Dale Watson – The Truck Stops Here
Watson, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, says driving 11,000 miles in seven weeks fuels his creativity. The hypnotic tedium of staying between the shoulder and the white line is his source of songwriting inspiration. “Driving is the best thing for me. That’s how I write,” Watson says. “I don’t have to pick up a guitar. I just hear it in my head. But I have to keep singing it or I’ll forget it.”
Watson inherited his penchant for performing and traveling from his father, the late Don Watson, who drove a semi and owned a gas station. On the weekends, the elder Watson blew off steam performing at beer joints. “That’s what he lived for, playing on the weekends,” Watson recalls. “On Sundays we used to wake up to him playing guitar to the radio.”
In honor of his father, he included a Don Watson composition “Poor Baby” on Blessed Or Damned. “I grew up with that song. It’s like an old classic to me,” says Watson, who sports a tattoo of his father on his left arm. “I want to put an old classic on each record because that’s really important to me. It doesn’t have to be real popular, just an older song that I really dug.”
When Watson was a teen-ager, his family moved to Pasadena, Texas — near Houston, and home of Gilley’s, the ground-zero bar of the Urban Cowboy movie (and movement). While other kids were listening to Top 40, he immersed himself in the souls of his idols: Conway Twitty, Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn, Ray Price, George Jones. At 15, he joined a classic country band with his brothers. “I sang; they played guitar and bass. I was known as Donny and Jim’s little brother,” he remembers. In 1982, Watson (then 20) cut a single at Gilley’s. “They were two songs I wrote, and I sounded awful,” he rues. “I shouldn’t have done it.”
Thirteen years passed before he recorded his first long-player, Cheatin’ Heart Attack. Yet Watson harbors no regrets about waiting until his 30s to begin his career in earnest. “I’m glad it’s taken this long to make the first record. I’ve always been a late bloomer,” Watson says. “I don’t believe you can write in an honest fashion about life when you’re 20 years old. You need to take time to stand back and look at the big picture.”
During that decade and a half, Watson held odd jobs, including a nauseating stint as a staff writer for a Nashville publishing company. Searching for financial stability for himself and his pregnant wife, Watson eventually became disillusioned with the Nashville establishment. “It was frustrating to go to Nashville and think I’m going to do country music and nobody is interested in it,” he says.
He hasn’t forgotten that dismissal of traditional country artists, both legends and newcomers. When he beseeches a radio DJ, “Can’t you please play a real country song?” in a song on his new disc, he’s echoing sentiments set forth on “Nashville Rash” from his first album. That track, a lament on the bland porridge of pop and country, invokes the name of Merle Haggard and other country greats and likens Watson’s predicament to his forefathers’: “I’m too country now for country just like Johnny Cash…I’m breaking out in a Nashville rash.”
As for Nashville’s latest traditional offering, Arista recording artists BR5-49, Watson says the Tennessee combo could either resurrect or restrict the popularity of traditional country.
“BR5-49 is in a good position and a bad position. They’ve got a major label behind them and they’re being pushed as the traditional sound of country music,” Watson says. “But the problem is when you’re in that position you have to win, place and show. If they don’t happen in a big way, then bands like the Derailers and Wayne Hancock aren’t going to be attractive to Nashville.”
For artists and audiences, Watson says concentrating on the visual aspects of country — the Nudie suits, the slicked-back coifs and the silver collar tips — detracts from the essence of the music. This realization prompted Watson to tone down his personal dress code. “That’s why I quit wearing my suits,” Watson says. “I have about $2000 worth of suits, but I don’t wear them.”
Watson also feels that labeling the neo-traditionalist movement as “retro” instead of new tokenizes artists who fall outside the clique of pre-fabricated singing mannequins. “The problem that we’re having is that it’s dangerous to represent this music as a retro thing,” he says. “Retro is Nashville’s way of dealing with this kind of traditional music. I’m doing new music in an old-fashioned way. That emphasis can’t be made enough. Everybody should be hollering that out loud.”