From the July 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY KENNY BERKOWITZ
At 12 years old, Josh Peyton discovered Delta blues legend Charlie Patton. “It floored me,” says Peyton, 36, who’s called “Rev” or “Reverend” by everyone he knows and who grew up in rural Indiana. “Charlie Patton’s voice is so unique and powerful—and his guitar-picking, that country blues where you’re literally playing two things at once, just blew my mind. I was like, ‘How is this even possible?’ I became obsessed with it, like an insane person: ‘This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to learn how to play, and I’m going to play this.’
“Because his music is so full of life. In this world, there’s a lot of songs for your heart, there’s a lot of songs for your mind. A lot. But there’s this third kind, songs that hit you in the gut, that are so primal you can’t hardly explain what it is that grabs you. That’s Charlie Patton. He’s my patron saint, and as far as American music is concerned, he’s the root of the tree.”
Peyton has been digging those roots ever since, both as a solo act and as the leader of Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, where he’s backed by his wife, Breezy, on washboard and Maxwell Senteney on suitcase percussion. Put them together and they’re as loud as an acoustic trio can get, whether they’re playing with or without amplification. But even on his own, shouting at the top of his lungs and banging on a 1934 National Trojan, Peyton can get mighty loud.
On the recent, mostly solo Front Porch Sessions (Thirty Tigers), Peyton mixes covers of gospel and blues—by Blind Willie Johnson, Furry Lewis, and Bob and Miles Pratcher—with four new songs and two new instrumentals, playing fast, loud, and syncopated. There’s nothing quiet about these songs, and there isn’t supposed to be, even if he is just playing on his front porch. Peyton is a force of nature, an old-fashioned shouter with a love of fingerstyle guitar and gutbucket country blues, and when he talks, which is often, the words pour out.
“I wasn’t really planning on going into the studio,” he explains, during a phone interview, “I just had this itch to make a record.”
He has released ten albums, including Peyton on Patton (2011) and the breakthrough So Delicious (2015). “I went in with no real plan, didn’t know if it was going to end up being a record, just went in there and did it. When I booked the time, I was like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do.’ So I holed up in the house and absolutely started writing and writing and writing and writing and writing. And going through my notes, like, ‘If I’m going to do this, what are some songs I’ve always wanted to cover?’ I started putting together a record with about three days’ notice, went in, did it, and was just so happy with what I’d done.
“It all happened without thinking too much, so it’s definitely not over-thought.”
The album opens with the singalong “We Deserve a Happy Ending,” which came to Peyton at 4:30 in the morning, full-formed, the day before the recording session. “Writing something so simple and beautiful and catchy and fun to listen to, I think that’s the hardest thing to do,” he says. The album closes in that same spirit, singing the praises of eating, drinking, and making love in the hillbilly trad “Cornbread and Butterbeans,” first recorded by the Carolina Sunshine Trio. In between, there are nine party-sized performances with seven instantly hummable songs and two relentlessly virtuosic, toe-tapping instrumentals driven by a thumping right thumb and a swooping left-handed slide.
That’s Peyton, who loves his job and sounds happiest when he’s playing for a crowd—anybody, any time, anywhere—and channeling the sound of early country blues.
He found his way to Patton through his father’s record collection, starting with Johnny Winter and moving back in time to Chicago blues, Chess Records, acoustic Muddy Waters, Bukka White, and the first generation of recording blues musicians.
When Peyton was 12, his father bought him a Kay State of the Art guitar, and before long, Rev and his kid brother were playing parties for their teenage friends. But all that stopped on the morning after high-school graduation, at which Peyton had performed at a late-night party. Peyton woke up with so much pain in his right hand he couldn’t even pick up his guitar. A doctor told him he’d never play again, and for a boy who loved playing more than anything else in the world, whose whole identity was tied up in being a guitar player, it was very, very bad news.
“It was devastating,” Peyton says. “It crushed me. I literally had a doctor say, ‘Kid, find something else to do.’ For a year and a half, I was absolutely lost. It was just like before I started playing, when I felt I didn’t have a place, didn’t know what I was or what I was gonna be. Then at 18, I was told I wasn’t going to play again. I never gave up, but I had to try to make myself focus on other things. I actually started going to seminary, trying to figure out who I was in the midst of this hand stuff.
