Singer Dale Watson
STATE OF MIND
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.”