Singer Dale Wat­son

STATE OF MIND

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Jen­nifer Levin

Dale Wat­son has a few things to say about com­mer­cial coun­try songs. “To­day it’s more about mak­ing a jingle, some­thing that will make money, than it is about real mu­sic. It’s aimed at a cer­tain mar­ket, and once they get a for­mula for what’s sell­ing, they stick to it.” That’s why there are so many songs about “guys with trucks and girls and beer, out rid­ing on dirt roads,” as he puts it, tunes that are barely more than lists about what it sup­pos­edly means to be coun­try. Wat­son — who plays a free con­cert on the Plaza on Tues­day, Aug. 8, as part of the Santa Fe Band­stand se­ries — is shaped by a more in­de­pen­dent, out­sider spirit. His is a gritty, work­ing man’s ap­proach, in­flu­enced by a string of leg­ends and their home­spun sounds, in­clud­ing Merle Hag­gard, Johnny Cash, and Wil­lie Nel­son, as well as Jim­mie Rogers, Buck Owens, and the Lou­vin Broth­ers. “What peo­ple think coun­try mu­sic used to be isn’t dead — it’s just pro­nounced Ameripoli­tan,” Wat­son said, re­fer­ring to the term he coined to de­scribe his brand of coun­try. “Ameripoli­tan is about real artists mak­ing real mu­sic, peo­ple in the trenches who do it for a liv­ing. Ameripoli­tan is the byprod­uct of peo­ple’s lives.”

Born into a mu­si­cally in­clined fam­ily in 1962, Wat­son grew up near Pasadena, Texas, and was play­ing pro­fes­sion­ally by age fif­teen. Af­ter stints in Los An­ge­les and Nashville, he moved to Austin, where he still lives when he is not on the road. He tours with his Lone Stars most days of the year and is known for play­ing lengthy con­certs without a break, even on Thanks­giv­ing and Christ­mas. He is a main­stay of the city known as the live mu­sic capital of the world, and plays stand­ing gigs at the Con­ti­nen­tal Club, Austin’s famed venue for clas­sic coun­try acts, as well as at Ginny’s Lit­tle Longhorn and the Bro­ken Spoke. When he was ten years old at scout camp, he played his first live show — an orig­i­nal song he had writ­ten — but his per­for­mance was thwarted by fear, and he ran off the stage be­fore fin­ish­ing the song. A few years older and more con­fi­dent, Wat­son later played to an au­di­ence at a joint where his broth­ers per­formed. “I got up and sang a song — ‘Fraulein’, a Bobby Helms cover,” he said.

Wat­son has more than two dozen al­bums to his name, all of them res­o­lutely out­side of the Nashville main­stream, in­clud­ing Cheatin’ Heart At­tack (High Tone Records, 1995), I Hate These Songs (High Tone Records, 1997), Christ­mas in Texas (Audium/Koch, 2000), From the Cra­dle to the Grave (Hyena Records, 2007), and Call Me In­sane (Red House/Ameripoli­tan Records, 2015). His lat­est, Dale & Ray (Mail­boat Records, 2017), is an al­bum of duets with Ray Ben­son, front­man of the long­time Austin-based western swing band Asleep at the Wheel. The open­ing lines of the first track, “The Bal­lad of Dale and Ray,” have a clas­sic flair that must make con­ven­tional coun­try-mu­sic list-mak­ers se­cretly green with envy: “I like to drink Lone Star/I like to smoke pot/It makes us happy/We do it a lot/Some folks say we’re wast­ing/Our lives this

way/That’s how we roll/We’re Dale and Ray.” Their easy ban­ter and devil-may-care at­ti­tude are hall­marks of the out­law coun­try-mu­sic tra­di­tion cham­pi­oned by the likes of Wil­lie Nel­son, Way­lon Jen­nings, and David Al­lan Coe, which bucked the Nashville sound and has its roots in 1940s honky-tonk and 1950s rock­a­billy mu­sic.

