This article originally appeared in Songlines #95 (October 2013) p31. Download a pdf here.
This is one big damn band. And I don’t mean there are countless members squashed onto stage, or that you can expect some big-band jive from these country folk. No, this is a band with a giant presence, one with a sound deceptively larger than their mere three-piece line-up suggests. They dominate any stage: Reverend Peyton with his country blues growl and honky-tonk guitar; his wife Breezy with the wildest washboard playing this side of the Mississippi; and cousin Aaron Persinger on the drums and five-gallon bucket. The trio are a force to be reckoned with. Even this year’s rain-soaked WOMAD audience was helpless in the face of their irresistible energy; they boogied pretty hard. But then again, when I caught up with the Rev and his band before their BBC Radio 3 Stage performance he promised me he would get the audience going. “I’ll make them dance. I’ll just scare them. They’ll do it if they’re scared.”
When the Rev was 12 years old, his father bought him a cheap electric Kay guitar with no amp, promising him one as soon as he learned how to play. A few months of practicing later and his father brought home a Gorilla amp, “which is the worst amp. So I had the worst guitar and the worst amp that you can possibly have! But by the time I was about 13 I was given guitar lessons and have been obsessed with the guitar since then.” He quickly picked up the music his father and grandfather listened to; “all kinds of old hillbilly stuff.”
Mixing the old-timey with a punk sensibility, the Rev and his band play country blues with a bite. Breezy calls it traditional blues; “But when a lot of people think of traditional blues they only think of city blues nowadays. But we grew up in such a bluegrass area in southern Indiana that it obviously influences our music.” Add that to the fact that they’re signed to a punk rock label and they get some interesting fans. “Our fan base comes from all different backgrounds… There was a one week where we played the Vancouver Folk Fest, Sturgis [Motorcycle Rally] and the Warp Tour in the same week. I don’t think there are many bands in the world that could do that.” And it’s when they are playing to their many audiences that the Big Damn Band are at their best. “A band like this, touring is our life,” Breezy admits while the Rev adds “it’s how we have survived.”
But the Rev almost had to say goodbye to a life of music and guitar. When he was just 18 years old, he started experiencing pain in his hands that stopped him from playing. “It wasn’t just playing. It hurt to open a doorknob, it hurt to do anything. It was pretty debilitating.” Doctors told him he’d never be able to play again. “I was giving guitar lessons and playing in all these different bands. I had to let my students all go because I couldn’t play anymore… I was pretty lost.” But nobody tells the Rev what he can and can’t do, and after a year of pain he found a doctor who helped get him back on the guitar where he belongs. And never one to stay down, he took advantage of his experience. “It made me better. It helped me find my style, too, because I would play it with just one hand”.
Last year Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band released their fifth album, Between the Ditches. “It’s the best thing we’ve done so far on record.” But with a new album in the works, that may not be the case for long. However, it’s not their albums that make the band who they are; their raucous live shows are a must-see, especially if Breezy sets fire to her washboard (“but only when the fire marshal’s not watching”). Just before I leave them to get ready for their show, Breezy stops me with a mischievous look. “It’s hard to tell on paper how incredibly good-looking we are, so I just want to make that clear.”