Dale Watson’s Little Darlin’ Sessions should probably come equipped with a cheap bottle of hooch. Owners of firearms would be well advised to lock ‘em up before playing the disc, lest one be temped to croak oneself while listening. Watson sings these (mostly) liquid tales of honky tonk squalor and heartbreak with a deep bass voice of authority, like a Johnny Cash who found solace in alcohol instead of religion. Of course, Watson’s only play acting here. He didn’t write these songs, which were originally recorded by other artists like Johnny Paycheck for Aubrey Mayhew’s Nashville Little Darlin’ record label back in the ‘60s. But Watson’s so damn talented that you’d think he’s the one constantly down the deep end.
The songs themselves are a hoot, if you enjoy wallowing in the black humor brought on by despair. It’s what you’d expect of a disc that begins with the lines “Touch my heart / Feel the hurt / The pain and misery / And tell me again what love can do for me” and ends with “Remember / I still love you / Wherever you are”—kinda makes you thirsty just thinking about it. No wonder the bulk of songs are about drinking and have titles like “Down at the Corner (At a Bar Called Kelly’s)”, “I Don’t Need a Bottle”, “The Pint of No Return”, and such. That doesn’t even count the narrators of the other tunes, who say things like “When I get the heebie jeebies / This jug’s the only way to stop ‘em” and other related sentiments.
Then there are the tracks that are so sad that it makes one want to start drinking, like “Memory Crossing”. This story of a boy and girl in love turns tragic when the boy becomes a soldier and loses his legs in the war. He stops answering her letters and their relationship just fades away. Or “The Late and Great Me”, in which the narrator literally dies of heartbreak when his girl walks out on him. Or the tale about a guy in the bar bragging about sleeping with another fellow’s wife without knowing the husband is present. That one, “He Thought He’d Die Laughing”, ends in murder and the suggestion another one may be soon to follow. Gulp.
The simple production here complements the straight-forward songs of woe. It’s Watson’s unadorned voice aided by sparse accompaniment. Lloyd Green on steel guitar and “Hoot” Hester on fiddle are especially notable in their contributions. That’s great for the listener, but Watson’s pissed off about it. See, this disc wasn’t intended for release. These were demo recordings made many years ago for Curb Records that Koch has released under Watson’s protest. On Watson’s web site he states, “The Little Darling CD was never finished (we cut a lot of songs, but never were given the chance to correct mistakes or overdub background vocals or anything else), i.e. we were given one run through and that was it. They wouldn’t allow any of my originals and that result is tandem to me doing Karaoke on Little Darling songs.” Watson doesn’t want you to buy this record. It competes directly with his new release, From the Cradle to the Grave, which is also an excellent release.
Maybe this disc shouldn’t have been released. I certainly respect the artist’s desire to control his own recorded history. Yes, there is a kitschiness to the whole affair. It’s like hearing those demo versions of the Beatles singing the Coasters’ “Three Cool Cats” for Decca. For fans, however, something special shines through. And for those who like their country music without pretensions, this album is like whiskey made from a still that never had time to age properly. It carries a heckuva kick.