Front porch blues progenitors Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band hustle steel-string atomic boogie dreamed in the southern Indiana hills, educated at the crossroads in Clarksdale, and honed on stages around the planet. Currently comprised of guitarslinger Josh “Reverend” Peyton, queen of the washboard shuffle Breezy Peyton, and drummer Max Senteney, the BDB had spent the better part of two decades on the road consistently racking up hundreds of dates a year before being forced into exile in the spring of 2020 amid a global pandemic. The Brown County outfit regrouped around a Patreon page, offering streaming content for mere donations or even free, but significantly, the Rev himself would be compelled to pen the songs that make up the group’s latest album, Dance Music For Hard Times. Echoing the legendary tales of Jim Croce at the kitchen table, and in a storm-darkened cabin, while his wife, Breezy, presumably suffered from COVID-19, Peyton did the only thing he knew to do: he wrote songs. The Big Damn Band electrified those tunes and committed them to analog tape under the GRAMMY award-winning countenance of producer Vance Powell (Buddy Guy, Chris Stapleton, Jars of Clay, The Raconteurs), and with brighter days in the windshield, Reverend Peyton is champing at the proverbial bit to bring what he considers “the best record we ever made” to any and every stage possible.
AI- I thought it would be cool to start with Dance Songs For Hard Times, which came about at a very extraordinary time for you. It’s no small accomplishment to have written one song under trying circumstances, but to write a whole album– that in itself is a great feat. Tell me about that point in time. We’re all home, we’re on lockdown, and you wrote an album.
RP- One of the things about being a songwriter is that you want the songs to happen all the time. You wanna be able to say, “I write songs constantly,” and you’re always kinda messin’ with songs, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re always writin’ songs. At least not good ones, right? Like if someone tells you they write songs every day, they don’t write good songs every day. No one does. Not even the best songwriters in the world write good songs every day! But you have to take ’em when they come, whenever that universe opens up and they come down from the sky, wherever they come from!
At the beginning of the pandemic, I had been workin’ on a record, and everything we were workin’ on felt like it just didn’t matter anymore. It just wasn’t the way I was feelin’ anymore, and I have to be really absolutely intensely feeling the songs to play ’em. I really do! So I started writin’, and it was like all these songs just started pourin’ out at me, and I mean like BOOM happenin’, BOOM happenin’, BOOM happenin’! We realized we had a record and it’s like, “Well, how do we get this thing recorded? What do we do?” We took a chance, and we realized that if we didn’t make music– we couldn’t play live, we couldn’t do this, we couldn’t do that— but if we didn’t make music, we weren’t a band anymore! So I was like, “We have to continue making music. We have to figure this out.”
We went in the studio and we made this record and I think it’s the best record we ever made! I’m really proud of it! We released it last year, and I haven’t really been able to tour on it– proper anyway– so I’m excited to be able to get out there and play these songs live for people because I really believe in ’em. Not just the production on it– the production’s great on the record– but I just really believe in these songs! And it was all recorded live to tape so we can do it live, you know?
You really got into the studio quickly after writing this album, and I feel like as a direct result of the circumstances, there’s a wildness that I don’t know exists in your previous work. Did that come from, in fact, singing like it could be the last album you ever made?
Well, you know, maybe? I know this, that the older I get, the more, I’ve gotten to be closer in touch with who I really am. Because everybody, there’s who you are and there’s who you’d like to be— and there’s who you wish you were, but can never be (laughs)! Right? I’ve always found that the closer I get to who I really am, the better I am as a musician. Sometimes that’s hard! ‘Cause sometimes you hear somethin’, you think, “Man, I wish I was more like that,” or, “I wish I could sing like that,” or “I wish, I wish, I wish…” But that doesn’t really help you! Doesn’t help you as a musician, it doesn’t help you as a writer, it doesn’t help you as a singer!
The best thing you can do is actually try to figure out who you are and be better at that. I’m not talkin’ ’bout ‘restin’ on your haunches and doin’ nothin’, I’m talkin’ about tryin’ to figure out who you are and be the best at that. Over the years, I’ve gotten to be a better singer, and one of the reasons that is the case, I think, is just because I realized like, “I sing better in these keys in this way.” When I was younger, I just wanted to sing like Muddy Waters, but that really ain’t the voice I got! It ain’t that way. So it’s like, “Well, alright, how do I sing?”
