It’s hard to describe something when you have no frame of reference, when you have no means of comparison. Such is the case with The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band. When I wrote this review of the band’s latest release The Wages (SideOneDummy records) last week in the Washington Post, I was asked to name a couple of acts that the band might sound like. I was stumped. Because in The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, we may finally have found that one band in rock and roll who truly sounds like no one else.
The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn band consists The Rev on bottleneck slide guitar (his oldest guitar was made in 1935), his wife Washboard Breezy on the washboard, and his cousin Aaron “Cuz” Persinger on drums (and five gallon bucket). They hail from rural Brown County in Indiana. The Rev’s songs are all true stories; he writes about what he knows. So yes, his mother’s fried potatoes really are the best (“Your Mama’s Fried Potatoes”), a cousin really was on Cops (“Your Cousin’s on Cops”), and The Rev’s brother really did steal a chicken from a zoo (“Fort Wayne Zoo”).
When it comes to The Reverend Peyton and his songwriting, one thing matters above all else: melody. That’s why, as I wrote in my Washington Post review, it’s impossible to stay still at one of their shows. They play front porch, gather-round-and-dance blues with aplomb.
I spent a few hours with Reverend Peyton and Breezy after their set at the Warped Tour, on a blisteringly hot and humid day outside Washington, DC. We ate lunch in a shaded spot next to a pond: an ideal tranquil spot away from the backstage chaos of the tour. Here, he and Breezy talked about the songwriting process.
After talking to The Rev, I walked around the Warped Tour to see some of the other acts. The band's sound really is an anomaly, a fact made clear when I tried to find them. At the Warped Tour, the proximity of the stages sometimes doesn’t matter: some of the bands sound so much alike that when one emo set bleeds into another from an adjoining stage, you can’t tell the difference. When I first got to the grounds at Merriweather Post, I didn’t know where the Big Damn Band was playing. For a few minutes, I wandered. Then I heard some mean pickin’ and slidin’, and knew that I was in the right place.
The average age of the Warped Tour concertgoer, according to more than one person associated with the tour, is about 14. Not the Big Damn Band’s demographic (though The Rev told me the fans who are younger are also fans of hardcore punk). Yet the pit in front of the band for their 12:15 set was packed with high school kids, dancing without irony to numbers like “Born Bred, Corn Fed,” a far cry from the emo to which the disaffected suburban DC and Baltimore youth are supposed to relate. I looked down at the feet of everyone around me and saw the power of the melody in the Rev’s music: the feet everywhere were tapping, unconsciously and irresistibly. Later that night, I came across this online comment under a Big Damn Band YouTube video, from a young Warped Tour concertgoer:
I was walking by and heard something different catch my ear (what I noticed most about this warped was all the poppy girly emo bands sounded the same - its good for a while but gets annoying --> everyone sounded like rocket summer and mayday parade wannabes)
so I stopped and listened, laughed a little and danced and had the best time with these guys than any other band including sum 41 (whom I also love).
As I talked to The Rev at the merch table, looking at the long line of the young and converted waiting for a chance to talk to him, we mused over what to call his music. He’s waiting for someone to give it a name, since no one has yet. It’s not blues, it’s not bluegrass, it’s not country. It’s not punk. I said that perhaps people need to imitate The Rev first. He corrected me, pointing out that bluegrass got its name after one artist, Bill Monroe, started playing. I thought back to the kids in that pit listening to his music. Many of the bands they came to see probably won’t be around in five years. But The Rev? We’ll still be seeing his hands pickin’ and slidin’ furiously for at least thirty. Which means that I can only think of one word to describe his music: timeless.
When did you become a writer?
RP: I started playing music when I was 12, but I actually wrote stories as soon as I learned how to read. I learned to read when I was three years old, and I mean really read, encyclopedias and stuff. So as soon as I learned how to write, I was making up stories. They were ridiculous, but I was a little kid. I would draw pictures with them. Typical kids stuff, about rabbits and stuff like that.
There always been something inside of me that's wanted to express something. I've always had a need for that, almost to a fault. Like it never felt right unless that was happening.
Did you continue to write through school?
RP: Yeah, and then I got really into poetry. I played around with that. I was writing songs when I was 13. It didn't take long before I was playing lead guitar for every band in town. I just took to it. When I was 18 or 19, I had problems with my hands, and I couldn't play for a year and a half. It was like a fish out of water. I didn't know my place on this planet.