In the fall of 2000, Wat­son’s girl­friend, Terri Lynn Her­bert, a lawyer with the Travis County at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice, was killed in a car ac­ci­dent when she was on her way to meet him at a gig. There fol­lowed a dark pe­riod where Wat­son’s mind spi­raled. He at­tempted sui­cide and was hos­pi­tal­ized. The fol­low­ing sum­mer, he recorded Ev­ery Song I Write Is

For You (Audium/Koch), a trib­ute al­bum that chron­i­cled his grief. “There are no truckin’ songs or honky-tonkers on Ev­ery Song,” Jerry Ren­shaw of the Austin Chronicle wrote at the time. “It’s purely about some­one try­ing to come to grips with a hor­rific tragedy, and it’s painful to hear Wat­son’s soul ex­posed in such a way.” In 2008, though he was through the worst of the grief, he was still writ­ing songs about Her­bert. He re­leased To Terri

With Love on an in­de­pen­dent la­bel, di­rect­ing all pro­ceeds to the Teresa L. Her­bert Me­mo­rial Foun­da­tion.

“I can’t just sit down and write. When I write a song, it’s about a mo­ment or it’s in­spired by a per­son,” Wat­son said, with the im­pli­ca­tion that any process more con­trived would be a con­ces­sion to mar­ket pres­sures. He and Ben­son cover Wil­lie Nel­son’s “Write Your Own Songs” on Dale & Ray, a telling-off of Nashville record ex­ec­u­tives who think they know what a coun­try song should be, and who have con­tempt for mu­sic out­laws. The only other cover song on the al­bum is “I Wish You Knew,” by the Lou­vin Broth­ers. The an­themic trib­ute to mount­ing ob­ses­sion — about get­ting dumped for kiss­ing a girl against her wishes and then try­ing like hell to stop think­ing about her — is as in­con­gru­ously up­beat as the orig­i­nal, but Wat­son’s and Ben­son’s more wiz­ened voices con­vey re­signed heart­break in the face of mess­ing up some­thing that could have been good, or maybe just jaded re­gret at hav­ing picked the wrong woman to be­gin with.

“The Lou­vin Broth­ers’ har­monies are like no one else’s. They are an in­te­gral part of coun­try mu­sic his­tory — Satan Is Real and all that jazz,” Wat­son said, re­fer­ring to Ira and Char­lie Lou­vin’s chip­per fire-and-brim­stone coun­try gospel out­put. “The Everly Broth­ers bor­rowed a lot from them. You wouldn’t have the Everly Broth­ers if you didn’t have the Lou­vin Broth­ers.”

And we would not have Ameripoli­tan if it were not for Jim­mie Rodgers — known as the fa­ther of coun­try mu­sic — who could have yo­deled to save his life if chal­lenged to do so, but who died from com­pli­ca­tions stem­ming from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis in 1933 at age thirty-five. “My dad was a Jim­mie Rodgers fan, but I learned about Jim­mie Rodgers more through Merle Hag­gard than any­one else. When he did Same Train, A Dif­fer­ent Time [a 1969 trib­ute al­bum to Rogers], that was my step­ping-stone to find­ing out more about him. Ameripoli­tan starts with him, whereas Amer­i­cana starts with Woody Guthrie. Amer­i­cana is more about so­cial is­sues — ‘we’ and ‘them’ and ‘those’ and ‘us.’ Jim­mie Rodgers was talk­ing about per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences, how life was af­fect­ing him.”

Rodgers is per­haps best rec­og­nized for the song “Blue Yodel No. 9,” also known as “Stand­ing on the Cor­ner,” in which he sings, “Lis­ten all you rounders, you bet­ter leave my woman alone.” It is a line that shows up in var­i­ous per­mu­ta­tions in other coun­try songs. “I’ve been mar­ried four times, so I’ve been called a rounder, too,” Wat­son said. “I think ev­ery coun­try singer has been called a rounder.”

And all self-re­spect­ing coun­try singers make a good-faith at­tempt at yo­del­ing like Rodgers, Wat­son said. When pressed about his skills in this arena, he said he can do it — badly. “It’s weird to be asked that to­day be­cause I just wrote a song I’m go­ing to yodel on — ‘My Old Lady.’ If it comes out good, I’ll put it on my new record. If it don’t, then the an­swer is no, I don’t yodel.”

DALE WAT­SON

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