On Ameripolitan: A Lesson in Country Music from Dale Watson

No, Dale Watson didn't watch the CMA Awards, because he founded his own, and the flagship Ameripolitan artist doesn't hold back about the state of the scene, why he broke off from the mainstream, and his fiery new album.
Dale Watson
Red House

It was a safe bet that Texas troubadour Dale Watson wasn’t watching the 49th Annual CMA Awards. Not because pop acts such as Justin Timberlake, Fall Out Boy, or Pentatonix appeared, but because Watson and His Lone Stars were playing a show at the Big T Roadhouse in Saint Hedwig, Texas that night. Just one of some 300 live dates Watson performs per year.

Consider such acts performing at country music’s premiere annual event a sign of the times that Watson foresaw when relocating from Nashville to Austin in the mid-’90s. A staunch traditionalist, there are no shades of gray with Watson; his vision of today’s musical world is clearly black and white. Not one to shy away from his beliefs, Watson is a champion, an ambassador, for true country artists currently honing their craft outside of Nashville’s machinations.

Seeking to preserve American roots music, Watson’s self-coined “Ameripolitan” genre is an amalgam of honky-tonk, rockabilly, Western swing, and outlaw music, all of which can be easily discerned on his latest album, Call Me Insane. Founding the Ameripolitan Music Awards in 2014, the former Nashville songwriter prefers to shy away from being the face of the festival designed to give a home to artists like himself, who, “have nowhere to go, nowhere to call home, nobody to recognize them”. Watson’s goal: “I want this to be about the passion. My wish is I’m the guy trying to teach the kid to ride a bike and pushes him off and he’s on his own.”

In Watson’s view, traditional country music has no place in today’s Nashville, where pop artists and aging rock carpetbaggers are lauded while country icon George Jones was afforded only a brief tribute by CMT following his passing in 2013. Telling PopMatters, “It’s sad to see what’s happening over there. That’s why we moved out of that neighborhood, because that neighborhood went to hell in a hand basket. I don’t think there’s any hope for it; it went Chernobyl and we aren’t moving back.”

Having moved on, Watson’s Ameripolitan Music Awards recognize “young artists popping up all the time” who are upholding the values and sincerity of Jimmie Rogers and Hank Williams”. It’s doubtful Watson would hold this year’s CMA award winners Luke Bryan (Entertainer of the Year) and Florida Georgia Line (Vocal Duo of the Year) in such regard: “We don’t care what Nashville and the industry are doing to that music because it has nothing to do with us. Kid Rock can present your awards all you want.”

On Americana

When pressed to differentiate Ameripolitan and Americana as alternatives to country music, Watson provides an astute argument. Calling Americana the “only viable genre that gives roots music a home”, he is quick to note, “it’s too broad”. Narrowing it down, in Watson’s estimation, “Ameripolitan starts with Jimmie Rogers; Americana starts with Woody Guthrie.” The former being personal, the latter owing more to activism, Watson cites the change from the “I” of Rogers, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard to the “We” of Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Steve Earle. Both are what Watson terms “a natural progression of the roots of the tree” that began with country music.

As for the current state of Nashville, Watson doesn’t hold his tongue: “It’s ridiculous. Don Henley, Steven Tyler — it’s in country, which I guess would fit nowadays. They took ahold of the name and they got it. Steven Tyler and Don Henley belong there, so I retract the ‘ridiculousness,’ but with country music, they fit. Not in a cold day in Hell would they ever fit in Ameripolitan.” When current critical darling Kacey Musgraves (a CMA nominee for Female Vocalist and Album of the Year) is mentioned, Watson is blunt in his assessment: “She’s 100 percent mainstream country. I don’t hear a difference between her and Miranda Lambert or Taylor Swift.” As for Americana Artist of the Year Sturgill Simpson: “I hope he stays on the course of what I’ve been hearing,” adding a cautionary note following Simpson’s signing to Atlantic Records: “I haven’t ever heard any act signed to a major label that put out something that was worth a shit.”

