Sunday, October 06, 2013

That's What I Like About Texas

Category:  Birthday Tribute

If you've been paying attention to this blog you know I have a fond appreciation for the music of Mr. Dale Watson.  If you are wondering why I would like to use the occasion of his 51st birthday on October 7 to pay tribute in the form of an explanation.

He is COUNTRY:  Let's face it, music is a form of entertainment geared to the ears.  I think one of the primary reasons folks my age have written Nashville off, and did so a long time ago, is because "Music City" wrote music off in favor of promoting an auditory industry as eye candy.  When I did my college internship in the mid-90's I came across an article titled "Sex and Country Music," in which an unnamed record company CEO said if he were given the option of signing someone with immense talent but not particularly good looks (think Lyle Lovett) or someone who was drop-dead gorgeous but had no talent the CEO would opt for the latter.  The past two decades proved the nameless CEO most astute from a business perspective, although this approach has created a quality vacuum of monumental proportions.  (Yes, it sucks.)  Commercial country music has become a beauty contest where talent is secondary -- if it ranks that high. 

That doesn't fly with Dale Watson on every level.  With songs like "A Real Country Song," "Nashville Rash" and "Country My Ass" it should come as no surprise to anyone that Watson doesn't think too highly of people who misuse the term "country music" in labeling what they do.  Dale Watson is unapologetically country, and if he's going to tell you he's singing the same music that his predecessors such as Marty, Hank and Lefty did then he's going to sing it.  Additionally, you aren't going to go to a Watson concert and hear some cover of Three Dog Night's "Shambala" or Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" the way some modern acts do.  No, Watson's covers come from the country catalog:  "Silver Wings" or "Hungry Eyes" by Merle Haggard, "The Window Up Above" or "Walk Through This World With Me" by George Jones, or "For the Good Times" or "Crazy Arms" by Ray Price.  Watson knows his hillbilly heritage.  (Someone called for "Wham Bam" at a recent show I attended and Watson immediately answered, "The Don Rich song?")

Lone Star band members Chris Crepps on bass and Mike Bernal on
drums back 
Dale Watson at a recent show at the Blues City Cafe in Memphis
c.2013 K.F. Raizor

His Songs:  At one show Watson mentioned the subject matter of songs on his most recent album, El Rancho Azul:  "Let's see, there's drinking.  And then there's.... (pause to think) drinking.  And then, there's....(another pause) drinking."  Some might think Watson has a one-track (or in this case, a six-pack) mind, and yes, he does have a number of songs about libations ("I Lie When I Drink," "Thanks to Tequila," "Whiskey or God," "Wine, Wine, Wine").  But remember, Bill Anderson has been writing about lost love since that warm night in 1957 when he went to a rooftop in Commerce, Georgia and composed "City Lights," yet he makes them fresh and different (compare "Still" and "Bright Lights and Country Music" if you doubt this).  Come to think of it, drinking has been a staple in country songs for decades.  Watson's songs bring a fresh approach to this and other traditional country themes.

However, don't let the fact that Watson has a lot of liquid refreshment in his song titles fool you.  If you think he cannot get past the bar then listen to "Daughter's Wedding Song," which will move you to tears, especially if you've ever walked your daughter down the aisle; the humorous ode to his home state "That's What I Like About Texas," recorded with Texas honky tonk legend Johnny Bush; or the dark and powerful "Justice For All," a song based on a true story of a child's murderer walking free on a technicality.  His 2001 album Every Song I Write is For You, chronicling the gaping hole left in his life following the death of his fiancee in a September 2000 car wreck, will leave you breathless.  This man is a good songwriter.

His Band:  In a recent blog I said I could literally see Dale Watson every night.  There are a number of reasons he commands that loyalty, and chief among them is his first-rate band, the Lone Stars.  Watson's band consists of just four people:  Watson on guitar, Don Pawlak on steel, Chris Crepps on bass and Mike Bernal on drums.  That's it.  They are about as tight as any band I have ever seen.  These guys are good.  Crepps is unbelievable on the upright bass with his almost Jerry Lee Lewis-like pounding on the strings.  And, given that Watson never plays with a set list, they know all of his songs as well as a wide repertoire of country classics.

The Man:  That's right, Watson doesn't use a set list.  His "set list" is requests from the audience.  He's not a DJ who says, "I'll try to get that on for you" or a superstar who completely ignores requests from the audience.  If someone calls it out, he's going to do it.  That shows the utmost respect for the people who paid money to come and see him.

Beyond that, Watson knows his audience.  By that, I don't mean "he knows what they want to hear;" rather, he knows a number of the people in the audience by name.  He frequently comes into the venue (not hiding out backstage or on the tour bus) before the show starts and talks to fans, many of whom have seen him numerous times before.  (One couple, from Wisconsin, were in the midst of a six-night trek of Watson shows when I saw him in Newport, Kentucky in August.)  He appreciates the fact that people not only buy his albums but take the extra effort to come see him live, and he shows it.  Women are greeted by name with a smile and a hug, and the men get a handshake.  This guy is as down-to-earth as they come. 

Additionally, the three men in the Lone Stars share their leader's enthusiasm to "shake and howdy" (as bluegrass acts call it) with the fans.  Understand something, these guys are their own roadies -- Bernal sets up his own drum kit and takes it down after the show.  Yet they have time for fans who want to just say hi and tell them how much they enjoyed the show or to ask a technical question about things such as Pawlak's steel guitar styles and influences.

Put these factors together and you have the complete package:  good music and good concerts from a group of good men.

Happy birthday, Dale.  I hope the joy you give fans with your music is returned to you a hundredfold. 

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