The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band
It’s been called “the greatest front-porch blues band in the world” and Reverend Peyton of The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band is considered one of the greatest finger pickers around. The band’s live shows have attracted a following so huge that they perform more than 300 concerts a year. Their 2021 album, Dance Songs for Hard Times, earned a nomination for Best Blues Rock Artist at the Blues Music Awards.
It wasn’t always like this. When Reverend Peyton was born in Brown County, Indiana, he said that his father had to sell his guitar because they needed the money. When he was 12, his father bought him a Kay guitar. In a 2019 interview with Long Wailer magazine, he explained how this event changed his life. “From that point on, I would say I felt like a fish out of water and I got put back in the water when someone handed me a guitar and I just took to it,” he said.
He wanted to learn the finger-picking style of musicians like Charlie Patton, but he was unable to play that way because of problems with his hands. Surgery eventually allowed him to play the fingerstyle. While still recovering from surgery, he met Breezy, who would become the dynamic washboard player for the band and Reverend’s wife. Drummer Max Senteney, who also plays the bucket, became the third member of the group.
For Peyton, who didn’t become a musician until he was a teen, Johnny Winter and Muddy Waters were his jumping off points and that led him back to Charlie Patton, whom he calls his “patron saint.” “I love Charlie’s music,” he said in the Long Wailer interview. “You know, the connection to West African scales, the connection to early American music. You can hear how it was all sort of born.”
After Breezy began playing the washboard, the pair started writing songs and took a trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi, where they met icons like Robert Belfour and T-Model Ford. They learned a great deal from these masters and still return often. “Clarksdale was a defining place,” Peyton said. “We’ve been headlining the Juke Joint Fest now for a better part of a decade at the largest venue. It’s hard for some people to understand that at one time, the most important music center in the country was Memphis down to Vicksburg, on both sides of the river, Arkansas and Mississippi, and not just in terms of the blues. So much American music was born there, and so much music is born in the blues.”
The pandemic was especially hard on a band that does so much touring, but there was a bright side to it. Dance Songs for Hard Times was written by candlelight and recorded in 1950s style, with no more than eight tracks of audio to analog tape. The songs are about everything from financial challenges to missing loved ones you can’t visit. It could be depressing, but its action-packed riffs and rhythms across the 11 songs make an audience move. “I like songs that sound happy but are actually very sad,” Peyton said. “I don’t know why, but I just do.”
The album’s centerpiece, “Too Cool to Dance” is an anthem for not taking things for granted. The carpe diem song has the chorus,” We may not get another chance. Oh, please don’t tell me you’re too cool to dance.” “I was thinking about all the times I’ve been somewhere and felt too cool to dance,” Peyton said. “I didn’t want to be that way. Not being able to do anything last year, I had this feeling of, ‘Man. I’m not going to waste any moment like this in my life-ever.’ It’s crazy. It almost feels like a song from the 1950s that’s been lost. At the end of the day, it still somehow feels like us.”
Things haven’t completely gone back to normal, but they are getting better for the band and its audience. While much of this album is about their struggles and the struggles of so many others, it’s also what the blues is all about, Peyton said. “It’s difficult to create blues music that isn’t personal.”
Peyton’s heart and soul are in every note and word. You don’t get much more up close and personal than that.