Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
July 4, 2007.
How's this for irony:
Dale Watson – who embodies both the past and the promise (but possibly not
the future) of country music – is talking to me on his cell phone. Forget
about me – I'm about as far away from country as you can get, in Brooklyn –
but Watson is parked in his van alongside a curb in a residential
neighborhood in Austin, Texas.
The homeowner of the curb he's parked in front of – amazingly – has no idea
who Watson is. And even that's not the unbelievable part: many, many people
have no idea who Watson is, but would kiss the ground he walked on if they
downloaded even one Dale Watson song.
Up until now, Watson has recruited more music journalists and actors than
mall-shopping country fans, although his legion is growing as the word is
spreading. For now, though, Watson's career is in shifted into Park, but
that's better than Reverse.
This homeowner, suspicious of the man in the van, represents America: all he
knows is that there is some tattooed cowboy parked in front of his house,
and that's not kosher.
"Can I help you?" the homeowner inquires of the current promise of country
"Can I help you?" Watson responds, sorta Jesus like.
"I was just wondering why you were parked outside my house," the man says.
It doesn't get ugly. They come to an understanding. Dale pulls away and
leaves the man to his castle.
The man, though smart enough to live in Austin, Texas, is still an idiot.
That was Dale Watson he shooed away, the musician of the widespread acclaim
but with the smaller, hardcore country following, as well as a deserved
inductee into the Austin Music Hall of Fame.
He's been playing since before he could grow sideburns, and the albums he's
released over the last decade and a half – from Cheatin' Heart Attack
to the current From the Cradle to the Grave (Hyena Records), shows
you what he's made of: intense originality, dark humor, bittersweet
machismo, with deep, strong roots in the tradition of Johnny Cash and Merle
Not exactly mall music, even The Truck Drivin' Sessions (sounds as
cool as it sounds) nor the ironic I Hate These Songs (containing all
songs that he likes).
If the homeowner knew who Watson truly was, and if he had any inkling that
he had his guitar with him, the man would have invited Watson in for coffee
and some unbelievable, authentic country music. Real traditional-like.
Anyways, what was Watson saying before he was so rudely interrupted?
Oh, yeah. He was
talking about "the current country scene right now," he says. "It's probably
as bad as it's ever been. It's obviously the Disney Channel for rednecks. If
you ever watch The Disney Channel, how they absolutely market to these kids
and play it over and over. They're just business people. When I recorded
[the satire on commercial country music] ‘Nashville Rash’ , it turned
out to be an anthem of sorts. It's what broke me in Europe. I felt then that
music couldn't get any worse, but Rascal Flatts was right around the
Watson will have none of it; he will not sell out. Let the masses come to
him, if they had a brain in their head, and they do, if you dig down deep
enough, and they will come. His new full-length CD, From the Cradle to
the Grave, may have the blessing it needs and deserves to appeal to the
masses: it was recorded in Johnny Cash's cabin. That should come as only a
mild surprise, as Watson seems to channel Cash in barebones style and
back-to-basics power. Kindred spirits in a material world.
Watson tells it like this: "Johnny Knoxville is a friend of mine, and he
owns Cash's old cabin. He invited me to record there. What I thought he
meant by that is there was a recording studio out there. But it was just a
regular old cabin."
The connection was uncanny, between the old and the – well, not exactly the
new, since Watson isn't really about the new – but how about the different?
How about: better than your typical current country servings?
"I totally felt a vibe," Waston says of his recording experience. "It's
totally a cabin that belonged to Johnny Cash. I just assumed they had a
recording studio in it, and I called Johnny [Knoxville] to find out what
kind of format it was, like digital or analog, and he was like, what are
you talking about? It's just a log cabin."
It didn't become a problem for Watson, who lacked the equipment and yet gave
birth to some rocking shit. What becomes a problem for most of us, who
consistently need to label everything, is what do we call these gems?
Again, not a problem for Watson. He calls his style of music "Ameripolitan."
He explains, "That's my definition of original music with prominent roots
influence. I say that because we're pretty much without a home. It's what I
call the new old country. With it, you would hear music back-to-back that
sounds like it was related. Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams.
"By today's definition, they ain't country either. By their own definition.
Merle Haggard doesn't sound anything like Tim McGraw. He wouldn't want to if
he could. I have nothing against that genre – what they call country music –
but it has nothing to do with where everything started.
"My influences were my dad's influences. I liked the music that he was
playing and that he listened to: Buck Owens, George Jones, Hank Williams.
Watched a lot of Hee Haw on TV every Saturday. I never did rebel
[against his father's musical tastes]."
Born in '62 and playing in local honky tonks before he was old enough to
drink in them, Watson comes from a musical family who started off in Alabama
and then moved to just outside Houston.
He sees the sad suburbanization of Dixie through the evolution of his own
performing career. Country may have gone split-level, but he did not stray
from the straight and narrow.
