By Buddy Blue
The last time I saw country singer Dale Watson, he was holding court in a tiny, sweltering, no- cover/dollar-Lone Star honky tonk in North Austin called Jenny's Little Longhorn Saloon. It was one of those oppressively hot, steamy, summer's-almost-over nights that only the Republic Of Texas is capable of serving up to its unfortunate citizenry, where the humidity hangs over everything like a damp old quilt stinking of mildew, dust and sage; an environment where you can actually chew the air you breathe before inhaling, damning and rejecting it.
Due to either acclimation or inbreeding, the locals were oblivious to the teeming hell enveloping them like a rat being slowly consumed by a sidewinder, as sweat-sopping couples bedecked in long-sleeved cowboy shirts, knee-high leather boots and large, absurd hats danced and reeled and chugged and cackled and "yee-haw-ed" till the wee hours of the morn, ostensibly waiting for the cows to come home.
Outside in the parking lot, illicit bottles of Jack Daniels Old Number 7 were passed about freely, and much to my astonishment, no one was punched, stabbed, shot or dragged from the back of a pick-up truck. These were the type of people who populate the nightmares of liberal Yankees such as myself.
In the midst of it all sat Watson on a barstool, strumming his guitar and singing his songs of lovable losers and no-account boozers; tank top revealing a network of decidedly manly tattoos; not a hair out of place on his neatly pompadoured, prematurely gray head; eyes burning intensely like little coals probing the throng, cueing band members, demanding another tall cool one. This white boy was, in a word, resplendent, and the entire scenario, ladies and gentlemen, was the living embodiment of jan-yew-wine, old-fashioned Amur-kin country music.
Experience a little bitta this curious cracker culture when Watson and his wholly superb band, the Lonestars, play the Casbah on Saturday night.
"To me, what makes a song a country song is something that's genuine, not something that's made up by three guys sitting in a room and trying to pretend they know what a hard time a pregnant single mother is going through," says Watson, a guy not wont to pull verbal punches. "A country song is a song that connects with the artist and connects with the audience, something that has a real, shared meaning."
Watson knows all about the meaning of hard times. The lines in his trucker-hard face tell true tales of fiancées dying in car crashes, losing battles with the bottle, doing time in the loony bin, having five tons of sorrow hanging from your heart. "I write from personal experience," Watson says, the poor s.o.b.
Watson is also an unrepentant retro-head; a one-man warrior against the modern boot-scootin' cutesy- fication of country music, a term he has come to loathe for its modern, warped representation.
"I would love for my music to have some kind of moniker other than 'country music,' because today, country music is all fucked up," he steams. "When you say 'country music,' people think you're talking about all that pop shit that nobody I know can stomach. The charm that the old recordings had to me was that they sounded great. It wasn't overdone, didn't have the screaming guitars all over it. There was a musicality, and there were real singers back in those days."
Early in his career, Watson, 42, tried to play the Nashville game and spent some time writing song for a pop-country publishing mill. The bad taste the experience left in his mouth lingers to this day.
"I tried it," he says. "I tried to open eyes, you know, 'Why do you just want more of the same thing?' They don't have room for any kind of originality in Nashville. They don't even want the next big thing, they really want the same old thing. That's why I like it here in Austin - you can actually grow out here, and it's encouraged. You can pick any day of the week in Austin and do an all-nighter. You start in the afternoon at Happy Hour somewhere, then go to another gig that starts at seven or eight, then go to another gig that starts at ten or eleven. There's always something going on in this town, and it's not just country music or whatever you wanna call it either, there's all kinds of original music."
Like most Austin-ites, Bamalama-born Watson defends the virtues of his adopted hometown like a mother pit bull protecting her puppies. Austin is home-base for 90% the so-called alt-country scene, andhe cites fellow acts like Wayne Hancock, the Derailers and Junior Brown as the modern torch-bearers of tradition.
"Even though our music is a lot different - Wayne's stuff is a lot closer to Hank Williams than mine, the Derailers were more into Buck Owens stuff - it's all roots-sounding, and that's the common denominator," he says. "Some of the stuff they call alt-country should be called 'alt-not be called country,' though. There are lines that get crossed. But a real country artist who plays within the tradition of the music, they've always been good singers, that was the shared factor. You don't have to sing worth a shit today as long as you're making an appeal to your base and acting the part. There's a lot of show-biz in it these days."
But thar t'aint no showbiz in that boy Dale, nossir. Lurleen, pass me a mustard sammich, woodya darlin'?
Dale Watson and the Lonestars, February 5 at the Casbah, 2501 Kettner Blvd. in San Diego, 9 p.m., $12, (619) 232-HELL.
>>>>>>>>>>>>> Sidebar: DALE WATSON'S FAVORITE COUNTRY SINGERS
1.) HANK WILLIAMS I have to put Hank as number one. I know it's trite to say it, but he is the father of country music. They call Jimmie Rodgers the father of country, but Hank brought more contemporary themes to the music that Jimmie Rodgers didn't touch on. You hear his records today and they're still as fresh as the day he recorded them.
2.) JOHNNY CASH He was never afraid to be dark. He didn't make a conscious effort to make dark-sounding songs, but he wasn't afraid of it either. When he was at his creative peak, everybody wanted happy songs, even back then. He did his share of that too, but he always kept in touch with what it was supposed to be about, singing about love and hate, war and divorce, paying taxes and dying, going to prison. That was very impressive about him.
