Dale Watson – Open up the honky-tonk
Which leads to a question that’s rarely asked, perhaps because what he does seems so much a part of who he is: How did Watson, born in 1962, come to focus on that particular music and style in the first place?
The story apparently begins with his father, who had a country band and a single called “Poor Baby” back in the late ’60s. “My dad was a picker and a singer; he always had a regular job, but he did that on the weekends,” Watson recalls. “We were in North Carolina till I was 12. That was a really good place to grow up for a young kid — dirt roads, pine trees, and we lived in a trailer house. It’s a good influence place, and the country radio there was good radio, so I grew up listening to Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Johnny Cash.
“My dad was playing country, and I grew up listening to it myself, so I wasn’t a rebel about that. I didn’t want to go against it, because I liked it! And I started doing it when I was 14.”
That meant playing in bands with his brothers in joints around Houston after the family relocated to Texas. They were playing the songs they knew from the radio; Watson reckons “Fraulein”, the frequently recorded Lawton Williams song that was a Top 40 hit for Bobby Helms in the ’50s, was the first song he ever sang onstage. He was soon starting to write songs for the girls in the neighborhood.
They eventually took the name the Classic Country Band, and had a single out more than ten years before Watson came to wider attention with his series of discs on HighTone starting in 1995. But in their live shows, it should be understood, not everything they played was “classic.” They played the hits of the day, for better and worse, as most any bar band must, and did so for years.
“I already noticed a change in the music around ’78, I guess,” he remembers, “and had to play the Top 40, so I was doing stupid stuff, bad stuff, selling my soul just to play every night, songs I hated with a passion. And to be clear about it, even in ’92, when I moved to Nashville to write for a publishing company, I played guitar on the side for groups doing ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ to make some more money — because I was on welfare then, on food stamps, and had a kid on the way. It was frustrating, but I did my full share of awful cover songs — Alabama songs, things like that.
“It’s funny, to this day, especially when we wind up playing in one of those boot-scootin’ bars somewhere, someone will come up and ask for some old song I used to do but always hated doing, like, oh, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. They’ll ask, ‘Do you know that?’ And, oh, I know it; I’ve done it so many times! But it’s, ‘No, don’t know that one.’
In the late 1980s Watson was playing top hit country in bars around Los Angeles, particularly in Pasadena. A girlfriend who would eventually be his second wife introduced him to Rosie Flores and the whole lively scene that would produce the seminal Town South Of Bakersfield collections. There were new writers there who knew their country (and their rock too), and they were finding ways to write fresh songs that still acknowledged history.
Some of them, as elsewhere, gravitated toward sounds of still older acoustic country, but it was hardcore honky-tonk that was still speaking to Dale. “There were certain writers out there that influenced me, as did the music I was listening to,” he says. “People were more into roots music, so my collection grew more in that direction than it ever had. But honky-tonk’s where I’d cut my teeth.”
Watson developed a clear penchant (and talent) for writing self-reflecting songs, with the impact of hard country music in his life as their subject. It’s telling that the title tracks “I Hate These Songs” and “Every Song I Write Is For You” are among his most powerful.
But more broadly, as a student of the music and performers who had preceded him, Watson was given to writing songs in the genres that had come before — a honky-tonk shuffle, a fast-paced truckin’ song, the occasional country waltz. That’s what spoke to him, and it was how he’d begin to speak. The notion was that you’re doing a good job with an original country song when the audience finds something there that they recognize instantly.
“That’s one of the things I liked about country music, period,” Watson explains, “that sometimes you can almost guess what they’re going to say next, because the music is so identifiable. It’s not that it’s simple and anybody could write it, but that anyone can identify with it enough to know what the next line is.
“I’d rather hear a song that I can identify with than one I have to listen to so hard just to get it. You know what I mean? There’s something to be said for that; there’s stuff out there that’s intricate and good. But as for me, I don’t write deep lyrics; I don’t mind rhyming ‘you’ with ‘blue.'”
That’s a bit modest. Watson’s been writing songs in all of these modes, including an increasing percentage of ballads in recent years, with a facility that has been marked, if undervalued. In an era when the Nashville mainstream has picked up on songs by Buddy & Julie Miller, Jim Lauderdale and Iris DeMent, some of Watson’s fast ones and the newer ballads would seem likely to get noticed by the more enlightened end of the “Nashville Rash” (to quote another of his song titles), though Watson has not spent a whole lot of time marketing songs in that direction.
He did have a brief Nashville publishing deal himself, after the Desert Rose Band’s John Jorgenson brought his work to the attention of Curb Records, and a single or two came to the attention of Nashville singer Gary Morris. But none of those ties were to last.
“Nashville never, ever warmed up to me, even when I had my contract with Curb in 1990,” he says. “I never really had that option open to me. It wasn’t right for me. It wasn’t like I was lofty and had high ideals; I just wrote songs. But I found that I had to write what I knew about. In Nashville, it’s, ‘You’re great — now let’s change that! We’ve got to get rid of that rough edge!'”
Did he ever imagine he might find a home within the large-scale country music business as it’s established?
“Oh, man. At the beginning, like a lot of people, I just thought, ‘If only I could get a record deal.’ But the reality of the business is that it’s not about talent; it’s more who you know and how much money you have behind you.