Reverend Peyton is a guitar-pickin', blues-playin' man, and the frontman of Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band. By phone, he discussed what drew him to the country blues, trying to write timeless songs, and how he responded when a doctor told him to find something else to do besides playing guitar.
What drew you to the old-time country blues sound when you started playing?
When I first got to playing guitar, I would listen to something and find out that so-and-so didn't write that song. It was a cover. I would want to know who wrote it. I'd go back and find out so much of rock and roll is blues covers. It takes you back there, and you just keep going back, asking, "What did those guys listen to?" The further back you go, you just get back to the country blues. I felt like the early stuff, the early blues pickers, they were writing songs. A lot of times, modern electric blues is not really writing songs. It's kind of going over the same old stuff.
There's definitely a different storytelling quality to the older music.
Absolutely. That's a great way to put it. Music has to start with a good song. Everything else gets built up around it.
You've captured that storytelling quality pretty well.
Thank you. I try. What I want to do is to write songs with a timeless quality. I love it when someone asks me, "Who wrote that song? Is that an old cover?" Nope. That's one of mine. I don't want it to ape anybody. I try to come out with something that's new and fresh that sounds like it's from an older era. That's what I'm trying to do.
In "Shut the Screen," there's the line "Open the door, shut the screen, but don't let it slam." I grew up in Ohio, and that was something I heard so that was familiar and timeless for me.
You had to have grown up with that to get it. That's funny you like that line. I always thought that was funny.
When you first started fingerpicking, how long did it take you to get a good grasp on it?
I feel like I didn't have a good grasp on it. [Author's note: Static interferes with the connection at this point, obscuring part of Reverend Peyton's response.] Something turned on, where I figured out I could fingerpick and play two different things just like breathing. Something turned on in my brain and it was always the stuff I loved. I was always amazed by that guitar sound. When I first heard Charley Patton and later guys like Robert Johnson, I just couldn't fathom it. When you're 12 years old and trying to play guitar, just playing one thing seems like almost an impossible task. And then I heard these guys play two things at once, and it blew my mind.
The first time I heard Mississippi John Hurt, I was amazed it was just one guy.
John Hurt is one of my favorites. He's a big influence on me.
What are some of the responses you get when people see and hear you for the first time?
If we can get people to the show, then they can wrap their minds around the fact that it's just one guitar, one drummer, and one washboard player. It changes things. When you listen to a record now, there could be 25 vocal tracks. There could be who knows how many overdubs. People layer stuff now. It's just the way music is made. When we make a record that's stripped down. People hear it and say they like it. But then when they see it - especially for people who are not musical - if they can see it, that changes things. They get it.
What are some of the best lessons you've learned from being on the road so much?
Be prepared. You never know. The minute you think you know something, the world comes by and lets you know that you don't.
I read about the condition with the pain in your hands. What was your response when doctors told you that you might never play guitar again?
I was severely bummed. I was devastated. I was lost for a time. I just sort of bounced from one thing to another. I tried to find something. I'd been a guitar player since I was 12. This happened when I was 18, so it was a third of my life. When I was in high school, that was my job too. I gave guitar lessons. I played in bands that played the Moose and Elks Lodges. It was a big source of income for me. I had to let all my students go. The doctor said to me, "Find something else to do, kid." I just didn't know what else to do.
What would you be doing if you weren't making music?
We talk about it sometimes. I always joke and say bank robber. (laughs) I'd shave my beard and a guy would walk in that bank and no one's ever seen his face before. I've had a beard since seventh grade. I've been shaving since fifth grade. I haven't even really seen my face, so I could walk into the bank and no one's ever seen my face before.
I hope that I would create something. That's the real joy of it all, looking back at the end of the day and seeing something you made with your hands. The beauty of music is that it can be shared by many people at once. A painting can't be shared like that. I think there's something about music that's very powerful, very communal, and very special. I'm honored to make it my life.
That's a great thing. Especially now, you can take music with you wherever you go. My son listens to music the way people used to, where they'd take it down in the basement and look at the liner notes and listen to it over and over. He wants to know who sings, who plays drums. It's amazing for me to see the impact music has on him.
That's awesome. It's really great that you can have the convenience of an iPod and you can listen to music anywhere, and are able to consume more styles of music. That's special. There is something being lost in who made it. I used to love reading those liner notes when someone would write about the artist and give a little history so you can see where they come from.
Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band plays Wednesday 6 November at The Slidebar in Fullerton.