3.) MERLE HAGGARD I like him for a lot of the same reasons I like Johnny Cash. He's a poor man's poet. His voice is so understated, and his writing is so amazing that his voice takes a hind seat to it - and vice versa. He's just got so much talent, he's the undeniable king of country music right now. When people say I sound like him, I consider that the highest compliment possible.
4.) (Tie) CONWAY TWITTY I like his singing ability and the soul that he had. I think he was a soul singer doing country music.
4.) (Tie) RAY PRICE He's like the country Frank Sinatra. Even when he's singing a shuffle, he's got so much beef to him, in his voice, it sounds like he's doing a tune like "New York, New York."
4.) (Tie) WAYLON JENNINGS He made the groove identifiable. He brought a real rock & roll edge to his music, but he still stayed country at the same time.
BLUE NOTES By Buddy Blue
This week: another edition of Blue Notes Roulette, in which menacing-looking promo CDs we otherwise would have ignored due to all outward appearances of great evil are test-driven despite elevated warning levels.
The stupidest song title from each disc is selected, the track studied and reviewed in a noble quest to determine if said tune can possibly live up to its implied threat; we sacrifice our tender ears at the altar of your morbid curiosity, cherished readers.
The Album: Sue and the Flaming Stars, "Drivin' On The Highway Of Love," (Rarity Records)
Appears To Be: Trendy, moronic rockabilly for trendy rockabilly morons. Lyrics will almost certainly feature references to hot rods, switchblades, fishnet stockings, black leather jackets and a woman named Effie Mae. Choice of covers - Elvis, Gene, Hank - is predictable as the latest rash of Jacko molestation charges. Bikini-clad tart on cover is appealing, but her back-up band looks like it considers B.O. to be a fashion statement. The fact that the group is apparently from Holland fails to inspire confidence.
Stupid Song Title: "Drivin' On The Highway Of Love"
Result: Okay, this woman is single worst female rockabilly singer ever, of all time, seriously. She has no pitch, no attitude, a vibrato that recalls Mrs. Miller, and generates excitement worthy of a televised curling tournament. The band lacks pulse, power and rhythm despite a few decent if derivative guitar licks (played out of time), and overall, this tune comes off like the Mamas & the Papas 'faced on downers playing rockabilly on the Lawrence Welk Show.
Grade: D >>>>>>
The Album: Lisa O'Kane, "Peace Of Mind," (Raisin Kane Records)
Appears To Be: Look out: someone's mom set aside her Bingo winnings and decided to put out a record. The blurry photography, cheesy gray packaging and O'Kane's album dedication to her daughters all scream "Vanity Project," and I'm bracing myself to be informed of How Ms. O'Kane Feels About Her Life.
Stupid Song Title: "Coercion Street"
Result: Despite O'Kane's unremarkable but serviceable voice, this tune was a pleasant surprise: simple, tasteful, Appalachian-inspired country-folk, with acoustic guitar, dobro and mandolin accompaniment; sort of a minor-league Alison Krauss. Eventually, I'll even get around to listening to the rest of this CD. Maybe.
Grade: B >>>>
The Album: Loque, "So Long," (Lava Records)
Appears To Be: Really, I have no idea. Oblique, vaguely industrial-looking cover and insert photographs, bleached-out, unreadable copy over said photos and pretentious song titles bespeak a sense of shameless self- importance, but little more info is readily gleaned from a superficial perusal sans actual exposure to product.
Stupid Song Title: "Art"
Result: This is either white guys trying to sound black or blacks guy so lightweight they should be force-fed Ray Charles records while under the influence of LSD. Do the youngsters still call this shit "acid jazz" or is that term passé now? Either way, the complete lack of any ideas or musical ability whatsoever manifest
on this track, coupled with the fact that these people actually have a record deal, makes me weep for all mankind.
Grade: F >>>>
The Album: Randy Thompson, "That's Not Me," (Jackpot Records)
Appears To Be: Wake 'n' bake, Telecaster-bearing, Neil-Young-worshipping roots hippie in dire need of a shampoo and a new pair of Levis is about to steal a bunch of songs from a host of burnt-out '60s relics in hopes of being proclaimed the next Ryan Adams.
Stupid Song Title: "Sound Of The Rain"
Result: I was close, but off the mark: this guy thinks he's Waylon Jennings, not Neil. There are worse role models one could ape, and Rand does a decent enough job of brazen mimicry, but at the end of the day, well, I already have the Waylon boxed set, dude.
Grade: C >>>>
The Album: Jason Miles, "Miles To Miles," (Narada Records)
Appears To Be: Some synth programmer named Miles who looks like Woody Allen thinks it'd be a really cute idea to record a Miles Davis tribute album, replete with retro-jazz packaging. Inside the booklet, there's even a picture of JM posing with the real Miles, just to make sure you grokked the concept.
Stupid Song Title: "King Of The Bling"
Result: Sweet! I could do without the damned scratching and funk-lite/fusion beat, but otherwise, this is superbly arranged, performed and executed stuff, eminently successful in calling up the spirit of the late master. The rest of this CD will get played, and I also need to find out who's laying down that evocative trumpet work