What made you decide to start writing songs?
RP: I could play guitar and I could write songs, so it just made sense. I never thought, "I am going to be a songwriter now." I just started making up songs. Even back then, melody was the most important thing to me. It's all about melody for me. It can carry farther than anything else. Melody is paramount.
Talk about your writing process.
RP: Sometimes, I might think of some words, and think, "Oh, that would be a great line to a song. Or a great title." I’ll write down the words in a little book so I can remember them. But if the melody isn't strong enough to remember it, I won’t keep it. I want the melody to be so strong, I want people to be singing it when they are leaving. I want it in their head.
Sometimes I’ll write down words and think, "Ok, down the line I'll think of a melody to go with that." Or sometimes a melody will pop in my head and it will sing words to me. But I've never ever sat down with words and thought, "Ok, I am going to put music to these words." When the melody comes— and if it isn’t singing words to me right there—I’ll go back through my notes and see if the melody is singing any of those words I’d written down.
Melody carries weight and emotion. Sometimes it can remind you of a sunny day. Lots of people write songs about love or emotion. I write songs about stuff like food. To me, a melody can sing a tree. It can sing the sky. So sometimes I'll get a melody in my head and think, "Oh man, that reminds me of those words I wrote the other day." But sometimes it doesn't work out; I'll have a really cool line and think it will be great for a song one day. But the melody doesn't quite fit. I don't begin a song until I've got the melody down . . . And for me, it's always non fiction. I write about my life, my families life, things I've seen, things I've grown up with.
What do you use to write down the ideas for your songs?
RP: I have a little book and a pen, and when I think of an idea for words, I write them down. But I never have trouble remembering melody—that usually comes first. Sometimes, especially early on in my career, I would try to force it. I'd have some really good words and think I had to stick them in a song somewhere, like “I gotta force this.” Then what happens is you end up taking these really good words and forcing them into a melody that isn't quite strong enough, and you don't do the words justice. So I’d have this song, but I wished I would have waited for the right melody to fit the words. They deserved a better melody, a better song.
Take me through your revision process.
RP: Lyrically, it just has to flow. I don't want to push the syllables too hard. It's syllable/note. If it's hard for me to sing it, it's going to be hard for anyone in the crowd to sing it. I sing the songs to myself a bunch and think, "How does this feel? Are the words flowing? Do the syllables sound wonky? Does it feel like I am forcing these lines?" I feel like I have it 99% ready to go when I bring it to the band. By then, I've already got in my mind what I want the drums and washboard to do.
What’s unique about your songs is that while you focus on the melody, the lyrical content is unforgettable. But maybe that’s because of the melody, right?
RP: I think the song title should make sense with the chorus. I like playing speaking songs. I like to come out and just say it. When you write poetry, and it’s all about words, just playing with the words, you can do a little more like that, to paint a picture just using the power of words. But when you are writing a song, it’s words and music.
Good poetry doesn’t have to rhyme—you just have to like the way the words sound. But when you are making a song, it’s a different form of art. I’ve tried to take some poetry I’ve written and force that into songs, and almost always I have to kill off some of the good stuff that was great when it was a poem but won’t work as a song.
What’s the one thing you revise in your successive drafts of songs?
RP: I think many of my songs are too short at first, like they need a third verse or something. I have to sit on a song for a long time. I’ve always thought I’m really great at coming up with two verses. Laughs. Even though some of my songs are simple front porch songs, I want the lyrics to mean something, to paint a picture. I want them to be intelligent even in their simplicity when they are plain speaking, country-blues songs.
I don’t want to force anything, so sometimes I’ll repeat the first verse. If I think the song needs to be longer, I’ll repeat the first verse, because I don’t like filler words. If I can’t come up with a third or fourth verse that’s as good as the first, I’ll go back to the first.
Here’s the other thing. I don’t write tons of songs. To me, it’s quality over quantity, and I only write stuff that I think will be a great song. It might take me two years to come up with an album of songs, because it’s got to be good and melodic.
