Lone Star State of Mind
by Ronald Sklar
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 music.
“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 Haggard.
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 corner.”
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?
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 sui generis 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 Watson: ‘comatose.'”
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 ‘Justice 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 poppy, happy.”
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 self-help myself.
“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 movie.”
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.
Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 4, 2007.
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