“Finally, I found a specialist [at the Indiana Hand Center ] who said, ‘I think I know what’s wrong with your hand. But the only way to know for sure, we’ll have to cut your hand open.’ I was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ As soon as we could, he cut my hand open [to remove scar tissue that had formed around the tendons in his palm], and when I woke up, he said, ‘I was right. You’ll be playing again in two weeks.’ And I was. I had to take a little rust off, but something happened in that year and a half. My right hand had gotten smarter, like I had springs in it.”
With the scar tissue removed, Peyton was suddenly able to fingerpick in ways he never could before. All those months he’d spent imagining himself playing began paying off, and while he was recovering, he met Breezy, who loves the same kind of music. They started writing and touring together, driving south from Indiana to Mississippi, and in all the years since, they haven’t stopped.
Along the way, he’s studied with heroes Robert Belfour (1940–2015); David “Honeyboy” Edwards (1915–2011), who was with Robert Johnson the night that blues legend drank the poisoned whiskey that killed him; and “T-Model” Ford (1923–2013), bluesmen he calls “giants off-stage, giants of character. Kindhearted people. Belfour, I remember he carried my amps into a show one time. T-Model, he was living, breathing proof that when it comes to music, it’s way more important to have heart than to be a virtuoso. Honeyboy, I could ask him anything. ‘What tuning is that? Tell me about Charlie Patton. Tell me about Robert Johnson.’
‘No blues society is going to come in and save blues music. That’s not how it works. The only thing that can save it is people making good music that other people want to hear.’
“I got to be friends with these guys, and once we started playing the same places, I would just ask them anything I could. There wasn’t anything formal, but I got to be around them, watch them, learn from them.”
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These days, Peyton teaches, taking every opportunity to play in classrooms and demonstrate the basics of fingerpicking guitar, where he starts slow and ends up playing really, really fast. For fun, he simultaneously picks “Yankee Doodle” (with his thumb) and “Dixie” (with his fingers), and if that’s not enough, he plays “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as a round, picking one rhythm with his thumb and the other with his fingers. And he makes it look easy.
Peyton is a show-off in the best possible way, whether he’s playing a slide “Star-Spangled Banner” before a hometown basketball game—after all, this is rural Indiana—or a marathon seven-minute solo version of “John Henry,” where he plays 18 instruments, one after another: a cigar-box guitar, harmonica, Gibson L-2 acoustic guitar, banjo, wood-bodied 1934 National Trojan resonator guitar, mandolin, acoustic lap steel, melodica, ukulele, stylophone, nine-string Danelectro electric guitar, axe handle, mountain dulcimer, upright bass, 1964 Silvertone electric guitar, ham-can guitar, and steel-bodied 1930 National Triolian. When the song is finished, he looks very, very tired. These performances are all on video, along with a double-time instrumental played on a shotgun that’s been converted into a three-string slide guitar. (During a one-bar rest, he shoulders his gun, explodes the target, and then keeps on playing.)
Like Patton, he’s damn bigger than life, and the only thing Peyton enjoys as much as performing is practicing. “I love it,” he says. “I practice every single day. I’m always working on stuff, I’m always trying new things. If I hear something I like, I have to know how it was done. I may not commit it 100 percent to memory, note for note, but I want to make sure I can do everything I hear, and that’s the way I’ve been since I was a little kid. Because we’ve got to keep moving this music forward, you know?
“No blues society is going to come in and save blues music,” he adds. “That’s not how it works. The only thing that can save it is people making good music that other people want to hear. That’s it. That’s the short answer. You do that by writing new stuff. You have a foundation that’s rooted in the past, but you’re constantly thinking about tomorrow.”
What Reverend Peyton Plays
Reverend Peyton is happy to play anything that has strings, whether it’s a ham can, an axe handle, a shotgun, or a cigar box. But when it comes to recording, he still reaches for his favorite resonator guitar, a wood-bodied 1934 National Trojan. “I call it Brown,” he says. “The problem is that about five years ago, it started really, really deteriorating, to the point where we were worried it was going to completely come apart. My luthier said, ‘Rev, I can keep bringing this thing back to life, but at some point, it’s going to be more glue than wood.’
“So we contacted the National Resophonic Guitar Co., and they recreated my Trojan,” he adds. “It was a pain in the butt for them to do, but man, they did it, and that’s the guitar I play now when I’m home. I reach for it a lot. That guitar is so tough and so well-built, and right now, they’re working on building me something that’s going to be even more special. It’s a resonator unlike any resonator anyone’s ever seen. It’s going to be very weird, and when we unveil it, it’s going to be a big surprise. I don’t know when it’ll be done, but whenever it is, it’ll be very, very cool.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.