I also write with finger-style guitar in mind. I play the bass with my thumb while playing the melody with my fingers. So I have to think, “What key can I sing this melody in, and what key can I do it in where I can play the bass with my thumb and do the melody spot as well.” Sometimes I’ll change the key after singing it a few times myself. I’ll go, “Man, I can’t hit these notes when I sing it,” or “This is too low. I want it higher.”
It’s always a dance with how I can make it work on the guitar and how I can sing it. That’s where a lot of my revision takes place. On this last record, I spent more time revising that than on revising words. That’s the beauty of a good melody: you can play it in any key and it will still sound good. But if you go too far in one direction, the melody feels different somehow. Like on a slide guitar, if you go too high or too low, it changes. It either gains too much energy or loses too much. I spend a lot of time playing with key, because I want it to sound big. I am the only melodic instrument in the band, so it’s gotta sound big.
Breezy, when he brings you a song, how much collaboration is there?
WB: For me, it’s different than it is with Cuz, because I was there for the whole process. I don’t help him write the songs, but I am there listening to him play the same thing over and over for hours. Both laugh. So I usually come to the table and already know how the rhythm is going to go.
While he’s writing, are you there?
WB: I’m more of a positive reinforcement. I say what I like, rather than what I don’t like. But he’ll stay up really late at night and wait to start writing until after I go to bed, so that when I wake up in the morning, he'll ask me to listen to a song. Most of his writing is done at 3 or 4 am.
So you are a night owl?
RP: Almost all of the songs I’ve ever written have come in the middle of the night. It’s quieter. Wherever these songs come from, somehow it’s easier for them to come out then. I’m trying to think of a song I’ve written in the middle of the day…
WB: There’s been songs like “Fort Wayne Zoo.” His brother came up to him—I don’t think we were even talking about anything related—and said, “You know, once I stole a chicken from the Fort Wayne Zoo.” And The Rev said, “Dammit Jamie, someday I am going to write a song about that!”
RP: But I sat on it until I had a melody. And then it came—that guitar riff—and I said, “That’s it, that’s Fort Wayne Zoo.”
One thing about that phrase “Fort Wayne Zoo” is that it’s three stressed syllables in a row—very pounding.
RP: And the melody is real simple. Over and over. There’s killer pickin’ happenin’, and the breaks, but the main theme is over and over again. That’s the beauty of that song, that’s what grabs you.
Listen to The Rev explain the melody to "Fort Wayne Zoo"
It’s like a Mozart song. Back then, they spent time on those themes, and they repeated them in classical music. Mozart said if a regular person can’t have that song in his head on the way out, it’s not a good song.
Again, it’s all about melody. I love those old songs like “John Henry” and “Casey Jones.” People have been singing those for 125 years. Why? Because the melody is awesome. The words are great, but the melody is easy. So when I write a song, I think, “Does this melody stand against ‘John Henry’?” I use that song because it’s one that little kids and old guys can sing, like “Three Blind Mice” or “Row Row Row Your Boat.” Sometimes people spend way too much time trying to copy the Rolling Stones. I just want to make melodies that are timeless.
You are also winning new fans that way at a show like this because your songs are so easy latch on to.
RP: Sometimes in songs like “Born Bred, Corn Fed,” the main melody happens with the guitar. The words don’t sing it, but when they do come in, they mimic the guitar at the end. I love when themes happen again and again, when they keep comin’ at ya. Most of the time, they are simple. There might be all this crazy pickin’, but when it comes to the meat of the song, it’s gotta be simple. People don’t want to listen to math, and I don’t want to do a math problem for them. Onstage, there can be killer pickin’, but it can’t sound like a math problem. It’s gotta sound more like English class than math class. And I always say this too: music is in the head, and it’s in the heart. But there’s a third place: the gut. A good song is in your gut.
Listen to The Rev talk about the melody to "Born Bred, Corn Fed":
I’ll tell you a melody story. I like to listen all these old field recordings. I got a hold of this Alan Lomax recording of these three little girls. They are singing in French—I think it was recorded in Louisiana. When I heard them sing the melody, I sat down and cried. I thought, “What can they be singing about? What can be so damn beautiful?” I couldn’t get it out of my head. So I did research on the song, found the words, and had someone translate it. And it was an old sea shanty about some people on a boat who had to eat another person on the boat. It wasn’t beautiful at all! It was horrible! And they end up not eating him. But that’s the power of melody, man. I didn’t know the words, but it didn’t matter.
