Ben Lomond native turned Texan transplant Jesse Daniel plays a homecoming show Friday in support of his new live album, “My Kind of Country Live At the Catalyst,” recorded at the downtown Santa Cruz music venue last year. The album has drawn praise from Rolling Stone and Billboard. It’s an amazing trajectory for Daniel, whose career almost never happened because of an opioid addiction.
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When it comes to country music, a couple destinations pop up when describing genre-defining sounds.
The first is Nashville, Tennessee, of course, the historic birthplace of country tunes. The Bakersfield sound exploded in the mid-20th century with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard combining honky-tonk and rock ‘n’ roll. Then there’s Austin, Texas, with its psych and rock influence epitomized by artists like Joe Ely and Butch Hancock.
But if Ben Lomond native turned Texan transplant Jesse Daniel has anything to do with it, Santa Cruz will soon be on the map of country music influence.
“Texas is a great state, but a lot of Texans have this idea that it’s the epitome of everything,” he says. “So when I took my band around Boulder Creek, they saw the tiny gas station, the old beater trucks, and saw how country it is up there. They said they had no idea I actually grew up in a small town.”
He pauses to crack a smile and laugh. “I said, ‘I’ve been telling you guys the whole time!’ but for a lot of people they don’t know that [small towns] exist in California.”
That exchange between Daniel and his bandmates happened exactly one year ago, April 2022, when the country songwriter had returned home to play a show at the Catalyst to a sold-out room of 1,000 local friends, family and honky-tonk lovers.
For those who were there, it was an explosive night of hell-raising and high praise. Daniel and the band were in top form, riling up the crowd with favorites like “Tar Snakes,” “Rollin’ On” and “Streets of Watsonville,” and plenty of shout-outs to Santa Cruz. It was an extra treat for Daniel, who not only grew up going to shows at the Catalyst, but also worked as a security guard for the venue during the mid-2010s and started his country career playing solo shows at the upstairs bar.
“Having a diehard fanbase [in Santa Cruz] that always comes out to support us, we knew it would be a rowdy show,” says Daniel. “It was the place to make a live record.”
The result of that fateful night is Daniel’s first live album, “My Kind of Country Live At the Catalyst,” released March 24. The magic is beautifully captured on the live recording, with Daniel’s sun-soaked voice floating over a river of western-swing and working-class, hillbilly jams.
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Now, the Son of the San Lorenzo returns Friday, April 14, to play in the Catalyst’s main room to promote the album. As with last year, this time around Daniel will be playing with the full band of Caleb Melo on pedal steel guitar, Eddie B. Salomon on bass and Joey Kukura on guitar.
“We have wanted to do a live album for a long time because I love listening to live records,” Daniel explains. “I thought it would be something really cool to do to highlight our band and how tight we’ve become.”
His fiancée, manager, co-songwriter, collaborator and better half, Jodi Lyford, agrees.
“We thought the idea of playing the Catalyst main stage would be this full-circle moment, having had the support of the community from the ground up,” she says.
And when she says “from the ground up,” Lyford means it.
The funds for Daniel’s self-titled 2018 debut album and his 2020 follow-up, “Rollin’ On,” were both raised through online crowdfunding. To this day, everything Daniel and Lyford do channels their punk rock pasts with a DIY twist, from making their own merchandise to booking tours and releasing records on their own Die True Records label.
The label’s name is a play on the personal motto Lyford had when she owned True North Tattoo in Felton.
“‘Live Free, Die True,’” she says. “It’s a self-explanatory way to describe how we do things.”
The way Daniel and Lyford are doing things is gaining them much-deserved attention.
Rolling Stone magazine has called Daniel “irresistible twang.” Just last week, Billboard.com named “My Kind of Country one of “7 Must-Hear New Country Songs,” (despite it being an album, not a song) writing, “on this album, he brings center stage his freewheeling brand of honky-tonk country — soaked in steel guitar, sparse drums and fueled by Daniel’s more-grit-than-silk voice.”
Even the term “My Kind of Country”— one Daniel has been using on his merchandise for years to describe his independent, salt-of-the-earth roadhouse honky-tonk — has caught the attention of the mainstream. The same day Daniel’s album dropped, Apple Music launched a new music talent show called “My Kind of Country.”
Daniel isn’t recognized on the show for his outlaw style or the phrase. However, he and Lyford say they are going to continue making country music the way they want to: true songs about the hardships of life, straight from the heart and never selling out for likes or reposts.
“In the beginning, we did it out of necessity because who are we? Nobody was going to sign us,” Daniel says.
He has since received a lot of interest from major labels that he admits he would’ve jumped at during his early career. However, the same cannot be said of today. Now Daniel prefers an independent life where he owns and believes in the music he makes, instead of being a puppet for the majors.
“Every time we’ve had meetings with these people it’s the same: They want us to record something more commercial or do [our music] differently,” he sighs. “It always felt weird. So we’re going to stay true to what we’ve built.”
