It’s late afternoon in the back of the Princess Theatre in downtown Decatur, Alabama. Sitting in front of a brightly-lit mirror in the green room of the historic venue, blues-rocker Samantha Fish is readying herself for the show alongside her musical-partner-in-crime of late, Jesse Dayton. The duo is in the midst of a whirlwind tour for their album Death Wish Blues.
“The blues speaks to people of all generations at different times in their life — it’s just kind of your soul,” Fish tells Rolling Stone backstage. “Watching a great [blues] band, watching a great guitarist playing and singing something really true from their heart, it affects you, it strikes a chord.”
A genuine force of sonic prowess with her vocal range, stage presence and six-string exploration via her signature white Gibson SG, Fish cut her teeth in the blues scene of her native Kansas City, specifically running around famed club Knuckleheads. It’s the exact venue at which she first crossed paths with Dayton those many years ago.
“Jesse used to roll in all the time and we kept in touch over the last decade,” Fish says. “I’ve always admired his depth. He has so many projects and irons in the fire: solo work, backing up rock legends, working in cinema. And when I had a certain idea in mind for a collaborative project, he was that lightbulb moment.”
“Let’s throw a band together and just see how it sounds,” Dayton recalls of that initial studio meetup with Fish last year. “We went in there and recorded a Clash song, Magic Sam song and Townes Van Zandt song. We did the whole thing in a few hours. I took the tapes back to Austin and Rounder Records said they wanted to put it out.”
“When you go into a collaboration, you wonder if you’ll lose your identity — am I going to come through enough, is this going to be who I am?” Fish, 34, adds. “But the [collaboration] did the opposite effect. Once we started working on stuff, I felt myself taking chances that maybe I wouldn’t normally take on a solo record. I didn’t have any fear.”
What resulted was The Stardust Sessions EP, which buzzed throughout the blues, rockabilly, Americana, and indie realms. So, Fish and Dayton headed right back into the studio and cranked out the 12-song Death Wish Blues.
Recorded in the former studio of the late Rick Danko of the Band in upstate New York, the record is a timestamp of two highly creative and curious artists coming into this new, bountiful chapter of their lives, onstage and in the studio.
“A million things could have gone wrong. We’re both shocked how lucky we’ve been,” Dayton says. “But the thing I knew about Sam was that she’s a great singer and guitar player. With Sam, she can play like Freddie King and Albert King — she’s done the 10,000 hours and done her homework.”
Of note, Jon Spencer of storied New York City rock trio the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was tapped to produce Death Wish Blues.
“We could have gone in there and just done the same old thing, this kind of post-1990s Stevie Ray Vaughn sounding thing with John Bonham drums,” says Dayton, who rolls into Nashville this week for AmericanaFest 2023. “But that’s what everybody does. With Jon Spencer, he helped us turn that all on its ear and bring in some funky 1970s stuff.”
“We had a North Star, this idea and aesthetic we wanted,” Fish says. “We wanted it to have elements of punk rock with the foundation of blues music. But all of these other styles started emerging — [the sound] just went where it wanted to go naturally.”
For Dayton, “naturally” has been part of his life ethos and career trajectory. A lifelong Texan, the rambling troubadour was raised on nitty-gritty country music, the bedrock of his musical aspirations that eventually panned out with work alongside Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
“I could always play Jerry Reed and all kinds of country stuff growing up in Beaumont, [Texas],” Dayton, 56, says. “But at 15, I was given five records that changed everything: Lazy Lester, Slim Harpo, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and Howlin’ Wolf.”
That continued immersion into the blues and its depths amid the sometimes dark and even sinister side of human condition always remained close to the heart for Dayton and whatever projects found himself in. He toured in punk-rock bands like X and collaborated with Rob Zombie, both onstage and on screen.
“I work with a lot of people and [Samantha] is as inspiring as anyone I’ve ever worked with,” says Dayton, who just dropped his latest solo track, “Talkin’ Company Blues,” off a forthcoming album. “She’s laser-focused and is a great, natural talent. And the plus side is that together we’re diversifying our audiences — some nights it’s ‘Who is she?’ Other nights it’s ‘Who’s this dude?’”
Standing in the Princess Theatre, the crowd is studded with dressed-to-the-nines blues cats and Southern debutantes, hardscrabble bikers and grease monkeys. It’s an accurate slice of the dichotomy that resides at the heart of blues music, and this bucolic corner of the South.
Regardless of background or intent, the blues — in all its timeless nature of sadness and sorrow — is meant to actually connect and uplift, to bring forth solidarity in a shared moment of performance.
“I’m constantly moving the goalposts and I’ve always had the broadest vision possible,” Fish says. “It’s that ability to keep growing and changing — nobody’s boxed me in yet, keep following the muse.”
Onstage in Decatur, Fish and Dayton make a stabbing, snarling sound that’s both playfully confrontational and invigorating, a nurturing tone to whatever cares and woes you may have felt beforehand.
“You know, I don’t think I was prepared for how creatively fulfilling it would be to play with Sam,” Dayton says. “Writing and playing these songs is everything to me. It’s about feeding off each other’s energy and being excited about it.”