Dale Watson – Open up the honky-tonk
It hits you, after listening to Dreamland for a while: It’s the first Dale Watson record done in the mode his ardent admirers appreciate most in seven years.
If that surprises, it’s because he’s let loose so many other recordings in that time. There have been theme collections, often released first in Europe, some of them sold only on his website — the one with turns on trucking songs, the one where he sings the Elvis Sun Sessions numbers (very well), and the Christmas album, and that live one, and that other one with topical songs about places he’s played on the road with his band.
And, also, he has been out there with his road-warrior band most of that time, singing that unreconstituted honky-tonk music, singing songs he’s written, and songs by the hard country legends he emulates and advocates — even when it was very difficult for him to be there, emotionally and physically.
The main reason it’s been so long since he’s had a straightforward collection akin to his mid-’90s releases Cheatin’ Heart Attack, Blessed Or Damned and I Hate These Songs — i.e., one made up of new original material reflecting the range of what Watson does with his crack Lonestars band on any given night in Austin or out on the road — has been business. There had been legal tangles that kept him from recording for an American label, but that’s all over, finally. So in 2004, Dreamland is out on Koch Records, produced by Asleep At The Wheel leader Ray Benson.
Watson is quite happy with the result; he’s been telling people that it’s his best honky-tonk album. (There’s even a sticker on the front of the disc attesting to that.)
“What I like about this record is that it’s really reflective of what I do,” he says. “It reminds me of when I went in to do Cheatin’ Heart Attack; it had the same vibe, and the same passion was in there. Ray brought some of that with him. And yes, these are my new songs that I’ve been doing lately, done with the best sound I’ve had on any recording, because the technology is different, better than in the past.
“I wanted to set down the production hat this time and not have to worry about that — just kind of show up, sing and play,” he continues. “With Ray, that’s pretty much what I did. I enjoy doing production, and even with this record we pretty much co-produced it, but Ray took the helm in the cutting and mixing phases of it, and those are important times. In the overdub stuff, he did most of it. Taking that much of a load off frees up a lot of creativity.”
The other load Dale Watson has been carrying these last years, the one that made the papers and sidetracked him for a while into just the projects and live shows he could handle, was the death in a car crash of his girlfriend Terri Herbert in September 2000, and the deep mourning and depression that followed, culminating in his suicide attempt at the end of that year.
Watson has been characteristically frank, even blunt, about those sorrowful events ever since they occurred.
“I was on autopilot for a long time — three years of my life which were just about trying to exist,” he says. “I went into the nut house a couple of times. And then in this last year I finally came out of it, and am able to live again.
“Right before I went into the studio to record this album is when I came out of the fog, really. The shows helped a lot, and the fans were real patient with me, when they could tell that I was going through some stuff. They still came out, though some of them fell off. I’d like to think that this album will get them back; you don’t want to see somebody that’s just hurtin’ so bad. And I put my fans through some of that.”
Watson’s personal tailspin was extended further, he’s very sure, by a few pundits who suggested in print that he’d exaggerated his relationship with Terri (because of the often-reported but mistaken characterization of their relationship as “engaged”), or that he was profiting personally from the extraordinary record Every Song I Write Is For You, which emerged during his recovery time. It featured fourteen new songs about life with and without Terri, delivered mainly in a crooning, swinging mode that inevitably took some Watson fans by surprise.
“Every Song, before Audium took it, was originally recorded just for me, never intending to put it out; I used to hand it out for free,” he says. “Then I sold the ten-song version of that, with all of the money going to the Terri Herbert Foundation. When I got so much really good feedback from people who were in the same situation, I decided to put it out, even if it wasn’t the thing people know me for, just for those who want it.”
“And I always say that it’s a really different Dale Watson album….I tell people who ask at shows, ‘If I have to buy one of your CDs, what’s your favorite one?’, that it depends. If you’re looking for one with honky-tonk stuff like we did tonight, get this one — I’d say Dreamland. But my favorite album, for personal reasons, is Every Song.
“The strange thing is, I’d get people that I wouldn’t have thought would like it, the rock ‘n’ rollers who come to our shows, punk kids, saying ‘I got Every Song for my mom, because I just lost my sister.’ And that really surprised me. I expect them to come up and request ‘Country My Ass!'”
Raucous, accusatory numbers such as that one, which appeared on his Live In London…England album, are what Watson’s fans have come to expect from him.
Never mind that the traditional country singers he emulates, the Merle Haggards and Mel Streets and Lefty Frizzells and Wynn Stewarts, always did sing ballads of love and loss — not just of good times getting plastered in honky-tonks, but of the prices paid by men and women who hang out in them. They offered not just defiance and attitude, but also demonstrations of regret, acceptance, and potential redemption.
Watson knows all this very well, even as he knows hundreds upon hundreds of country songs that he can play on demand, and often does. But it’s the Nashville-baiting songs he’s become known for, the defiant songs and the ones that express his deep, often-stated and restated demand for a return to the older honky-tonk sounds that brought his following. He’s perhaps the prime example of a performer who’s always been thought of as alternative country, and who gladly accepts the label himself, because of his traditionalism, even retro conservatism on these matters. Fans see this stance as a sort of rebellion in itself.