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Phoenix New Times

Nashville Rash
Texas troubadour Dale Watson is waging a war for the heart and soul of country music
By Bob Mehr

Dale Watson
Photo by Rick Henson

Dale Watson: Pining for
"A Real Country Song."

These might be the darkest days in the history of country music. The industry has always been a two-faced creature. While Nashville has long paid lip service to the history and traditions of country music, it's rarely ever practiced what it preached. After all, these are the same people who blackballed Hank Williams from the Grand Ole Opry, and then publicly embraced him as their own the minute he turned cold in the back seat of the Cadillac.

Today, the problem is crystal clear. Pick up the most recent issue of Country Music magazine and you'll see a cover blurb promising a feature on Michael Peterson that poses the question, "Too Sensitive for Country?" The article goes on to describe Peterson as a "soft-spoken singer/songwriter who spent 12 years as a motivational speaker in high schools, encouraging kids to respect and care for themselves and others. Those are the same things he now seeks to promote with the songs he writes and sings." Too sensitive for country music? How about too sensitive for Dan Fogelberg fans? If only Spade Cooley was alive to offer his special brand of "stomping" therapy to Peterson.

Or how about the other cover feature which offers the story of singer David Kersh, with the clever tag "No Shirt? No Problem." Inside we get a lengthy piece on Kersh, a hunky Texan who was the subject of a recent Playgirl pictorial. An avowed Def Leppard fan (big surprise), Kersh has scored a series of hits with bile-inducing ballads like "Another You," "Day In Day Out" and an even more boring take (if that's possible) of Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight."

After paging through the rest of this glossy bimonthly, I was nearly paralyzed with outrage, and burdened by half a million questions, the main one being, "Is this what it's come to?" How did failed sensitivity trainers and graduates from the Handsome Boy modeling school become the de facto representatives for country music? Where are the ex-cons, the rig-rockers, the tattooed wild men, the two-fisted troubadours, and the Western swingers? Take a long, hard listen to country radio. Where are the songs about cheatin', drinkin', ramblin', trucks and trains? Where's the much-talked-about influence of Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and George Jones? Where? Where? Where?

After calming down, I reminded myself that all those things are safe and being well-preserved in the music of Dale Watson.

Ironically enough, the Austin-based Watson is given some ink in the very same issue of Country Music magazine. The outspoken singer offers his opinion about Garth Brooks in a story about the marketing-savvy entertainer titled "Mogul or Madman?" "They quoted me pretty good in that one," says Watson from his home. "I imagine I'm going to be getting some death threats from all these 'hat acts.'"

Watson is being facetious. Although he calls Brooks "the anti-Hank" and goes on to compare the superstar and his Resistol-wearing ilk to "watered-down whiskey," it's hard to imagine that he really expects any kind of reprisal for his comments, certainly not from the current legion of soft boys and factory-made mannequins posing as country singers. For Watson it isn't the first time -- and certainly won't be the last -- that he'll speak out against what he views as the utter corruption of the music he loves, and has lived his whole life.

Country music runs thick in Dale Watson's blood. His father, Don, was a part-time musician and trucker with a full-time love of country music. "Sometimes he'd do six nights a week of a house gig when he was between a job or something," recalls Watson. The younger Watson was born in Alabama but settled with his family in a small town just outside Houston. Growing up in the Lone Star State, he was steeped in the native country styles, including the Western swing and dance hall of Bob Wills, Ray Price and Johnny Bush. But it was Watson's father who had the most profound influence.

"He came from Kentucky and was raised in Alabama and Tennessee. There's a little bit of difference in his kind of country music and the kind in Texas," says Watson. "His thing was more like Roy Acuff, George Jones, Charlie Pride, Lefty Frizzell. All the things you'd consider hard-core country."

The elder Watson's love of country translated into something of a semiformal education for young Dale. "It was like going to country music school. Whenever Hee-Haw would come on when I was a kid, we'd watch it and he'd say, 'That guy used to play for so and so.' Or, 'That guy playing guitar wrote that song that so and so sings.'"

The seeds his father had planted began to bloom at the tender age of 14 when Watson began his lifelong career of recording and performing traditional country music. After graduating high school in the late '70s, Watson joined his brothers in a local country band and spent the better part of the next seven years playing in and around the honky-tonks of Pasadena, Texas.

"We were called the Classic Country band. We played beer joints, really. It was traditional music, but we did some of the stuff that was on the radio," recalls Watson. "But the radio wasn't as bad as it is now. We still had Gary Stewart doing songs, and George and Merle were still putting out great records."

