Since launching his career in the mid-90s, dyed-in-the-wool honky-tonk devotee Dale Watson has operated with keen self-awareness: on his superb 1995 debut, Cheatin’ Heart Attack, he sang, “I’m too country now for country, just like Johnny Cash / Help me, Merle, I’m breaking out in a Nashville rash.” He knew that his stripped-down twang would make him persona non grata in Music City, so he operated from Austin, Texas, a longtime bastion for subversive elements within the country tradition. Over the years he’s devoted certain recordings to specific aesthetics (woozy 70s balladry, for instance, or the chucka-chucka sound of early Johnny Cash), but he’s never wavered from his core loyalties. And though he’s fully conscious of his nonrelationship to contemporary country music, he’s never let his own career turn into a game of retro dress-up—even at his most arch and comic, he always seems to be putting at least part of his real self into every song. To do this for two decades, I suppose he’d have to. Watson has a new album, El Rancho Azul, coming out in January on Red House Records.
Interviewing Watson for this installment of Artist on Artist is local singer, drummer, and electric-washboard maestro Lawrence Peters. He’s not a purist in the same way Watson is—he used to play damaged psych-punk in Steve Krakow’s Plastic Crimewave Sound—but a big piece of his heart belongs to hard-core country. He’s a fine crooner further distinguished by a splendid sartorial sense, and he spreads his talents across many ensembles—these days including the Velcro Lewis Group, the Harrow, the Lawrence Peters Outfit, and the Golden Horse Ranch Band, the last of which opens for Watson on Friday. —Peter Margasak
The stuff that I’m really influenced by is older. You know, primarily 50s to mid-60s. And I grew up on 70s stuff; I have some faves from there too. But the environment that made those people was largely gone by the time I was old enough to really know what was going on. What would you say was the influence that led you to focus on more “traditional” country?
The style of music that we like ended right before we were able to be a part of it. But still that influences me. And the answer is because I liked the music my dad was—his records, I liked. I was a rebellious teenager in other ways but not in the way of his music. I liked his music a whole lot; he played it and sang it. And again, as much as mainstream radio is so god-awful today, when I look back on it, I was cringing when I would hear stuff like Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers singing “Islands in the Stream.” I agree with when Charlie Rich took his lighter out of his pocket on that award show and set fire to John Denver’s ballot. That was pretty much country music going up in smoke right there.
You know, when you look back on that stuff, it does sound more country than anything mainstream today, which doesn’t have any connection to anything. That’s what people don’t understand—if it was connected in any way, you could understand it being part of the genre. But the genre doesn’t exist anymore.
I feel like somebody bought the copyright.
They bought the rights to the term “country music” and they made it into something else.
That’s a great way of putting it—I think I’m going to steal that. It’s sad. It’s like they bought the name “Harley-Davidson” and then stuck a Schwinn out there. The only thing that’s similar is that it’s got two wheels.
I remember when I was a kid, the country station we listened to in Denver—it’s interesting to think back on it now because it was a big, commercial country station. They played all the new stuff but they played all the old stuff too.
You know, that’s one of the major differences these days—radio stations just do the new stuff. If they played the kind of music I like—and it doesn’t have to be my records—next to the shit they play on the radio, it sonically would just be so different that you’d go, “Oh man, why are they playing that?” You get what I’m saying? It would expose the emperor’s clothes, or lack thereof.
“Why are they playing this country song on this pop station?”
Exactly. And if they put a Loretta Lynn song right next to a Taylor Swift song—light-years away. You don’t see the connection; there is no connection. If anything has roots to itself, you hear it. You put Alison Krauss next to a Loretta Lynn record, you hear the connection; Dolly Parton next to it, you hear it. Lee Ann Womack does some stuff that’s pretty great; you put her next to some Loretta Lynn, you can see the connection.
But you know what’s great. On the TV they were advertising the new Honda Civic and it has Internet radio, Pandora and stuff like that. Ten years ago I said that’s where everything’s gonna go, because commercial radio sucks so bad that—when the iPod came along, that was part of it, you would play it in your car. But to have Pandora or any kind of Internet radio choice in your car—the majors can kiss their ass good-bye.
Makes some sense. A boy can dream.
It’s great to talk to somebody close to my age who’s doing a similar thing to what I’m doing and get some perspective on it from somebody that’s deeper into it than I am. One thing I was thinking about was, your first record came out in, what, ’88?
I did my first record in ’82. I went to Gilley’s studio in Pasadena, Texas, recorded a 45—a couple of 45s actually, my own thing. My recording career didn’t really start off until Curb Records, which we did in ’88—you’re right.
When you started, of course you were aware of what Top 40 radio was like at the time. Did you ever have any thoughts that you might be able to crack it?
Oh yeah! Absolutely. It seemed feasible to me because Dwight [Yoakam] was happening right at the same time. My stuff was close to what Dwight’s doing, and it seemed like there was an audience that the record companies were listening to. Myself, I thought there was a chance, but I quickly learned otherwise when the record companies showed their fangs.
I don’t blame record companies for my stuff not going. It all depends on money. It did then and it does now. You get enough money to throw at promotion and TV and all that kind of stuff, you know, that’s what the public is gonna like. That’s why what’s really weird is what every Joe Six-Pack and hard-working guy and woman listened to was stuff like Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn. Now it’s more likely to be between a 20-year-old college student that stumbled on a Hank Williams tribute show and people that don’t want to follow the flocks any more. So you got a smaller audience but a more eclectic audience.
One thing I should say, because I tell my guys in the band whenever they join me—it’s the very first thing I tell them, the number one rule. I only have one rule in my band, and that number one rule is have fun. That’s what got us into music in the first place, and if we ain’t having fun up there, then we’d stop.