"It's changed so much," he observes of the local honky-tonk scene. "I sound
like an old-timer, but it really is nothing like it used to be. When you go
to these places today, everything is so modernized. Nothing like the old
places, with its beer-drinkin' and hell-raisin'. That's what all the old
honky-tonks were. I was playing in them when I wasn't old enough. Being
interested in music like I was and in a musical family, it was a little
different than just a kid hanging out at the bar with his dad drinking. It
wasn't like that. We were working, but we were having fun. It was a way to
see the best in people and the worst in people."
Today – whether he likes it or not, and he likes it – Watson is firmly
rooted in the hip Austin music scene.
He says of his adopted home town, "There's not a week goes by somebody
doesn't move here from California or New York. It's very open-minded
toward music, and not just country music. The biggest difference between
Austin and Nashville is that Austin celebrates and rewards originality, and
encourages it. The people out here support live music a lot. In Nashville,
it's exactly the opposite. Any kind of originality is squashed and
discouraged. They want to hear what they hear all day on the radio."
He has a lot of people in his corner, including some prominent ones, as the
previously mentioned Johnny Knoxville, who appears in his new video version
of his latest single, “Hollywood Hillbilly” (which is also making the rounds
on country stations).
"Johnny has just been in my corner big time," Watson says. "I met him
through Mike Judge [creator of TV's King of the Hill]. Mike Judge is
actually a great bass player. He would come out and sit in on bass, because
he loves playing and he's a good musician. We had Johnny out there one night
and we hit it off."
Also in his corner is the popular Air America Radio host, Lionel, who makes it a
point to often play Dale's music when coming from and going into
commercials. Lionel, who knows a lot about a lot, says, "Dale Watson is an
avatar of classic, fundamental country music. 'Caught' is one of the
greatest country tunes ever penned and is in my Top 10 'desert island'
songs. He channels George, Lefty and Merle yet provides his own
style. I always have people start with Dale's music when they want to learn
more about country music. There's a word for people who don't like Dale
While Lionel turns talk radio listeners on to a new way of critical
thinking, urging them to drop the labels of conservative and liberal, he is
also introducing Watson's music to the growing constituency of Air
Americans. It's a logical, perfect match: you can't label Watson either.
Also in his corner is actor James Denton, of the ABC series Desperate
Housewives. Denton, a huge Watson fan, was seen around Hollywood
shindigs wearing T-shirts that boasted of Dale Watson's music. Says Watson,
"I didn't know him personally until he started wearing my shirt. I felt good
about it, so I told people that if anyone knows him, tell him thank you. The
next thing you know, I got an email from him, and he said anything I could
ever do. About a month later, we were doing the video [for
All,' about revenge on a child killer], and I said, could you be in my
video? He said sure [he played the avenging father of the murdered child].
That went to number one on Pure Country, even though all they wanted was
However, in Watson's recent personal life, not all was poppy and happy. We
almost lost Watson about the time his fiancée was killed in a car accident.
They say that the show must go on, but he simply could not.
He recalls, "I was trying to off myself, you know, any way I could do it.
I'm not a drug guy. I don't take drugs if I don't need it. [That day], I got
a bunch of vodka and sleeping pills. It was planned. My girlfriend got
killed [in a car accident]. I planned it, and two months later I tried it,
and luckily my road manager somehow found which hotel I was in. Sleeping
pills do the exact opposite to me and my system. They wire me up. I was in a
Holiday Inn in Austin, and the pills were over the counter."
Watson's breakdown was chronicled in a documentary called Crazy Again.
He says, "After I did [attempt suicide], I went into the self-help world.
I'm thinking, okay, I'm gonna get my life back on track here. Read all the
self-help books. Wasn't drinkin' or wasn't doin' anything. I may drink on
stage occasionally, but you can hardly ever find bottles in my house. I
drink a couple beers here and there, but I'm not heavy into booze. So it
wasn't such a big deal if I quit. But it was hard to quit when you were on
stage and everybody wants to party. I was in this mindset of trying to
"The film documents this time in my life. It's not the whole life thing.
2002, when I went nuts, reading all these books, going to all these
psychics, getting a hold of a Ouija board, trying to get a hold of my dead
girlfriend. Pretty much, you wouldn't believe the trip. It was like a bad B
Or a lonely country song, wafting through the interstate airwaves. His
Truckin' Songs CD is still beloved by truckers and wanna-be's alike. Of
his inspiration for that project, he says, "I was doing a trucking tour
where I played truck stops in '97. During that, I listen to CDs and hung out
with all these truckers. I realized that we were living the same life. The
only difference is, the load we're carrying is ourselves. We still got to
get it to a certain place on time. We still gotta eat. The whole theme of
trucking music – that hasn't changed."
Neither has Watson, thank goodness. Nor will he ever.
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Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
July 4, 2007.