Okay, Dale Watson hates country music. Or, rather, he hates today’s country music. He thinks it’s “crap”, the songs are stupid and the singers are bad, Nashville has lost its heart, all that stuff. On the front of this record, he’s posing with a tombstone that reads “Country Music R.I.P.”
This is a very fashionable viewpoint, one shared by old-timers and hipsters and alt.country longhairs alike. I don’t happen to agree with it, because I hear plenty of good inventive fun country music being produced all over the place, some of which certainly deserves comparison to all the old dusty gold-standard classic stuff. Also, people have been complaining about country having lost its soul for more than 50 years now.
But I get what he means, and he means it — Watson’s actually quit the music business instead of compromising his stern vision, and he sounds like he’d do it again. And then there’s the fact that it’s kinda difficult to argue with a man who sounds like God. Dale Watson has a big deep authoritarian voice that can sound resigned or righteous or outraged or horny or devotional, depending on the needs of the song — Johnny Cash comes up as a comparable, but also Tennesee Ernie Ford and Ray Price. Believe me: when Dale Watson sings something, it stays sung.
Watson’s pretty serious this time. So much so that he took his band up to Johnny Knoxville’s cabin in Hendersonville, Tennessee — a cabin that once belonged to John R. Cash — to record the damn thing. So much so that there are only 10 songs, none longer than 3:17. And so much so that he’s jumped over to the funky diverse roots-blues-and-jazz Hyena Records so he doesn’t have to be beholden to anyone.
So when the first track here kicks in, with its chugga-chugga shuffle beat and its brief laconic fiddle line, and Watson’s voice comes sailing in like a big Viking warship, it’s hard not to think of it as a major statement. “Justice For All” is country music the way Dale Watson thinks country music should be, even down to the “Ring of Fire”-like semi-mariachi horns that come blasting in to bolster the rest of the tune. It’s an awfully convincing performance — so convincing, in fact, that one almost forgets that the song is actually an impassioned plea in favor of capital punishment. (Well, maybe only for those who kill children.)
Some of this stuff is straight-up gangsta country; “Yellow Mama” is narrated by a murderer who forsees his end in the electric chair, and “Time Without You” is full of bleak Zen macho: “I curse my healthy heart for keepin’ the blood runnin’ through my veins / I open my eyes each mornin’ and I regret to greet the day.” Other songs are a bit more sensitive; he frees his faithless lady in “Why Oh Why Live a Lie” and pays homage to a suicidal family member on the title track.
This is all very serious business. Sadly, this poker-faced-ness leads to the album’s weakest point: a humor deficiency. Watson only sounds like he’s having fun on one song, a satire called “Hollywood Hillbilly.” It’s not my favorite track — too much har-de-har Blue Collar Comedy faux-populism for me — but it is the liveliest thing here, with some great guitar interplay between Watson and Don Don Pawlak, so I’m going to give it a pass. But if the other songs here had any kind of lightness to them, this would be voted out in a heartbeat.
But one does not come to Dale Watson for fun. One comes for depth of feeling (there’s so much depth in “You Always Get What You Always Got” that it sounds like infinity), for overamped sincerity, and for hardcore country roots. And that shit is all present and accounted for. Dale Watson might be wrong overall about country music, but his red blood is what pulses through the genre’s big ol’ heart. Long may he wave.