Watson's first big professional leap came in 1988 when he moved to Los Angeles, seeking out the Bakersfield revival that had been spearheaded a couple of years earlier by Dwight Yoakam. "That's when Dwight was happening, and [singer/songwriter] Rosie Flores, and there was a lot of stuff coming out of L.A. Actually, at that point it kind of had already happened. I just ended up playing guitar for a lot of other people," says Watson.

Watson bounced around town for several years gigging as a sideman for hire and playing in the house band at the famed Palamino club. He also contributed a track to the third volume of A Town South of Bakersfield, a compilation series documenting the best of L.A.'s rebellious country talents.

In 1992, Watson relocated to Nashville where he spent less than a year as a staff writer with Gary Morris Music. Watson's long-distance mistrust of the city and its industry became an up-close and personal matter. After a few miserable months, he was ready to get out. It was during his brief Nashville stay that Watson crossed paths with actor River Phoenix. Watson had been cast in a small part alongside Phoenix in Peter Bogdanovich's 1993 country music pic The Thing Called Love. Phoenix was so taken by Watson's East Texas charm and authentic country credentials that he patterned his speech and character in the film after him.

Watson says it was Phoenix who talked him into moving back to L.A. "He said he was going to direct some movies for Paramount and asked me if I'd like to be in them, so I said, 'Sure,'" remembers Watson. "So I went back out to L.A., this is toward the end of '92, and of course he died in October. I was already on my way out there, so I ended up staying there for a couple months before I moved to Austin."

Watson's decision to move to the Texas capital was well-timed. The city, which had gone through a country renaissance in the early '70s, had become a diehard blues town throughout the '80s.

By the time Watson arrived, all that was changing. Progressive country with a traditional kick was becoming the dominating style once again.

Putting together the first edition of his backing band, the Lone Stars, Watson quickly became a staple on the growing back-to-roots country scene. That exposure would lead him to a recording contract with the Oakland, California-based indie label Hightone Records.

In 1995, Watson released his debut album, Cheatin' Heart Attack. With stinging commentary like "Nashville Rash" ("Help me Merle/I'm breaking out in a Nashville Rash/I'm too country for country/Just like Johnny Cash"), the album drew the attention of fans and critics alike. And while Watson's fearlessness in pointing out the hypocrisy of the country music industry has often been the focus of profiles, it's his almost instinctive ability to craft hard-core classics like "She Needs Her Mama" and "Everyone Knew but Me" that should be praised. Shunning the excesses of the form, Watson embraces and understands the subtleties of country music as well as anyone.

Watson followed his debut with two more richly authentic collections of originals, 1996's Blessed or Damned and 1997's I Hate These Songs. The subsequent releases proved that Watson's music, while not groundbreaking, wasn't entirely backward-looking. In fact, its development has followed a logical continuum of authentic country music.

"That's what I'd like to think, yeah. Carrying on where it would have gotten if it hadn't been screwed up. I would say that's my aim, anyway," says Watson.

Watson hit some troubled waters after the release of I Hate These Songs when he became embroiled in a protracted legal battle with Hightone. The label finally settled out of court with Watson earlier this year. That freed him up to sign with Sire Records (an imprint of Warner Bros.) after a two-year courtship that had gone unconsummated as a result of the legal wrangles.

In the interim, Watson's fame, which, at best, had reached cult status in the U.S., was growing exponentially in other parts of the world. Watson has toured frequently in Britain and Scandinavia, where he is an unquestionable country star, performing at large festivals and earning multiple industry awards.

During the gap in "official" recording, Watson released a collection of trucking songs. Intended originally as a tape to be sold at shows, the album was so popular that a European label offered to distribute it. Watson went in to record several additional tracks and last year the album was released in the U.S. on Koch Records. The Truckin' Sessions mines a subgenre of country that's obviously close to Watson's heart, and his brand of blacktop poetry is amazingly natural. In the tradition of Red Simpson, Del Reeves and Dave Dudley, the album's 14 originals are timeless, brilliantly written pieces that wouldn't be out of place on any of the classic Starday trucking compilations.

Next month Watson will release his fifth album, People I've Known, Places I've Been. As part of Watson's new deal with Sire Records, the album will be made available as a European release only. "I finished it right before I signed my Warner Bros. deal, and I talked to the owner of Sire, and I told him I got this deal in Europe that I wanted to honor," says Watson. "[Sire president] Seymour Stein was really cool about it. He said, 'Yeah, go ahead and do that record for them. Just don't put it out in North America because we don't want to compete with your own record.'"