It’s amazing to see what he and Lyford have created together, considering it was a career that almost never happened.
Daniel’s story is rife with a cycle of hard times, addiction and rehab, as sung about in tracks like “SR-22 Blues,” “Soft Spot (For The Hard Stuff)” and “Dear Brother.”
Born and raised in Ben Lomond, Daniel’s early life among the trees and fields of the Santa Cruz Mountains left him with a great appreciation for nature and living off the land. His brother, Sage Wilkinson, remembers it fondly.
“We grew up about a mile from downtown Ben Lomond,” Wilkinson recalls. “We would chase down hills and be outside all day with a group of neighborhood kids that lived just across the creek from us.”
If that wasn’t enough to earn him his country cred, Daniel and his siblings were raised in a converted barn that Daniel would later move back into with Lyford in 2016, before relocating outside Austin in 2019.
The son of a musician father and artist mother, it seemed Daniel was destined to create. Classic rock was a staple in the household, but even back then country influences creeped their way into young Daniel’s life.
“My dad was always a fan of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings,” Wilkinson says. “So we were always exposed to that music as kids.”
While those early days were steeped in affection, it was his teenage years when trouble would find him “like the hair on my chin,” as he sings in “Son of the San Lorenzo.”
Daniel became fascinated with the surf, punk and skate culture of Santa Cruz. Once he discovered the drums, Daniel never looked back. “He’d be sitting in class, drumming on his desk,” his brother laughs. “During parent-teacher conferences the teachers would always say, ‘Yeah, Jesse has a hard time sitting still.’”
Between 2006 and 2010 he played in local punk act, My Stupid Brother, and later joined 3Up Front. However, it was during these wild years that Daniel also discovered the rock-star lifestyle. Like many teens, he started out drinking, smoking cannabis and taking pills at parties.
However, he says a “switch flipped” somewhere along the line and opioids quickly became his drug of choice. By the time he was 16, he was a full-blown addict, despite many of his closest friends not seeing the signs.
“For a while there, Jesse was sort of a functioning addict,” says Wilkinson. “He had a job, was still able to play music, and had a normal life.”
Expensive and hard-to-find pills would lead to the easier, much readily available fix: heroin. By the time he turned 18, Daniel’s family was urging him to go to rehab. He did, but that would only be the first time.
In total, Daniel’s hard living would see him in and out of rehab six times with four separate arrests, ranging from petty crimes to DUI. Much like the outlaw country heroes before him, when Daniel sings about being locked up, for better or worse, he’s singing about it firsthand.
In 2015, he formed Jesse Daniel & the Slow Learners, picking up the guitar and blending the energy of punk with the twang of country. Yet after their debut, he decided to dive head-first into the pure, country-fried sound.
A year later, he and Lyford began dating, and that’s when he realized a choice had to be made about his hard living.
“It was right in front of my face,” Daniel admits. “Do I lose the relationship with this person who’s the best I’ve ever met — my soulmate — and my career? Or do I go back to my old way of life? I’m glad I made the right decision.”
His family agrees.
“She gave him support and a reason to pursue his goals,” Wilkinson says. “She’s been like an angel for Jesse.”
In fact, it’s easy to see how the song “Angel on the Ground” off his 2021 album, “Beyond These Walls,” is about Lyford.
Since then, the two have built a life around their careers while still making time to find solitude fishing on the lake or reconnecting with nature in their new San Marcos home. Last May, they got engaged and plan on getting hitched when they are able to make the time. But for now their focus is solely on the music.
Lyford is also no stranger to adversity. The Watsonville native has suffered from kidney issues since the age of 6, but in 2011 she was able to receive a transplant from her cousin.
“With that also comes lots of medications, risks from the medications and the possibility of kidney rejection, which I did have a few years ago,” she says.
Both Daniel and Lyford recognize their health issues as one of the driving forces behind their DIY tenacity.
“Having both of those [health issues] is something Jodi and I can relate to,” Daniel says. “Because they are both things you have to work harder than the next person to overcome, and I think it makes you better in the long run.”
So what’s next for Jesse Daniel and company? After the “My Kind of Country” tour ends later this month, they’ll be gearing up to jump over the pond for their first European tour. For now, they have several festivals lined up as well as three acoustic shows in the United Kingdom, one of which is already sold out.
“We’ve had record sales going out the window along with all of our merch,” Lyford says about Europe. “They’re really supportive of music out there.”
But for now, Daniel and Lyford are looking forward to stepping foot back on Santa Cruz soil this weekend, along with indulging in some of our finer local staples.
“One requirement is to get an al pastor burrito from Tacos Moreno,” Daniel says, adding that his brother usually brings him one if they’re on tour.
“But this time I have to go there and get a T-shirt because I used to have one as a kid.”
“I’ll be getting Charlie Hong Kong,” laughs Lyford.