In a promotional photo for The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, the three members are pictured in a sunny glade. The Reverend, who is, yes, an ordained minister as well as a kick-ass guitar player and singer, stands with his hands on his hips. A big man with a dark beard obscuring almost half his face, he’s wearing suspenders over a sleeveless T-shirt and a funky hat. Dang, he’s lookin’ like a hillbilly! And in front of the trio is a hog rooting around in the leaves.
Another photo shows the leader of the group, which plays at Santa Fe Brewing Company on Sunday, Jan. 31, sitting with his guitar on the stoop of a log cabin in the hills of southern Indiana. “That’s where I live,” Peyton told Pasatiempo. “It’s a rural area, and there are a lot of those log houses. Originally there were a lot of squatters in this area in the late 1800s— the logs in my house are from at least 1870. When they made the Brown County State Park, they had to move, and the government gave them money to do that, and mine was one that was moved out of the park about 1939. You just took the house apart and used the logs to build it up again at the next place.
“It’s beautiful country, and we’re proud of it.” It’s a landscape full of trees: beech and sugar maple, oaks and hickories, sweetgum, white pine, sycamore, dogwood, walnut and cherry, persimmon, paw paw, and sassafras are all part of the silvical palette. It’s also a land of rivers punctuated by 19th-century covered bridges and of watery caves inhabited by blind crayfish that are said to be as big as lobsters. The county seat is in the village of Nashville. Five miles to the north, in Beanblossom, Indiana, is Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Country Star Museum.
That’s fitting, Monroe having been a monster mandolin-and guitar-player. Peyton’s another fierce picker, his guitaring reminiscent of 1930s country blues. He mainly plays National steel guitars, using a thumbpick and “just the meat on my fingers,” he said. He’s also wild good with the slide he wears on the little finger of his left hand.
The other contributors to the Big Damn sound are Peyton’s wife, Breezy, who plays the washboard, and his younger brother, Jayme Peyton, who hits drums and other stuff. The trio (big in the “big sound” sense) specializes in alt-country music that works in old blues and roots forms but with some kind of modern-day abandon.
The Reverend, who does the songwriting as well as singing and playing guitar, said he developed his chops “just over time. I’ve been playin’ since I was a little kid.” His music is all about rural America and the troubles of the people of rural America. In a general sense, it’s not that different from the lamentin’ blues of Charley Patton and Son House 80 years ago. But Peyton isn’t singing about plantations and infidelity. The songs on the group’s most recent album, The Whole Fam Damnily (released in 2008 by Side One Dummy Records) include “The Creeks Are All Bad” and “Wal-Mart Killed the Country Store.”
“I never wanted to be a museum piece,” Peyton said. “I want to write about what’s happening now. I want to make music that’s true to the roots but also that’s fresh and new. I never wanted to sound like anybody but me.” He does that. He and his brother andWashboard Breezy work it up with a characteristic raw, loud sound. It can be just pure fun music, like “Mama’s Fried Potatoes,” in which the leader drives the lyric “I want to thank you all for the food that you made us, but it don’t hold a candle to mama’s fried potatoes” beautifully into the ground. Or it can be protest music, like “Can’t Pay the Bill.” “I can’t get ill ’cause I can’t afford to pay the bills” is the relevant line on that song, which opens The Whole Fam Damnily.
“I have family,” Peyton said, “that was given the choice to leave or be fired, and I’ve got family that were given the choice to take less money or be fired, and I’ve got family that was given no choice, that were just let go.
You know, it’s hard times out here. I wrote that song two or three years ago, and it’s just gotten worse. I had surgery in December, and I had to sell one of my National guitars to pay for it. These are songs that we live.”
Another song is titled “Your Cousin’s on COPS.” That was about the time he saw Breezy’s cousin getting arrested on the popular TV show. “Yep. We didn’t know. We turned it on, and there it was,” he said. “That’s been our most downloaded song on iTunes. It’s weird. You never know what’s going to work.
“We’ve been doing this on the road, full time, for four and a half years, gettin’ by, but it’s gotten a lot better. It’s gotten a little easier. We don’t have to sleep in the van and eat ramen noodles every day.”
The band has a new album called The Wages, due out on May 25. All the songs are by Peyton. “When we come to Santa Fe, we’ll be playing a bunch of new stuff from that as well as songs from the other records.”
He said “records,” not one of the more common terms today: album, disc, or CD. “Yeah, well, The Whole Fam Damnily was released on vinyl, and TheWages will be, too,” he responded. “And they called them records because they were recordings. To me, it’s a record, a piece of time, regardless of the format. I still buy CDs. I’m not someone that goes to the Internet to buy one song. I like to hear what the artist intended as the whole record.” Nonetheless, the Big Damn Band can be sampled one song at a time on YouTube— including multiple versions of “Mama’s Fried Potatoes.”
“Anybody can hold up a cellphone at a concert,” Peyton remarked. “I think 90 percent of them videos are from blown-out cellphone speakers. It’s like, man, it just makes you want to cry sometimes, it sounds so bad. You spend years perfecting the sound of your whole setup and then it gets filtered through a 20-cent Chinese speaker and put on the Internet.”
The new songs to be published on The Wages cover a lot of ground, according to The Reverend: “I draw inspiration from my family, my friends, and things that piss me off. That’s one reason it’s called The Wages. Each song is about the wages of something: the wages of sin, the wages of life’s hard work, the wages of treating people right, or the wages of treating people wrong.”