The record is intended to tide over his rabid and growing international following until he completes work on his major-label debut, expected early next year. Being under the powerful aegis of the Warner Bros. umbrella has already proven to be a double-edged sword for Watson. Although he appreciates the distribution and promotional backing that a major label offers, the experience has made him feel uneasy. "I find that radio stations are a lot more receptive to me now that I'm on Warner Bros., and that kind of sickens me, really," says Watson. "It saddens me, too. I mean, I always knew it would be that way, but I still have a hard time putting on a smile for those guys."

His newfound status has further cemented Watson's outlook on the music industry. "Being signed with a major label, I'll have a better chance than I've ever had to get played on the radio. But I'm not holding my breath because the beast, the animal is still the same. It's still a money-oriented business."

Watson is known as a tireless road dog, spending the bulk of the year traveling and performing throughout the world. The hard-traveled miles have made Watson's band (which includes steel guitarist Ricky Davis, drummer Scott Matthews and bassist Billy Dee Donahue) one of the tightest in the business.

"The People I've Known album is the first record that I've been able to utilize a band that's been together for a while," says Watson. "That's been my goal, even when I was negotiating with Sony and other labels that wanted to sign me. My main thing was I wanted to record my songs with my own band, and my own producer."

Watson will have that opportunity when he takes his Lone Stars into the studio next month to begin recording his as-yet-untitled Sire debut. A guarantee of creative autonomy was one of several critical issues that the ever-stubborn Watson was adamant about before signing his new deal.

"With all these other labels I was talking to, it wasn't like that. Sony was telling me to come down to Nashville and hang out with these guys that they wanted me to play with," says Watson with a chuckle. "They were like, 'Get to know each other, have a few beers together.' But you can't explain a style of music over a few beers and expect someone to play it like the guys that I've been playing with for years."

Although Watson is confident that he'll be able to capture his signature sound, he still plans on co-producing the album with his close friend, rockabilly artist James Intveld. Production input will also come from longtime Beach Boys/Brian Wilson collaborator and Sire staff producer Andy Paley.

"I did some stuff with Andy for the soundtrack to Drop Dead Gorgeous, and we just hit it off," says Watson. "If we're going to have a record company representative in there, I thought, 'Man, why can't we get Andy in there?' 'Cause he knows what we wanted and he was really cool about it in a way that makes it real comfortable."

Watson is especially eager to get into the studio. Despite the release of The Truckin' Sessions, he has a large backlog of material that he's itching to record. "That's one of the things, because I haven't done a studio album in almost two years now, I've got so much material it's frustrating, really," notes Watson.

"It's good to have that problem, I guess. I've always been one to write a lot, and I've actually had to tone down a little bit. Now I only write when it really does hit me," adds Watson.

Less than a week after our conversation, Watson and the Lone Stars are back on the road. They perform in Tucson to a packed and eager Sunday-night crowd, before heading to California, up the coast and back through Phoenix in just over a week.

Talking with him in an alley behind the club, Watson is a diminutive yet imposing figure. His pompadour is streaked with strands of whitening hair, and a bevy of tattoos proclaim his allegiance to his native Texas. Watson speaks in a measured tone that turns intense when he discusses the vagaries of the music business, the difficulties of the road, and the upcoming recording sessions.

Onstage, Watson is in a playful mood. After the first song, he announces, "I think it's time for a mandatory Merle."

The crowd hoots its approval. "It's got to be done," says Watson.

And with that he launches into a stirring rendition of Haggard's "Branded Man" -- with Watson's careful picking and vocals complemented by bassist Billy Dee Donahue's soulful harmony.

Watson has a nearly bottomless bag of original material to choose from. But ever the country music scholar, he breaks from his normal set to continue the history lesson. "I think it's important we remember our living legends. Can anybody here think of another living legend?" he asks.

Almost in unison, the audience shouts the name of Johnny Cash. Watson acts jolted by the near unanimous response. "You were all pretty sure about that one, weren't you?"

He takes a dramatic pause and scratches his head, "Let's see." And with a quick look over his shoulder, Watson and the band pump out a rousing version of Cash's "Ring of Fire" that has the whole room dancing and tapping along with their beer bottles.

The night goes on like this, with Watson alternating between country classics and his own tradition-laced originals. For many in the audience, there seems to be no difference -- they're merely willing souls waiting to be converted by Watson's fervent brand of country preaching. Regardless of what the future holds, there's a sense of security that comes with the knowledge that Watson will continue to wage his war for the heart and soul of country music, even if he has to win his battles one roadhouse at a time.

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