Socey writes. "The band being on Yazoo is like combining chicken and waffles, a great combination."
All involved parties agree that it almost makes too much sense for So Delicious to come out on Yazoo.
"I think the fact that Yazoo, which is released all of the great blues legends, and all of the artists that influenced Reverend Peyton – the fact that they acknowledge Reverend Peyton and said, 'We want to release your music on our label,' and he's the only living artist on the label, is just a great endorsement of his artistry and what he's doing," Steele says.
Annie and Andy Skinner, co-owners of Indy CD and Vinyl along with Eric Davis, hosted the Big Damn Band yesterday at an in-store performance to celebrate the release of So Delicious (The Big Damn Band always plays a slew of record shop in-stores the week of their new albums come out.) The Skinners have known the Big Damn Band for a long time. The Rev, in fact, officiated their wedding as – yes — their reverend.
"Obviously this label means a lot to the band personally, but it exemplifies where they are headed professionally," the Skinners write in an email. "They spent a lot of years on SideOneDummy Records, and it fit perfectly to pair their hard work with an established punk rock label. They gained a lot of fans with this association in the punk scenes, and now they can expand their reach to an established blues/roots label and their cadre of fans."
But even though Yazoo's involvement is a huge honor, the Big Damn Band didn't let it influence the writing or recording process in the slightest. The Rev and Breezy make a point to mention they've never let a label influence the music they've made.
"We never wanted a label to come in and tell us how to record, or how to make something," Breezy says. "It's our music, it's our fans, no one knows it better than us. You're not going to have an influence on it." "And that's why our records have gotten better over the years instead of worse," The Rev jumps in. "We have a commitment to ourselves and our music, and we don't let outside forces come in and tell us that we need to be this, that or the other."
The commitment – all-in to the band, to the road, to their hometown, to the fans, to each other – seems to be at the heart of the Big Damn Band. At this point, I've called up people literally from sea to shining sea to talk about the Big Damn Band: Jan the Norwegian blues lover, Warped Tour's Kevin Lyman in Los Angeles. But the guy who helps me grasp what the Big Damn Band is really about sits just a few desks away from me every day.
"It's American dream stuff," Dave Searle says when I ask about the success of the Big Damn Band. Searle – the Big Damn Band calls him Flava Dave — is a NUVO media consultant now, but for four years, he was the Big Damn Band's tour manager before "retiring with honors," as Bussell says.
Searle jokes that he's considered becoming the Official Band Historian and writing a history of the Big Damn Band. After all, he says, he knows all the stories, has heard them a million times. As he recounts some of them during our conversation – truck stop showers, minuscule budgets, diets of instant ramen, broken down vans – he's quick to point out that the success of the Big Damn Band hasn't been flashy or fast. It's been from the bottom up.
"They just grinded it out," Searle says. "They really wanted it, really authentically cared about the music they were making, and truly wanted to do whatever it took to get that done. It doesn't guarantee success, but they did literally everything they possibly could to give success an opportunity to come to them. The music industry can be a graveyard of talented people who didn't put the work in. The things that they've done to keep the engine moving have been absolutely incredible. It just shows their true dedication."
"I don't come from a family of musicians, or anything even close to it," Breezy tells me the first time I go down to the cabin. "When we decided we were going to give up everything, practically be homeless and go on tour, and I told my parents, I expected my parents to be like, 'You're crazy. This is a bad idea.'"
"My dad said, 'I have a lot of regrets, and a lot of things that I didn't do, because I was too nervous, or I was worried about what was going to happen. And now I'm an old man, and I'm too old to do those things. And I wish I would have done it.' It made me think, you know what? It's scary. Being out on the road and touring, it's scary and it's dangerous, and what not. But it's better than sitting at home and wondering what would have happened if we did do it," she finishes.
That's the crux of a couple of So Delicious' songs, like "We Live Dangerous" and "Let's Jump A Train."
"Life is dangerous, but that's part of it," Rev says. "I try to really, really do things, even if I'm scared of them. Because I'm scared of a lot of things. You name it." [Breezy jumps in: "Crowds, spiders."] "I'm scared of everything. But it doesn't stop me from doing it."
And the dangerous life can take its toll: Breezy has spent most of the last two years in and out of a temporary cast, awaiting surgery on ligaments in her hand.
"I didn't have time to have surgery," she says. "So I've just been playing with a really hurt hand. Finally, right after our Thanksgiving show, that's when I had the hand surgery," she says. But a month or so later, she was back at it again. "I had to play New Year's Eve in a cast. I taped a whisk to my fingers that I could use. Now I have a small cast on. When we go back out on tour, it's really going to be the test."