And also too, when we first started doing this, man, I always say we were “front porch trained” ’cause it’s true. We just went out there and did it! No formal training, no anything, no rich daddy with a funnel o’ money to get us in with this producer or that producer, no nothin’! Just on the road and doin’ it! So we had to learn over time– the hard way– on the road. And the road doesn’t always teach you how to make good records! It teaches you how to be a good performer. It teaches you how to put on a show. It teaches you how to do that, but it doesn’t necessarily teach you how to make good records. So we had to put in the work to figure that out, and it’s a very different kind of thing. Even if you go in the studio and do it live to tape– like we have done so many, and like this one was– it’s still a lot different than goin’ out there and doin’ it on the stage!
Lemme ask you this question… I know that you are a great fan of the early heroes– Charley Patton, guys like that– and when you listen to those old records, as you say, the road doesn’t teach you how to be good in the studio, but it does teach you how to be great live. Those old recordings, really, all they were to do was to document the song. So you could have a great song, document it, but it wasn’t necessarily what you might call a studio performance. Having listened to those to learn how to craft a song, how did you learn how to go into the studio? What made that transition for you?
Well, see, that’s interesting that you bring that up because that’s exactly it! They just pony’d up to a single microphone, usually, and just did it! So when we first started doin’ records, that’s essentially what we did for the most part! We just pony’d up to some vintage mics and did it, and recorded an entire record in a day, and went home! You end up makin’ a field recording, not really a record when you do that, right? When Charley Patton was recordin’, that’s what they were really doin’– they were makin’ field recordings. They were documenting. There hadn’t been, at that point in time, hardly any forethought as far as like, “Okay, well, how are we gonna really make this sound right? How are we gonna EQ this? How are we gonna do this? How are we gonna capture that?” It was brand new technology, so it was like, “Stand in front of this microphone, do your thing, and here’s ten bucks and go home!”
I always say we haven’t quite moved all the way into the 21st Century, if you will, but we sort of do it more like maybe they might have done things in the ’50s or ’60s. That’s how we record things now. And actually, in the ’50s and ’60s, there was a whole lot of thought that went into this stuff! Some of our records, we’ve recorded into Pro Tools, and then put it into tape. Or put it from tape into Pro Tools. At some point, it’s gotta end up into a computer, so you can send it along and have it pressed into CDs and records and stuff– and ready to go for Spotify and all that! But we approach it more like maybe they would’ve done at Chess Records or Stax or something like that.
Over the years, I’ve studied those recording techniques, and this time, we were workin’ with a really great producer named Vance Powell, who really understood exactly what we are as a band– and who we wanna be. In talkin’ with him about doin’ it, I just got such a good vibe ’cause I could tell he wasn’t gonna try to change us and make us be something that we weren’t. He was gonna help us be the best that we are and figure out how to get more laser-focused on who we are and how to be. I think that’s one of the most important things in music like we were talkin’ about earlier. I believe that! You’ve gotta figure out who you are musically, and then you’ve gotta be the best at that.
The greatest musicians, the greatest songwriters, the greatest artists in music throughout history, I think that’s one of the threads that defines ’em is that they were really good at being themselves. And you end up loving that! So the older I get, the more I’m trying to be laser-focused on that, and the more I’m trying to figure out what that even is!
How did you come to work with Vance?
Man, you know, I think we just started talkin’ on the internet and we had a phone call and we just hit it off! It’s one of those things where you get Instagram buddies, I think is how it started. And then (laughs) we got on the phone and I found out he’d been to some of our shows! He really understood us. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m seein’ this from afar.” He had seen us live a few times. So he 100% understood what we were all about, and talkin’ with him, he had some really great ideas. He actually wanted to strip things down. He’s like, “No, I wanna record this to eight tracks of analog tape. I wanna bring this back.” He’s like, “I want you in the studio, singin’ it live, playin’ it live. That’s how we’re gonna do this.”