That’s a good attitude to have. So on the topic of songwriting, are you a sit-down-every-day-at-the-same-time-and-work or a scribble-on-a-cocktail-napkin-and-flesh-it-out-later kind of guy? How do you write?
Sitting down at the same time, that’s the Harlan Howard method. It worked really good for him, but I pretty much—it kind of hits me at the time. A lot of times it’s when I’m driving. I write mostly onstage. But this girl I know in New York City had a picture on her Facebook page that inspired me to write—oddly enough she just called me—and I’m going into Sun Studio to record six songs I wrote real quick just because that one picture inspired me. It’s a pretty hot picture.
She’s a singer too, and she used to work in the Playboy mansion or club or something in New York, and she had a picture of her in that outfit somebody’s taken of her, and she’s just smiling and giving the finger. That one picture—I thought, you know what, I’m gonna do a 45. Just all songs about leaving somebody. Telling somebody good-bye and good riddance. But the whole reason I bring that up is that inspiration comes from all over the place. We’re onstage and a lot of times somebody will say something. I was onstage and somebody said, “You lie when you drink!” I go, hmm. So I wrote a song called “I Lie When I Drink,” on the album that’s coming in January.
Obviously you get a lot of Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings comparisons, and I know you compare yourself to those guys, but were there other folks, growing up, who you were super influenced by?
Elvis is probably a bigger influence on me, more so than even Merle or Johnny Cash after that. Me and my brother would take our Frisbees and hold them in our hands and act like a steering wheel and be race-car drivers. He would always be Mario Andretti, and I’d be Elvis. He goes, “He’s not a race car driver!” I said, “Yeah he is, I seen him in a movie.” Probably Elvis is a pretty huge influence, and Dean Martin.
Do you make a living making music?
I have since the 80s, yeah.
Man, that’s great. Obviously these days the musical landscape is touring and all that kind of stuff—if you’re a fairly well-known artist, you can make decent pay playing shows. I love touring, personally, but do you have any favorite parts?
I’m lucky. I’m able to tour all over the world, which is kind of a blessing to be able to go book European stuff a couple of times a year. And as far as the States, the midwest and northeast are our strong points. I rarely ever play the south—the south doesn’t seem to be a place that enjoys our type of roots music at all. They pretty much love what Nashville’s putting out in the south. Whereas in the northeast and the midwest or Chicago, Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa—we go to Nebraska, Kansas City, all up around there—we’re able to tour quite extensively, because there’s a definite audience for it. And I don’t know why.
It’s kind of mystifying. I guess there is that whole reality of, you know, in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and quite a bit later, I guess, probably through the 70s, there were all the southerners that moved to Indiana and Illinois and got jobs in the factories.
That’s true. My dad, you know, in the 60s, he went from Hazard, Kentucky. They went up to Chicago. My dad recorded on a label called Chaparral there in Chicago, and I remember going to see him where he lived. He worked at a gas station, an Amoco in Chicago there in the 60s. I remember watching him rehearse in a bar there, I think the bar used to be called . . . what was it called . . . I have to think on that, but it actually had swinging doors. I remember pushing the swinging doors open and listening to him rehearse a Ray Price song. I remember the countrypolitan sound was kind of just happening, and it was being blended with western swing in Chicago. It was pretty fun. I listened to my dad’s record, and they used studio musicians from Chicago—I think they recorded in 1966. What was the name of that place? I’ll think of it.
I can’t remember the name of the club that the Sundowners owned, but I wonder if it was that place.
Ha! I’ve heard of that. I wonder if it is. Well, I think this place was on Clark Street. [Editor’s note: The Sundowners’ longtime venue, called the Double-R Bar, opened in 1948 at 5 N. Clark and moved around the corner to 56 W. Madison in 1959, where it stayed till 1977.]
I don’t know if I should know more about the history of country music in Chicago, but I don’t. What was your dad’s name?
Don Watson. It was Don Watson & the Make-Ups.
I’ve got some Chapparal singles, but that’s not one that rings a bell. I’ll have to look for that one.
So we were talking a bit about the current state of “country music.” I’m really hopeful about XM Radio and that kind of stuff. I wish actually that there were programs that dug a little deeper. What is it that allows somebody to get their stuff heard, when they’re phenomenal players but they don’t get heard on any of this stuff regardless?
Yeah, well, a lot of it’s still about money. I don’t know the exact politics of it, but I do know that [the channel] Willie’s Place changed what they played; I used to get played there a whole lot. I know Willie—he wasn’t really happy about the change, but there was a corporate decision, and it’s less about listenership than money and the subscriber base. If you play people’s songs, you gotta pay ’em, so they were playing a lot of people’s stuff and paying people they had to pay, but there’s a subscription base that didn’t warrant it—it just didn’t make sense. There wasn’t enough subscription base to pay all these bands.
That’s really interesting.
I know the guy who runs SiriusXM, and he tries really hard to promote roots music. He has to do all that stuff; he’s a businessman. He definitely didn’t want to make that change with Willie’s, but it was just a numbers thing. It all depends on the subscription base. When they changed the format of Willie’s to mainly be oldies, I think they got less than 100 complaints. Out of a million subscribers. And that’s the bottom line: the squeaky wheel gets the grease. In this world, you gotta be vocal. I’m a big believer in silence as a form of consent.
That’s how we got in this condition in country music. It was run by gentlemen and ladies, and the rock ‘n’ roll influence came along—well, I wouldn’t call it rock ‘n’ roll, because rock ‘n’ roll would be too cool. The pop influence came along. And somebody like Kenny Rogers or one of these movie guys like Kevin Costner, they want to play the Grand Ole Opry. “Oh, sure, OK.” So whenever you get all this stuff moving all into your genre and you don’t say, “Ah, no, I’m putting my foot down,” that’s a form of consent. And it took over.