by Jordan Green
There’s a little piece of all the legends in the original songs that comprise Dale Watson’s 1995 debut album: the brooding remorse and wry, dark humor of Johnny Cash in “Holes in the Wall” (“Holes in the wall and the stains in the carpet/ Use elbow grease and spackle and Pinesol”) over the simple boom-chucka rhythm of an acoustic guitar, and the bleak sentimentality of Merle Haggard in “She Needs Her Mama.” He even cops a little Shakespeare in “Caught” with the line, “What a web we weave when we practice to deceive.”
While his baritone register is deeper than his heroes George Jones and Gary Stewart, Watson is a master of the warbled heartbreak vocal wrung through clenched-jaw stoicism that made those singers so great.
“I came from a time when the music still had a lot of the roots,” Watson said by phone. “What was being played on the radio when I recorded my first 45 at Gilley’s Recording Studio in Pasadena, Texas was George Jones, Merle Haggard, Charlie Pride, Gary Stewart and Ray Price. It was still very much what country used to be. I was wanting to join them ranks. When I was out searching for the deal, that was the big shock is that they didn’t want that anymore. They wanted the pop stuff. I needed to change to that. It never entered my mind they weren’t looking for me. They’re not looking for an old Chevy; they’re looking for a Maserati.”
From the outset of his career as a recording artist on the Oakland, Calif. roots label HighTone Records, Watson has struck a defiant, anti-Nashville posture. Over the years, his pompadour has taken on a silvery sheen, and his humor has grown sharper while his feel for the tragic has deepened with personal setbacks. He has retained a preference for performing in honky-tonks — a venue equivalent in intimacy to a punk-rock house show.
He no longer identifies with country music; after all, the industry never made a place for the man who sang on his first album, “I’m too country now for country, just like Johnny Cash/ Help me, Merle, I’m breakin’ out in a Nashville rash.” Watson now describes his music as Ameripolitan, which he defines as “original music with prominent roots influence,” including four distinct subcategories: Western swing, rockabilly, honky-tonk and outlaw music.
As a congenital outsider who has staunchly resisted the commercial imperatives of Nashville’s star machinery, Watson should feel right at home at the National Folk Festival in Greensboro, where his songs will hold a place in a multicultural mosaic comprised of both longstanding vernacular traditions and the music of recent immigrant groups.
“I know it’s politically incorrect to bring up the Civil War and the South, but it’s time to go Robert E. Lee on this thing and say, ‘They won,’” Watson says of his stylistic divorce. “They took over the name of country music and they’ve successfully turned it into something else. What happens when you lose the war? You let the victor occupy it, and you move on down the road and start your own thing.”
Or, to use another metaphor that may go down easier in North Carolina’s urban corridor:
“I don’t belong in country music. It’s kind of like gentrification. What happens is you have neighborhoods in every town that you consider it poor. People live there forever and then somebody builds a Starbucks and it ruins the neighborhood. Rich people move in and make these sidewalk diners, and tax values go up. And we can’t afford to be there anymore.”
This will be the first time Watson has performed in Greensboro, but he spent part of his childhood in North Carolina. His family lived outside of Wilmington until he was 12, when they moved to the Houston area so his stepdad, who worked for the Brown & Root construction company, could get a better job. Watson’s pithy description of his time in North Carolina could easily fit in a song lyric.
“We lived on a dirt road,” he said. “It’s fond memories being at that age in North Carolina, where I learned to dig for clams, rake for oysters and pick tobacco.”
While Watson’s songs are imbued with conviction, he’s a natural entertainer with a repertoire of exaggerated facial expressions, whether performing on the hallowed “Austin City Limits” or in a dive bar in the Netherlands. For example, on his signature tune “I Lie When I Drink,” broad smiles intersperse comical self-mortification and eye rolls. It’s not an affectation.
“I had the good luck of my dad being a singer, and getting to go out and see my brothers play with other bands and the way they interacted with the crowd,” Watson said. “They knew everybody in the audience. It rubbed off on me; it wasn’t a conscious thing. I always look at every show like people are in my living room or in my house. I appreciate their time, and want to make sure they enjoy themselves.
This story appears in print under the title “The man who seceded from country music.”