He had some really, really brilliant ideas on just the production of it, as far as the sound, what sort of settings on the amplifiers, and stuff like that. His drum sounds, I think, are really incredible. And they’re not necessarily the way I would’ve mixed the drums, you know what I mean? He approaches it from a very different way, but it’s really awesome! It turned out so good! That’s one of the beauties of music is that there’s just more ‘n one way to skin a cat, you know? You can do the same song, play it the same way, and just by turning the kick drum up or down, you can really change the whole flavor of the song! There’s so much that can be done in that way, so it was nice havin’ someone that we could trust to come in and maybe take us out of our comfort zone just a little bit. But also someone we knew wasn’t gonna just stomp all over it, turn it into somethin’ that it’s not, and just try to make it the best that it is, the best that it can be. We found it to be a very positive experience. I would say the most positive experience I’ve ever had in the studio in my life was working with Vance. He really has a way to make you feel comfortable, make you feel like you belong there, and at the end of the day, his knowledge of sound production is literally world-class. I don’t know how many GRAMMY’s the guy’s got, but there’s a stack of ’em (laughs)!
There’s a lot of rockabilly on Dance Songs For Hard Times. I think “Rattle Can”, which you just released the video for, definitely has that feel. I even get some Buddy Holly vibes off of “I’ll Pick You Up”. You talked about employing some of the processes, techniques from the -50s and ’60s– did that also work its way in as far as you saying, “Maybe we wanna try our songs a little more rock n’ roll?”
You know, I don’t know if it was any kind of conscious decision, but a part of me’s kinda been in the ’50s lately. I don’t know how to describe that, how to explain it, but I’ve been listening to a ton of Little Richard. Last couple years, I’ve been listening to a ton of Chess Records stuff like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, and just been messing around with that. You’re not the first person that’s said that about this record, that’s felt a little bit of that in there. It wasn’t a conscious thing. Like with “Rattle Can”, for instance, in my mind, I’m tryin’ to live somewhere between “Magic Sam’s Boogie” and some kinda Elmore James thing. But there might be a little bit o’ “Hot Rod Lincoln” in there too!
One song that definitely is way, way toward that is “Too Cool To Dance”. That song absolutely feels like a lost Chuck Berry song or somethin’! In fact, when I wrote that song, I played it for Breezy– and people probably think that I play these songs for her all the time, but I really don’t. I don’t bring a song to Breezy ’til I really think it’s good, you know, I really think it’s done. And it’s partly ’cause she gives it to me straight! She’ll be like, “Nah, I don’t like that.” Even the greatest songs I’ve ever written, usually, what I get when it’s really good is, “Yeah, that’s pretty good, I guess.” That’s what I get! So I know if she says, “That’s pretty good, I guess” then I know I’m on to somethin’!
But when I played her “Too Cool To Dance”, she said, “That’s the best song you’ve ever written.” And I was like, “That is the best song I’ve ever written?” I was actually almost mad about it ’cause it’s so different than anything I’ve ever… I’m like, “That, right there? That’s the best song I’ve ever written? This song that sounds like some 1950s pop song?” And she’s like, “Yes, that is the best song you’ve ever written.” I couldn’t believe it! I was just shocked, you know? But I had to figure out how to make it my own because when I first played that for her, I was just strummin’ chords and it was almost like The Everly Brothers or somethin’. I’m playin’ the bass with my thumb and all those Chuck Berry licks with my fingers at the same time. It’s just one guitar, one take live to tape!
I’d made a note to ask you about your listening habits during the downtime. I think that was one of the most important parts of being home– or I guess one of the saving parts of being at home, being out of work. My family and I, we listened to a lot, a lot of music. I mean, we were already into vinyl– we got heavily into vinyl. You name-dropped Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, who are three of my all-time favorites. Along with Fats Domino, I call ’em the Four Horsemen of Rock n’ Roll. I listened to a lot of that stuff. What about you? What did you find yourself gravitating towards or discovering for the first time?
Well, man, I’ve been listening to a ton of stuff myself! I’ve been pourin’ over everything, and I’ve been trying to stay up on new stuff as well. People that are my contemporaries, I’ve been tryin’ to catch up on everybody’s records that they’ve put out the last couple years. Maybe ’cause I was tourin’ so hard, I wasn’t able to get completely wise with it. I’ve been listening to tons of vinyl too. I love goin’ and tryin’ to find those records that aren’t on Spotify ’cause there’s a lot of vinyl out there that isn’t– they were vinyl and that’s it. But I’ve gotta admit, I listen to a lot of Spotify too. Spotify let me know that I’m one of the top Little Richard fans in the world! That made me happy!
