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The lack of education among the general populace is also a problem. "The younger crowd, the college and Americana crowd, they're open-minded and curious enough; if they like something, they'll patronize it. It's the people my age who are ignoring it...All they've ever listened to is Top 40, and they've never heard of Don Walser or even Buck Owens." There's a muffled voice in the background, and Watson covers the mouthpiece of his phone for a second, then returns, a resigned chuckle in his voice. "My wife just said that KASE, one of the big country radio stations around here, they say they play the new stuff, and they play the old stuff that's never forgotten, and then they play a song by the Judds."
The chuckle bubbles to the top and escapes; you can almost hear Watson shaking his head. "In their opinion that's an old classic. That's what kills me, and I hate to think of kids growing up thinking that country music is Little Texas."
Unfortunately, that's par for the course. "I was doing gigs at the Black Cat," Watson recalls. "That's an all-ages club, and there's this one lady that came up and said, 'Gosh, I grew up listening to country music 'cause my dad had it on the radio all the time, but I like this. It doesn't sound like what my dad played.' And I was kind of puzzled. I said, 'What do you mean? If he played country music, you ought to know this; it's pretty much the same.' She says, 'No.' I said, 'What are you talking about? Who was on the radio?' 'Well, you know, people on the radio, like Clint Black.' And I happened to think, 'Yeah, she's only 18 years old.' When she was a kid, that's who was popular."
To each his or her own, of course, and you can do a lot worse than Clint Black, but one of the resultant tragedies of the Top 40-ification of country is a scenario acted out far too often at big clubs like Billy Bob's or the now-defunct Cowboys, where one night a year or so ago Gary Stewart, the king of honky-tonk heartbreak and hard-living cheatin' songs, was playing. A handful of couples were dancing desultorily to Stewart as he pounded out his classic hits, but when he took a break and the DJ played the Village People's "YMCA," the floor quickly filled and stayed packed for a mixture of hard rock, rap, and disco hits; when Stewart came back out, the floor emptied again.
"It's pathetic," Watson says, not making a whole lot of effort to keep the disgust from his voice. "But you know, that's my point in a way. Those people are not our audience. I don't even want to play for 'em. They're into their Top 40 thing, and that's their bag, but it's not mine, and it's not for the people who come out to see us. We've got dancers who come out to see us, but they're two-steppers and waltzers; you don't see them line-dancing at all."
Line-dancing is a particular peeve with Watson. "To me," he says, "that's stomping a song to death; it doesn't have anything to do with a song or the entertainer. It's a very '90s thing, where everything is anti-sex, anti-social, anti-everything; you don't have to know the people on the dance floor with you, but the thing about dancing is that it was supposed to be a form of communication.
"But a lot of people like it, so it's their bag,"Watson continues. "I just don't want to play for them. I don't like it when I'm pulling out a song that I worked hard to write to connect or to communicate to somebody, and they're out there just stomping on it. The worst thing for me to see is these older guys--big cowboy-looking dudes--out there slapping their butt and twisting around, kicking their shoes up in the air and wiggling, you know, next to another cowboy."
Watson hastens to dispel any intimations of prejudice. "I mean, gay is gay; I don't care about that. But to me, that just doesn't look very manly. I've gotten to know a couple of gay guys, and they wouldn't do that. They say, 'That just doesn't look right.'"
Dale Watson plays the Sons of Hermann Hall Saturday, October 19.