Lots of starry-eyed dreamers over the years have hoped that music would be their path to fame and fortune. But heading into the fifth decade of his career, Dale Watson has learned better. Thus the title of his latest album, Starvation Box — a jaded appellation for the guitar, coined by the great blues singer Lead Belly’s less-than-encouraging father.
Watson’s got a right to be skeptical. A talented songwriter with a commanding baritone whose work is marinated in outlaw dust, he’d have been a surefire hitmaker if country radio still loved its Waylons and Willies and Cashes. But it doesn’t, and so he’s been relegated to the alt-country margins, rolling along a largely abandoned highway. The track “Whatever Happened to the Cadillac?”, in which he laments the blandification of compact vehicles over an ominous minor-key acoustic guitar strum, comes across as an indictment of genre arbiters who can’t recognize the value of an idiosyncratic chrome juggernaut when it’s roaring right up over their toes.
If Watson’s been unjustly neglected, though, he hasn’t let that stop him from making great music. The new album is arguably one of his strongest sets, with a varied selection of styles. Percy Mayfield’s “Like a Stranger in My Hometown” is given a stone blues treatment. “Down Down Down Down” is a rockabilly blast into the abyss. “Two Peas in a Pod” is a great flirtatious Conway/Loretta-style duet with Watson’s wife, Celine Lee, in which she assures him that even when they’re not together, she still brushes her teeth “cause I ain’t nasty.” And the reflective “I Ain’t Been Living Right,” with its infectious strum, bluegrass-tinged solos, and lyrics that casually cut to the bone (“Out of the ten commandments I reckon I broke eight / I reckon you can reckon on which two I didn’t break”) feels like it could be a signature song for an artist who hasn’t, like Watson, already collected a half dozen of those.
Making a career highlight album some 40 records in isn’t exactly stardom. It is a triumph in its own way, though. Watson may not be Elvis (who gets a shout out on “Billy Strawn”), and he’s not Lead Belly or Waylon, or Willie. But he hasn’t starved either, and he’s still playing on that box.
Dale Watson’s Starvation Box is out July 7 on Cleopatra Records.