I listen to tons of new stuff too, man. People like JD McPherson, Samantha Fish, Jimbo Mathis, and even stuff that people probably think is pretty far out there for me– stuff like Lana Del Rey. I’m not super into like dance pop or anything necessarily, but the older I get, the more I’m obsessed with a good song. Every song that you’ve ever heard was written and crafted by somebody, right? I’m talkin’ everything from some big long Bob Dylan opus with an encyclopedia of words to “Tequila”! Every one of those songs brings somethin’, some kind of emotional thing, some sort of happiness or sadness or whatever. The older I get, the more I’m impressed with someone who has crafted a good song because ultimately, that’s actually the hardest thing to do in music. We can talk all day about bein’ able to play fast or the drummers with the great feel or all the stuff in music– there’s so much to it– but the hardest thing is probably crafting a good song that people wanna listen to over and over and over again. That’s probably the hardest thing. And the older I get, the more I have a respect for that whether it’s a pop song or a song that’s lost to time that’s dug out of the used bin at the record store.
I’m always looking for those because those good songs inspire you. Sometimes it sparks an idea in your head. You go, “Oh man, that’s cool what they did. I wonder if I could take somethin’ like that and see what I could do with it?” I love that. I love findin’ new music. You know, I hate when people say there’s not any good new music bein’ made! We probably live in the time when there is more good new music being made now than ever!
Oh, I heartily agree!
And it’s harder to do! I read this thing the other day, it was my neighbor, he lives up the road from me. You mighta heard of him, he’s a guy named John Mellencamp? I’ve recorded on some of John’s stuff, and John is a very unique guy, but he said that someone come up to him and said, “Man, you know, there ain’t any good music bein’ made anymore. I miss the stuff like you made.” And he said to the guy, “Well, did you hear my last record? Did you hear Springsteen’s last record?” And the guy’s like, “No…” And [John’s] like, “Did you listen to Neil Young’s record?” The guy’s like, “Naw, I didn’t listen to that.” And Mellencamp said, “Man, you just grew up and got old. There’s still good music bein’ made. You’re just got too old for it. And that’s sad.” (Laughs) And I’m sure John said it right to the guy’s face too!
I read a statistic once, and basically what it said– and I wish I could remember exactly where I saw it– but it was a study that said that the average individual by the time they’re in their mid-20s has listened to all of the new music that they’re going to listen to as far as like becoming a fan [Editor’s Note: Studies conducted through surveys by multiple streaming platforms suggest between the ages of 27-33]. At some point in time, people just shut off and they stop growing with music. It’s also easy to do when you are deeply involved in the music industry because you’re perpetuating your own thing. It’s easy to not pay attention to what’s going on around you, but I think it does take a concentrated effort to realize that yes, there is still good music being made.
You think about that, man– that’s a sad statistic! That really says more about us as a society– deciding to not learn and grow and to gravitate away from the arts as we get older.
It’s why classic rock radio is still in existence.
Yeah, I guess you’re right. That makes a heck of a lot of sense, but I know that John Mellencamp’s  a year older than my dad, and that guy is definitely still out there listening to new music and he’s trying to discover stuff and he’s trying to make his best record. He still is. He’s still doin’ interesting things– and it’s inspiring! I’ll tell you one–Billy F Gibbons! Billy F Gibbons is constantly chasing down new music and tryin’ to create new music himself. He’s always workin’ on it! It’s inspiring to see a guy like him at that point– he could just retire to some beach somewhere, right? And it’d be fine! He’d still be a legend! He’s made his mark! What does he need to go out there and do it for? What’s he need to tour for? What’s he need to go out there and make new records for? What’s he doin’ it for? Well, I can tell you why– because he lives for it! He loves it! He’s still chasing it, man! He’s still obsessed with tryin’ to write the next song. He’s still obsessed with tryin’ to see where he can take it, and that’s inspiring. I hope that’s the way that I end up.
I always tell people, “My best record hadn’t been made yet.” I think that Dance Songs For Hard Times is our best record that we’ve ever done, but I hope that it doesn’t end up bein’ the best record we ever make. I’ve got tons of music inside me, and I’m still hoping that I can best this record with the next one. And the next one after that! I hope that that fire still exists ’cause I think when it doesn’t, I think then it’s time to do somethin’ else, right? It’s time to go do somethin’ else.