Dale Watson wants to secede from country music and all we can do is hope that this is one rebellion that comes to a happy end.
Dale Watson’s been leading the Ameripolitan Revolution for nearly two decades now. Far from a meaningless portmanteau, Watson’s rallying cry serves as a reminder that country hasn’t been all that rural since at the least the middle of the last century. Countrypolitan first emerged from Nashville in the '50s with flagship acts such as Chet Atkins, Porter Wagoner, and the almighty George Jones. This music infiltrated the AM dial and took hold, becoming the dominant image of country for years to come. It’s the kind of country that the insurgent bands from the '90s and beyond tried to recapture and the kind of raucous rolling practiced by Dwight Yoakam.
What separates Watson from the insurgents is that he seems a man out of time, someone who glides through life without a sense of irony in an era when irony seems as necessary as oxygen, when it’s deeply enough ingrained in our DNA that we can no longer recognize it any more than we can recognize, on an average day, the genetic markers that make ice cream taste good. As good as some of those young cats were there was often a sense of put on: Lyrics that tripped on their cleverness and guitar licks that owed as much to Merle Travis as they did Yngwie Malmsteen.
No one has a corner on the authenticity market, of course. You’d be hard pressed to argue that the Old 97’s don’t deserve to claim Merle Haggard as an influence just because Rhett Miller spends his time away from the band making music aimed straight for the pop market’s gut, or that the Avett Brothers don’t deserve all that attention from the roots community because they didn’t come out of the womb picking Bill Monroe tunes. Neither Miller nor the Avetts are trying all that hard to claim themselves as successors to the country throne and, quite frankly, neither is Watson.
Watson isn’t trying to restore country to its former glory and he’s not exactly bent on watching it burn. Instead, it seems he’d rather let it sink its own ship and get on with what he’s been put on this Earth to do—make music that’s true to his soul. (Or, as a statement on the Ameripolitan Music Awards website reads, “We’re not leaving Country Music behind, we’re taking “real” country music with us.”)
He is, after all, a man who did try his hand at Music Row songwriting only to find that it wasn’t to his liking because writing for a publisher often meant writing songs about subjects he had no real emotional connection to. In “Nashville Rash” he begs Haggard for help, announcing that, like Johnny Cash, he’s become too “country for country”, a line that couldn’t be truer when you consider that it was essentially the rock audience that buoyed Cash’s record sales in his final years and that Haggard and Willie Nelson are probably more beloved by those same listeners while much of what passes for country today is closer to Nickleback. Watson openly balks at contemporary country singers such as Blake Shelton (see the song “Old Fart (A Song for Blake)”), can’t abide the Mutt Lange-influenced sounds that come from FM radio today and seems to all but gag on the idea of “stars” who’ve climbed from the wreckage of vocal competition shows.
This is the man who released an album early in his career titled People I’ve Known, Places I’ve Been, a title that reminds us of exactly how Watson operates, and a record filled with tales of inmates, convicts and the hard times that got them to where they’ll spend the rest of their days. There’s little more heartbreaking in Watson’s catalog than “Left (From Chavis County Jail)”, little that’s more unexpectedly tender than “Blue Our Old Cell Block Guard” or as familiar as the drinking tunes that crop up across the record, including “Hey Don (Support My Favorite Beertender)” and “Louie Lee’s Liquor Lounge”. Listening to the 12 cuts that populate that record you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled upon some lost singer-songwriter from deep in the heart of the '70s or the dimming days of the previous decade. He writes lyrics about the streets he’s traveled, the elbows he’s bumped up against while waiting in line for a beer, and those who have, one way or another, broken his heart. His mastery of tear-jerkers such as “You Lie” and everything on 2001’s Every Song I Write Is for You, a dedication to his late girlfriend Terri Herbert, is hard to parallel in these times or any other.
But it’s not that sense of authenticity alone that makes Watson great or even mildly interesting, because nostalgia trips only last about as long as a child’s interest in the latest Happy Meal action figure. Rather, it’s down to the timelessness of the music’s content and Watson’s ability to find an endless supply of nuance within that.
His most recent records have walked that line between longing for a forever gone era and the recognition that the good times aren’t really over for good, we’ve just got to remember not to forget them. Witness the recent series of records he’s made for the Red House imprint, beginning with 2013’s El Rancho Azul, the record that featured what is now more or less a staple of Watson’s live shows (though he doesn’t do setlists), “I Lie When I Drink” and a series of other songs about the battle of the bottle, including “I Drink to Remember” and “Drink Drink Drink” among others. These are not so much a celebration of hedonism as a recognition that somewhere behind most laughter there’s at least two or three dozen teardrops. It’s a record that fits nicely with his celebration of Sun Records (2011’s The Sun Sessions) and his most recent effort, Call Me Insane with his aching for Possum (“Jonesin’ for Jones”) and the usual celebration of life be it good or otherwise via “Bug Ya for Love” and “I Owe It All to You”.
Some writers might be tempted to cast Watson in same class as Sturgill Simpson, Old Crow Medicine Show and Jason Isbell, all three acts that some are predicting might “save” or “reinvigorate” country music, but Watson’s outside that class. Old Crow Medicine Show seems more at home in the world of folk music and Isbell lands just as often on the rock and soul side of the street as he does on the dirt roads of country. As for Simpson? Maybe there’s a chance that his outlaw ways come under the same umbrella, but even he seems to be forging a slightly different path, one that’s more in tune with generations that are as comfortable with Depeche Mode as it is Dolly Parton.
Is that confusing? Maybe so. The Ameripolitan Music Awards website states that the difference between Americana and Ameripolitan is this: “Americana is original music with prominent rock influence, Ameripolitan is original music with prominent ROOTS influence: Honky Tonk, Rockabilly, Western Swing, and Outlaw music.” These distinctions may or may not be immovable in the eyes of this AMA, but they are fluid within our own record collections. Who’s to say that Waylon Jennings wasn’t just as much about rock as he was the other stuff and what, after all, is the difference between him and the Old ‘97’s or Sturgill Simpson?
Maybe the answer lies, as it does with so many things, in one’s intentions. What Watson and the other Ameripolitans seek, then, is to perform music that’s a little more pure, a little more concerned with artistry and less concerned with points in the charts and making the big crossover to the wayward rock fans fresh out of college who are concerned that they need their music as lite as their beer. Ameripolitan might have a few more calories, but those calories are filled with flavor that’s unforgettable as evidenced by a list of associates that includes Asleep at the Wheel, Wayne Hancock and Whitey Morgan and the 78s.
These are acts less concerned with the glitz and the glamor and the lives that are destined to become movies of the week than simply creating good art and maybe giving an audience songs that endure because the situations and emotions described and conveyed in those songs are the ones that also endure. If this is all a bunch of chest-beating to get us to think twice about why these divisions in music matter and how much they do or don’t matter, then so be it. But it seems far more pure than that, as real as the major pentatonic scales that make Watson’s chicken pickin’ possible, as real as the smile on his face when he takes to the stage to play the seemingly endless supply of songs he comes armed with night after night.
In the end we won’t call Dale Watson an Americana, Ameripolitan or Country Music treasure, we’ll call him ours, an American treasure through and through. If anyone can save us from music devoid of sincerity or emotion maybe it’s him.