Dale Watson – The Truck Stops Here
It would be no surprise if each morning Dale Watson places his hand on his heart and recites Buck Owens’ Pledge to Country Music: “I shall sing no song that is not a country song. I shall make no record that is not a country record.” Cheatin’, drinkin’, truckin’, lyin’ — in beer joints and motel rooms, the sable-haired, tattooed Watson succumbs to temptation, breaks most of the Ten Commandments, then repents. Other times, he revels in his misdeeds and never looks back.
As singer June Stearns faintly warbles in the background from a 1972 Grand Ole Opry record, Watson, one of country music’s most outspoken neo-traditionalists, relaxes in his Austin home on a rare hiatus between road trips and discusses his two favorite topics: country music and trucking. He spent much of this summer combining those passions, teaming up with the Road Gang Radio Network and Western Star Trucks for a series of gigs at truckstops across the country.
If that sounds like an creative concept for touring, well, sometimes there’s a price to be paid for trying to do things outside the established framework. Watson was originally scheduled to be aboard the tour for 22 weeks, but that was cut short in late July because of problems with the promotion of the gigs, according to Watson’s manager, Mike Crowley. However, Crowley said Watson likely will continue to work occasional truckstop gigs into his future touring plans, when the circumstances are conducive.
All logistical problems of the truckstop tour aside, Watson said performing at those roadside outposts of ephedrine, coffee and bacon grease captured a romanticism, a ruggedness reserved for only the hardiest souls. “When we do songs, original and hardcore honky-tonk songs, sometimes the truckers request them and they get a big ole’ grin on their faces,” Watson says in a drawl as thick as sausage gravy. “We do ‘Truckin’ Man’ and sometimes we’ll hear a diesel in the background and air brakes.”
Watson exported his truck-driving skills and drove on the left side of the road as he and his band the Lone Stars opened for Texas compatriot Jimmie Dale Gilmore on a recent European tour. Yet in the land of tea and crumpets, finding a heap of biscuits and gravy and a cheap cup o’ joe is tougher than breaking into Windsor Castle.
“Their stops are so different. Coffee is one of the main things of a truckstop, but you can’t just go in there and grab a cup and go. There’s no refills. And to get a whole thermos full is out of the question,” Watson says with a bewildered tone. “So you have to sit down. They’re not so much for fast food over there. You have to sit down and eat.”
But the Brits’ passion for traditional country music compensates for their uppity truckstops. “They regard the Nashville stuff as alternative,” Watson says. “They like the traditional stuff a lot. They know more about the history of country than Americans do.”
Teaching the homefolk the meaning of “true country” is how Watson, 33, intends to make his mark. Led by his molten baritone and the coondog howl of a pedal steel, Watson kicks into his new HighTone album Blessed Or Damned with a spirit that picks up right where last year’s Cheatin’ Heart Attack left off. Watson credits the consistency to his co-producer Bruce Bomberg. “He’s always going to be there,” Watson says with conviction. “He’s good about keeping me in check if I get weird. Bruce puts in his two cents’ worth and it’s worth a dollar.”
Reining in Watson means luring him away from his fondness for frilly background vocals. Although the embellishment works tastefully on “Poor Baby” and “Fly Away”, one number, “Lost My Heart In San Antone”, was cut from the record. “I spruced it up too much,” he concedes. “That’s the thing, keeping it simple. Verse chorus, verse chorus.”
“Truckin’ Man”, the leadoff track on Watson’s latest release, chronicles the daydreams of a white-collar cog lodged in a corporate wheel. As he languishes in his cubicle, watching his “life slip away pushing these No. 2 pencils everyday,” he daydreams of “nights in the roadhouse, days on the lost highway.”
A fiddle reminiscent of the Ray Price era sweetens the lovelorn balladry of “It’s All Behind Us Now”, while the rambunctious guitar twang modernizes “Honkiest Tonkiest Beer Joint” and “Truckstop in La Grange”. Both records feature an A-list of Texas players, including Lloyd Maines on pedal steel, Jerry Donahue on guitar, and Gene Elders (of George Strait’s band) on fiddle. With new drummer Lee Potts, Watson hopes to experiment with a gentler snare-and-tom sound, using brushes instead of firewood.