The next time someone looks at you and says, “They don’t make country music like they used to,” hit them upside the head with a copy of this record. I’d recommend the vinyl version: it will make a satisfying whump sound as it strikes home, but shouldn’t do any damage, which should protect you from assault charges. That and the fact they had it coming.
Dale Watson has been making (insert: authentic, old-school, outlaw; they all work) country music for more than 20 years now. He’s had some moderate success, but hasn’t become a household name in a commercial market filled with cowboys as authentic as the painted ponies of a carousel. Watson calls his brand of music “ Ameripolitan”, and that proves both an evocative and accurate description, highlighting his outsider status while emphasizing his clear-eyed vision.
The album opens with a working man’s observation that should be familiar to most listeners involved in any form of actual physical or intellectual work, “Well my bills are getting’ higher and my paycheck’s gettin’ lighter” but Watson offers reassurance that he’ll face his challenges “a day at a time”. It’s an echo of the old Christian hymn “One Day at a Time”, but Jesus is conspicuously absent here. Compassion or redemption in this world must come from within, Watson implies. Even the cross Watson sings of in “The Burden of the Cross” is not the one that held Jesus’ suffering, but rather the reminder of his own in the wake of his fiancée’s death in an automobile wreck in 2000. He sings of the cross being removed by workers widening the road, unaware of the burden that road carries or of the devil’s bargain we make with convenience. It’s a somber, thoughtful song. But please be assured that Watson’s vision of the afterlife is not all bleak, for he assures us in uproarious fashion that “Heaven’s Gonna Have a Honky Tonk.” Preach it, man.
Watson puts his baritone croon to seductive use in “Forever Valentine”, which will no doubt be a staple on the jukebox in heaven’s honky-tonk should we ever be so fortunate to settle in for a long night there with a slow dance partner. The album’s title track is a sober defense of an unsuccessful lover’s persistence, an embrace of the craziness love drives us all to. “Crocodile Tears” is a classic cry-in-your-beer number, which this album figures heavy in, but Watson manages to close things out with the rollicking “Mamas Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to Be Babies” filled with the kind of parental advice likely to result in a call to family services (not that it’s wrong).
Lloyd Maines’ production helps these 14 songs pass by with the ease of a cold pitcher of beer on a hot day. Don Pawlak’s pedal steel and Danny Levin’s piano makes you want another round. If you take your country old-school and have ever found yourself “Jonesin’ for Jones” as Watson sings in his tribute to the classic performer who passed on in 2013, this is an album that will fit your cravings.