Review: Dale Watson – Carryin’ On (E1, 2010)
Dale Watson has always been a country music militant. But as he’s aged, he’s moved away from explicit railing against the modern country music establishment, choosing instead to show them up by crafting songs that are more country than “country.” Of course, there’s some irony in Watson’s embrace of an era that was scorned by then-contemporary critics who felt Nashville had irrevocably compromised the hillbilly roots of earlier times with the introduction of electric guitars and drums. But one can easily trace the DNA shared by the Carter Family, Merle Haggard and Dale Watson, while many of Nashville’s modern radio stars seem to have grown from the Petri dish of arena rock. The music that Watson idolizes, and the place from which he composes, grew from the same roots, even as electric instruments were introduced and pedals were added to the steel guitars.
His latest album draws directly upon the golden age by featuring Lloyd Green (steel guitar), Hargus “Pig” Robbins (piano) and Pete Wade (guitar) as instrumentalists, with the Carol Lee Cooper Singers (led by the daughter of legends Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper) adding deft countrypolitan touches in the background. Watson’s baritone is less strident than in his earlier days, showing his love of country songs with his vocal caress rather than with lyrical barbs. He shuffles with the swinging glide of Ray Price, tenderly holding a lover, switching to the bottle’s embrace when left behind, and finally counseling the cheaters of the world “How to Break Your Own Heart.”
The album’s title track borrows the rolling rhythm of “Gentle on My Mind,” but its self-assessment of an aging party boy charts a future without John Hartford’s wistful memories. Robbins’ piano and Green’s steel underline the emotions as Watson’s songs wallow in romantic misery, moon over absent mates, and celebrate being in love. The album’s one moment of modern-Nashville-inspired enmity is the closing “Hello, I’m an Old Country Song.” But here the words are filled with sorrow rather than barbs, more nostalgic and resigned than ready to pick a fight. Still, as long as Waston is writing and singing, he keeps the flame of his beloved country sounds vital, and that’s truly the best rebuttal of all.