Is there anything you must have when you write?
RP: Nope. I used to need my guitar, but there are a couple of songs on this album where I wrote everything before I ever picked up the guitar.
WB: Most of the time you have to be alone. I know more about his songwriting than he does, evidently.
RP: It could be out on the front porch, could be on the water, doesn’t matter. I need peace and quiet. Sometimes it’s scary. There’s a song on the first album called “Left Hand George.” And all those words in that song came out at the same time. I know this sounds crazy, but I felt haunted. When you hear the words—about a guy I knew who killed someone in a bar fight—I felt like there were ghosts bringing that song to me. Sometimes I feel like they come from somewhere else.
Do you ever have writer’s block?
RP: I just wait for life to happen. Sometimes I’ll have words but no melody, other times I’ll have killer guitar parts but no words. The trick is spend a lot of time playing music and living life. I’ve got to live a certain amount of life or be reminded of a certain amount of life to get the material for my songs. It’s easy for me to stand in front of people when I know I lived the song I am singing. “Born Bred, Corn Fed” is the song of my life. Some people say they only sing love songs, and I think, “How? There’s all this other stuff in the world, man.” It might be a leaf or flower or a redbud tree that inspired me. “Redbud” is one of the songs on the new album that I wrote with nothing. I was digging holes for a flower bed in the yard, and the song just came to me right then and there.
Is that the strangest place a song has ever come to you?
RP: That’s one of them. Lots come to me at night, sometimes when I am driving. When everyone's asleep in the van, I’ll be thinking.
How do you know when a song is done?
RP: When I’ve played it enough and it feels like a song. Every now and then we’ll take a song on the road and end up changing it. It could be an extra riff or break. Like “Everything’s Raising.” There’s the stop as I sing “Everything’s raising but the wages,” but originally I thought there would be a kick drum as we sing those words. But it’s better when we stop, sing the line, then BOOM everything comes back in.
Sometimes there is stuff I look at from the first album that I want to do that again. But some of that comes from playing it on the road and seeing how the crowd responds to certain parts. Like playing more snare, or more beats, or the bucket and the kick drum at the same time. Or Breezy, instead of giving me straight rhythm, telling her to accentuate some part. It’s rarely about changing words. Instead, it’s about fine-tuning “the kick-ass of the song.”
Who are your literary inspirations?
RP: There are so many. I love Robert Bly. He’s amazing. That guy is not afraid of anything. He just stands up there any reads and doesn’t give a shit about what people think. I wanted that for myself. That really influenced me. And I love the way his poems are so plain speaking. Words are more powerful if you can read them and say, “Oh man, that’s what my grandfather would have said.” He’s got a poem about going out and getting the mail in a snowstorm, and I’ve been there. That simplicity, that slice of what is real.
WB: Also James Whitcomb Riley.
RP: Him too. He’s from Indiana. I love the way he captures how people speak.
WB: We are really proud of where we are from. A lot of his poems are about Indiana, and that gives us inspiration.
RP: I want what I write to sound like something that could be said fifty years from now, but also something my granddaddy would have said. I also really appreciate Hemingway. Very succinct and to the point. Like Old Man and the Sea. Amazing story.
He’s very popular among the songwriters I’ve interviewed. It makes sense: he is vivid yet simple.
RP: He’s an example that you can write great stories and tell them like a regular person. One thing I’d like to add is that I try really hard to be original. If a melody reminds me of someone else’s song, I won’t do it. I don’t want my song to sound like anyone else’s. Sometimes we get compared to the old Fat Possum lineup, but we really don’t sound like that.
WB: I think that’s the problem and the blessing for us, though. It’s original, but people can’t label it and can’t put a finger on it, so it’s hard to advertise. People buy our stuff and want to know what it’s called. They want to be able to tell their friends about us, but all they can say is, “You’ll love it, but I can’t tell you what it is.”
RP: But I am really proud of that. I don’t want to sound like anyone else. What is that? (All three of us turn around at the sound of a big splash in the pond)
WB: it’s a ten foot bass. I’m just saying that ‘cause I know it’s going to make him want to fish.
RP: It’s been jumping out there by that log. We need to throw out there to it. I wish I had my pole with me now. It’s out in the bus. That’s another time when you can clear your head—just you and the fish.
WB: Or no fish (Laughs)