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By Observer Staff
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Dale Watson rules. In an age where more people at alleged "country" bars dance to AC/DC than Bob Wills, and the genre's putative stars either fly around arenas like Tinkerbell or are so pig ignorant (or, more likely, have so little respect for their fans and the truth) as to claim that they had no idea that methamphetamine is a drug, Watson stands tall, a genuine keeper of the flame first kindled by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.
A true road warrior who plugged away for 15 years before making his first album, the superb Cheatin' Heart Attack, Watson is also a rarity in the reborn hard-country movement, where many acts are young, fresh-faced kids not above an ironic wink or smirking send-up, and who often come off like Weezer with a twang. Watson is a grownup man, as different from these revivalists as Carl Perkins was from Elvis. Now that he has followed Cheatin' Heart Attack with the equally accomplished Blessed or Damned, both on Hightone Records, he could easily start to consolidate his fame.
Watson's work, however, is a labor of love, and he's not about to compromise his beliefs for a shot at the gold ring. Take for instance this summer's Truckstop Tour, which found Watson (reportedly working even now on an album of all truck tunes) adding difficult and often problematic gigs at truckstops to an already full regular schedule.
"It was about 50-50," Watson recalls by phone from his home near Austin, speaking over the happy domestic din made by his wife, Niki, and young daughter, Rachel. Like many country people, he is polite to the point of being courtly, and even when speaking, his rich voice resonates with echoes of Merle. "Me and the guys had a ball, but we were going all over the place; we'd book shows 300 miles away, then have to come back and do a truckstop, then drive 400 more miles to the next gig...It barely worked, and we worked our butts off, but there's nothing like playing country music like we do and hearing air brakes and diesel motors in the background, and the [truckers] are really appreciative."
Watson's sound is pure Bakersfield, country filtered through the basic rock lineup of guitars-bass-drums that relies on finesse and feel rather than obvious signifiers like fiddle and steel guitar. "I wish we could carry a steel around," Watson says. "In my opinion, if it ain't got steel, then it isn't a country record, but the budget just doesn't have room for it right now, and you gotta cater to what you got."
The guitar orientation is very reminiscent of Buck Owens. "I really envy those Bakersfield guitar players--Don Rich and all those guys," Watson explains. The Owens analogy is also appropriate in light of Austin's tradition of forging its own country sound, just as Owens did back in the '60s when he broke with Nashville and set up his own operation in Bakersfield. "I don't think it's so much bucking Nashville," he allows. "It's just people doing their own thing...When you suppress our kind of music--traditional hardcore country--it always pops up somewhere else. Every time Nashville has gone real glitzy and pop, that's what happens. They were doing it in the '60s, and it popped up in Bakersfield; they did it in the '70s, and it popped up in Austin with Waylon and Willie."
To Watson, intimacy is the key. "In my opinion, country music is not an arena genre," he says. "I don't think my kind of music is supposed to be played in a 20,000-seat venue; I went to see two of my favorites--Conway [Twitty] and Waylon [Jennings]--at the Astrodome once, and something just got lost in the distance. I think they're just trying to pull in more people, and once you add an orchestra--strings and light shows and flying through the air--then you can play those kind of halls, and I guess that's why Garth plays those KISS-type shows."
But a big hall is what gets the big bucks, a fact not lost on Watson; he just doesn't care. Or, rather, he cares too much. "I grew up listening to bar bands--the intimacy and just the fun of the music being so close to you, and being able to dance to it...That's just a better show to me. You can make more money with bigger shows, but you lose the connection. Now I'm not saying play only 100-seat rooms; there's a happy medium somewhere, and I think it might be around 400 seats."
It's obvious that Watson does more on the road than count mile markers; all his comments are cogent and well-reasoned. "You know what?" he says. "The [Grand Old] Opry house is a good example...What's it hold, like 4,000 seats at the most? That's where the biggest country acts ought to play, and that's how it was for the longest time; the minute the Opry moved from the Ryman [Auditorium, the Opry's original home] was when this pop music thing got to be all over the place."
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.