"Luckily we were able to take this time, this winter and make it right," The Rev says. "Because her hands have been hurting so much. Most people don't know about it. She couldn't hardly do anything. Couldn't hold a fishing pole [a shared passion of the Peytons]."
"Looking at the positive of this hand surgery, I think I've gotten a lot better at my left hand," Breezy jumps back in. "I think it's going to improve musically, for me, because I'm so much better with my left hand, that I think my left handed percussion is going to be a lot better."
That marks a hand surgery each for the Peytons, surgeries that healed them both and improved them musically, too.
The whole Big Damn thing — the miraculous, hand-healing surgeries, the selling-everything-to-hit-the-road for 250 dates per year, the European tours, the historic label – can feel a bit like a fairy tale sometimes. But the Rev is very quick to assure anyone who asks that it all could not be more real. And that it's extremely important to him that it is all real.
"I don't know what people believe sometimes," The Rev says to me at the "Pot Roast and Kisses" video premiere party at the Melody Inn. "They think that you play a part or something; I think it's one of the reasons that people can say the things they do. It's like they're not talking about a real person. But the music that I play and the songs that I write are so autobiographical, so personal, that I take things personally, when it comes to the songs. 'Pot Roast and Kisses' is personal to me. That is a real experience, a real thing."
So, then, is every bit of So Delicious: from the pawpaws picked on "Pickin' Pawpaws" to the front porch where Rev plays guitar on "Front Porch Trained."
"A lot of people will comb books for ideas," he says a week or so before. "There's tons of songwriters I know that go through archives of old folklore and try and pull their audience in for that. I write songs about my life, my perspective, my family, my friends, my stuff."
The Rev maintains that country blues is a very personal style of music, one that lends itself to autobiographical songs. And he's got an entire discography's worth of music by his hero to support that theory.
"If you go back and listen to Charley Patton, most of his songs are just fun dance songs, for the most part," he says. "But they are all autobiographical. They are things that he knew, he saw, firsthand. He's singing about his town, his places. And that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to tell my story."
"He's the real deal," Mahern says. "[Some people] don't understand that it's not a shtick. ... He lives the life that he sings on those songs. He's the real guy, gun-toting' country boy."
"You come here to Brown County and see that this is for real," The Rev says, the first time I visit the Nashville cabin he owns with Breezy. "What we sing about, this is it. I think it's real special here. There's a real cool Southern Indiana subculture that people don't talk about in this state. Indiana is a small, rural place. Indianapolis is a big city, but it doesn't take very long to get in the country."
Like one Hoosier songwriter once sang, "No I cannot forget where it is that I come from / I cannot forget the people who love me / Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town /And people let me be just what I want to be."
Back in the studio
It seems right, at this point, to swing back to Mellencamp.
"You know, [Rev] played on a Mellencamp recording, but it never was released," Mahern says, near the end of our phone call.
"He told you that story?" The Rev exclaims when I broach the topic a few days later.
Oh, yeah. Here's what Mahern said: "John is very much into recording stuff live," Mahern says. "And so is The Rev. So we sit them down, facing each other, and I think John is playing acoustic guitar and singing, and The Rev is accompanying him on a country blues slide. ... John can be very intense in the studio. I was a little nervous, like, how were these personalities going to work? Because the Rev runs his own show, and John runs his own show. And The Rev is a huge Mellencamp fan. So he comes in, he's well prepared, they run through this thing a couple of times; for technical reasons, I'm adjusting things and stuff like that.
"John doesn't like to do things too many times. I think we did the song twice, and then John looks at The Rev, and says to me, 'Hey, are we ready?' kind of impatient with me. And I'm like, 'Yeah, I think I can do this now.' And he looks at The Rev and says, 'Are you ready?' right in the eyes, classic Mellencamp-style. And The Rev says, 'Yeah, I think so.' And John says, 'Good. Because I'm not doing this again.' And then he counted it off and they did it and it was perfect."
The Rev looks back on that day spent in the studio with his first musical hero with fondness and pride.
"When he opened up his mouth, and John Mellencamp's voice came out of that man ... " The Rev says. "To me, what was so great was that it was just two Southern Indiana guys, but here's this guy [Mellencamp] and he's just this legend."
It's easy to imagine some young, aspiring country blues player feeling the same way about sitting across from Reverend Peyton in the studio. After all, that's part of what all of this is about: showcasing the legacy of country blues to a new audience, while preaching the gospel of Southern Indiana's charms.
"Rural Indiana culture is what I really love. That's where I grew up, where my family comes from, what I'm all about," The Rev says.
"[And country blues is] the roots of all American blues music. That's where we come from, where we start from."
Damn. That's delicious.