On Touring

Playing 300-plus live dates per year, Watson is a Texas mainstay, gracing the stage of every honky-tonk and dancehall throughout the state as well as holding court nearly every Sunday at the Big T Roadhouse, complete with Chicken $#!+ Bingo!, a fowl gastrointestinal game of chance. Staying local to play South By Southwest (“I was around for the first one and it was very grassroots. It’s gotten very corporate but as far as festivals go, SXSW still has a lot of integrity to getting unsigned bands signed.”), Watson is grateful to espouse the virtues of Ameripolitan music at various musical festivals, including folk-oriented outlets: “They realize we aren’t mainstream, we’re being covered up. We are given no respect as a form of music. Ameripolitan isn’t retro: just because you build a house with a hammer doesn’t make it an old house. We’re putting out new music, and we got new things to offer, and new artists. That’s what excites me about doing any of the folk festivals.”

Having played the National Folk Festival in Greensboro, North Carolina, this past September with Mavis Staples and Rhiannon Giddens, Watson shared with the stage with bluegrass, tango and gospel acts, as well as puppeteers. In advance of the festival, Watson astounded himself: “The one in North Carolina is the first one I’ve done in the South; so much of roots music is from the South, but we’ve hardly ever played in the South.” It’s these unlikely billings that help Watson and others keep traditional music alive: “I’ve met some great musicians — drummers, bass players — I would have never crossed paths with had I not done folk festivals.”

On Influences

While Nashville’s current crop of pop stars is quick to name drop Williams, Jones, Jennings, Haggard, and Strait in song while having almost nothing in common with these greats, the self-referential nature of country music is nothing new; Jennings used it liberally (“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”, “Bob Wills Is Still the King”, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)”). Watson himself is no stranger to this trope, having penned “Where Do You Want It?”, a recounting of the 2007 incident involving outlaw icon Billy Joe Shaver at a Texas bar that appeared on 2013’s El Rancho Azul.

On this year’s Call Me Insane, Watson pays homage to George “The Possum” Jones on “Jonesin’ for Jones”. When asked about such influences, Watson is forthright: “You know somebody’s got the influence; you don’t have to hear them tell you. If somebody says, ‘All I do is listen to Jones and Haggard,’ by god you better hear the Jones and Haggard influence. Artists these days talk about how Jones and Haggard are what they grew up on but they sound like Boyz II Men or NSYNC. It offends me.” Harkening back to playing folk festivals, Watson elaborates: “That’s not what you’re going to hear at the folk festivals. You’re not going to hear pretenders; these are real artists, with real influences.”

On What’s Next

Dismissing the notion of Ameripolitan music lacking sustainable growth as “Blake Shelton talk”, Watson is quick to point out the Ameripolitan Music Awards highlight the positive of both the past and present. By providing fertile ground for inveterate country artists such as Elizabeth Cook, Sarah Gayle Meech, Jesse Dayton and Whitey Morgan (all being former Ameripolitan award winners), the just-announced list of 2016 Ameripolitan Music Awards nominees includes Kelsey Waldon, Jason James, Cale Tyson, and the Bellfuries, all young guns upholding the same musical values as Watson.

Asked if artists such as Daniel Romano and Andrew Combs who are taking up the countrypolitan mantle of Charlie Rich are considered derivative, Watson counters, “I don’t have a problem with derivative at all. I’m going to quote John Lennon here: ‘One’s originality comes from the inability to emulate your influences.’ My whole body of work is nothing but derivative. My influences, I try to stay real close to that. But, my inability to imitate those influences, you can’t escape your own originality. That sounds exciting to me that somebody has work that’s derivative of Charlie Rich and the countrypolitan thing. If they’re out there, I’ll have them on the next awards show.”

With some 20 albums to his name in the last two decades, Watson has done his damnedest to keep traditional country music alive, no matter his busy schedule. Of late, his time has been spent “in the studio, traveling, getting ready for new records and the Ameripolitan Awards show.” Heading into its third year, the four-day event featuring shows around Austin will culminate in the awards show on February 16. A week prior, Watson will board the Outlaw Country Cruise with fellow artists including Earle, Lucinda Williams, Bobby Bare, Jr., Shooter Jennings and Nikki Lane.

Set to star in the upcoming independent film Yellow Rose from filmmaker Diane Paragas, Watson will play lead character Jimmy Redburn, a former country star. As for that show at the Big T Roadhouse the night of the CMAs, Watson was filming live scenes for the film. Having missed Timberlake perform with the night’s surprise winner Chris Stapleton, himself a former Nashville songsmith, Watson would likely dismiss the former boy band star’s 2013 single “Drink You Away” being shipped to country radio a week later with the same flippancy as when told Henley was to receive the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Trailblazer Award at the Americana Music Honors and Awards Ceremony: “There you go.”