They wear suspenders, fedoras and flapper fascinators, proudly posing for publicity photos with a big ol’ pig in the foreground, snout dug deep in the dirt. They rock three-string cigar-box guitars, vintage resonator six-strings, washboards and plastic buckets, and take their musical cues from the Delta blues of the (Teddy) Roosevelt administration. They write songs called “Mama’s Fried Potatoes” and “Your Cousin’s on Cops” because their mamas make spuds good enough to write songs about and, yes, one of their cousins was on Cops. And, y’know, he wasn’t driving a police cruiser.
They’re Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, straight out of Brown County, Indiana—the most rural part of the Hoosier state, which is sayin’ something—and despite appearances they’re not on some novelty-schtick kick.
“What you see is what you get—this is who we are,” says 31-year-old singer and guitar slinger Josh “Reverend” Peyton, an actual ordained minister and an honorary Kentucky Colonel (the latter puts him in the rarefied company of Elvis Presley, Winston Churchill and Tiger Woods). “We were hillbillies before it was cool to be hillbillies,” says his wife, “Washboard” Breezy Peyton. Throw in a distant cousin (sadly, not the Cops cousin), Aaron “Cuz” Persinger, on drums and five-gallon bucket, and you get the entirety of the Big Damn Band, a family affair. Not so big, you say? Perhaps you have not seen them: They are, well, hefty folks. And perhaps you have not heard them: They can make a giant, riotous racket onstage that belies their bare-bones configuration.
Thanks to his virtuosic and aggressive fingerstyle-slide technique, The Rev can play about 37 melodies at once, while his low-string-plucking thumb becomes the bass player—pretty handy, ’cause that way they can split the profits three ways instead of four, and hey, more room in the tour van! Then there’s the metallic, percussive scrape of Breezy’s washboard, which she attacks with gloved hands so her knuckles don’t get shredded like mozzarella through a grater. And Cuz hits the pickle bucket and the rest of his kit like he’s beating a confession out of ’em. Together: Big!
Tonight’s headlining gig at PW’s Concerts in the Park, and Thursday night’s set at the 51st annual Philadelphia Folk Festival, are but two of the nearly 300 shows the hard-touring trio will play by year’s end.
They’re road-dogs, for sure—so much so that before this year, they usually set aside just one afternoon and one microphone to make an album. Those half-dozen discs are field recordings, essentially, with the Rev’s voice—a distinctive, vibrato-laden twang creating a sort of wax cylinder wobble—leading the way through old-timey country-blues and folk, joined occasionally by Breezy’s down-home harmonies.
But the band spent a total of a month—a few days here and there, instead of one big chunk—crafting their just-released Between the Ditches. “We’re a live band that’s finally made a record that’s like a record-making band’s kinda record,” the Rev laughs. The more polished production gives the songs—still the same Delta blues at heart, with a kiss of rockabilly in spots—a surreal presence; cleaned-up but not quite modern, traditional but not quite throwback, they belong to no obvious era, which makes them all the more compelling.
The songwriting’s particularly serious this go-around, reflecting on corporate greed (“Shake ‘em Off Like Fleas”), existential angst (“I Don’t Know”) and the harm of strip mining (“Don’t Grind It Down”). Granted, the trio’s no stranger to deep thoughts—in the past the Rev’s written about his father’s drinking problem, the scourge of backwoods meth labs, and the struggle for a living wage. But they’re probably better known for their lighthearted ditties about hog roasts and stealing chickens from the Fort Wayne Zoo, or for the simple barnyard party-stomp of their recent single, “Clap Your Hands.”
Which has made it easy for some to regard the band as a country-bumpkin caricature, faking it for effect. Not so, says Breezy. “The songs are about our family, our friends, where we come from and the things that happen to us. We’re not writing songs about riding a mule into town because we don’t ride mules into town. We drive a car.” “I’m not gonna name names but you see it all the time—bands who put on the clothes and play a character onstage and know nothing about the life where we come from,” says the Rev. “It’s pretty insulting to rural people and rural culture. We’re not trying to make fun of back home, we’re trying to celebrate back home.”
Home. Brown County. Where straight-talk and Saturday night hootenannies are still a way of life. The band’s been based there for a decade, though the Rev originally hails from Eagletown, Indiana, about two hours north and just as sparsely populated. That’s where he first picked up the guitar at age 12—he got so good so fast that he was giving lessons by age 13, and by high school he could play the fiery blues like Stevie Ray Vaughan.
And then it all nearly got taken away forever. At 19, he started suffering hand pain so debilitating that he was forced to quit playing. His dreams of becoming a professional touring musician crushed, he took a job at the front desk of a hotel. After a year of doctor’s visits and tests, he finally underwent surgery to remove a huge mass of scar tissue from his hand, and just a few days after that, he met Breezy for the first time.
“The whole thing was real tough on him emotionally and physically—he couldn’t zip up a zipper or anything,” Breezy recalls. “So a mutual friend of ours was like, ‘We should go visit him and bring him a milkshake or somethin’ and try to cheer him up.’ I went into the hotel inquiring about hourly rates, acting like I was a prostitute. But he’d heard descriptions of me before so he kinda had an idea who I was.”
Their first date ended at Breezy’s apartment, where they listened to records. She played him some of her bluegrass favorites, then an album by Delta blues pioneer Charlie Patton, one of the Rev’s musical heroes. “I think he was kind of blown away by the fact that any woman under the age of 70 knew who Charlie Patton was,” she laughs.
A couple of weeks later, the Rev picked up a guitar for the first time in more than a year. As it turned out, the surgery had given him a kind of hand flexibility he’d never had before, allowing him to learn the tricky fingerstyle technique employed by Patton and put his own masterful spin on it.
“I like to think it was because of me, ’cause that all happened right after he met me,” Breezy says.
“I’ll go with that,” says the Rev.
The pair married in 2003; their musical union was getting off the ground around the same time. Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band earned plenty of regional attention, then scored opening slots for the likes of the Derek Trucks Band, Flogging Molly and Clutch—in addition to their own headlining jaunts around the U.S. (here in Philly they tore up the Khyber a few times). In 2007, a career highlight: They were the house band for Jerry Springer’s “Redneck Rumble” pay-per-view special. “That was different,” the Rev deadpans.
The year 2009 was a breakout one: Their stage presence and musicianship won over crowds on the punk- and emo-heavy Warped Tour, and they were voted “Best Band of Warped Tour” in 2010 by festival organizers, bands and crew.
“Their music and personalities are infectious and fans gravitated to them,” says Warped founder Kevin Lyman. “These days the punk spirit comes in many forms, and Rev. Peyton and his band are some of the punkest.”
We’re taking you on a whirlwind tour of Philly’s sonic citizens—in the clubs, on the road, off the map and over the top.
PW's Music Issue 2014