By Richard Skanse
Somewhere in the nether regions of Hades, there’s a Burlington Coat Factory selling parkas, earmuffs and mittens like hotcakes while Rascal Flatts’ limp noodle cover of “Hotel California” from the Grammy Awards plays on a continual loop over the store P.A. Because that’s all you get to listen to Hell, and right now, Hell’s freezing over. We know this for a fact because Dale Watson no longer plays country music.
No, you read that right. Read it again. In fact, read it out loud, just so it really sinks in: Dale Watson does not play country music. Think of every classic country song you’ve ever heard where the narrator is staring down the bottle of a long neck, mixing tears and beer while singing about the lover that’s done left for good. That sad sack at the bar is country music, a victim of its own cheating heart, and Watson’s the one that got away without leaving so much as a Dear John letter. Turn out the lights, Willie, because the party’s over.
Honestly — Dale Watson D.I.V.O.R.C.I.N.G. country music? Yeah, we don’t really buy it either. And we never will, no matter how hard he pushes the gospel of “Ameripolitan,” the new term he’s come up with to describe his music and to distance himself once and for all from the sacrilege of what passes for mainstream “country” these days. Just like we never really believed Watson was truly good and done with making music when he up and left Austin a year ago and moved to Baltimore to take a 9-to-5 job and be with his kids. Sure enough, some six months later, he was back in Texas, reunited with his band the Lone Stars and cranking out the best honky-tonk in town at the Continental Club and all of his other old haunts (and on the road again, to boot).
The fact is, the day Watson stops doing what he does best — C.O.U.N.T.R.Y. — will be the day they put a wreath upon his door and carry him away in a box. The title of his latest album says it all: From the Cradle to the Grave. We caught up with the world’s greatest living honky-tonk hero born this side of 1960 to find out how he came to record the album in Johnny Cash’s old log cabin, to humor him with his whole “Ameripolitan” crusade and, last but not least, to ruin his day.
First off, just so people know — are you really back in Austin for good, or are you just commuting back and forth from Baltimore a couple times a week?
[Laughs] No, I’m back. I’ve been back since June. I was gone for about seven months, but my kids got settled in really well up there, so I was able to come back here and do what I do.
Was it good to get away from music for a while, or did you miss every minute of it during your hiatus?
Well, it was kind of a double-edged sword kind of thing. I was with my kids up there, and I didn’t do anything but be with them. And that was a really nice break to have, because I’ve never done anything like that, where I took any time off like that. So that was a drastic move for me. So it was good overall, and it made me appreciate what I’ve got a lot more.
Was it hard to jump back into music? Or did it feel like you never left?
The first thing I did was make this album at that log cabin. Our first show of the come back tour was at the Grand Ol’ Opry. I asked the guys to get in the van, which I had in storage in Austin, and drive it up from Austin to meet me in Nashville. And Johnny Knoxville, who’s a friend of mine, said, “While you’re in Nashville, why don’t you go record a record?” He told me about the log cabin he bought from Johnny Cash a long time ago. It was one of those things where it just fell into place. But the problem is, I took him up on it, and I went out there thinking there was a recording studio or something in his cabin. I asked him what kind of studio equipment it had: Digital? Analog? He said, “What are you talking about? It’s just an old log cabin.” Later, I was telling the story over at Ray Benson’s studio here in Austin, where I was recording a voice-over. I was talking to a couple of friends of mine, including Charlie Boswell from AMD (Advanced Micro Devices Inc.), and said we were still going to the cabin, but just to hang out. And he said, “Man, we’d love to go up there and provide some recording equipment for you …”
Man, you’ve got some handy friends.
Exactly! That’s what I’m talking about, how it all fell together. Nobody gets anywhere in this world without having friends. Knoxville having that cabin, and lending me the invitation to go up there, and then Charlie Boswell at AMD lending me the equipment, and then my band going out there to do this project, when I didn’t even know if it would happen. It all worked out pretty well.
You ended up writing the whole album at the cabin, didn’t you?
Yeah. I didn’t want to write anything beforehand; I wanted it to be one of those deals where the songs were written there. Just because of where it was. And I’m glad I did that, because it came out pretty special that way.
You can definitely hear the influence of Cash on these songs — especially on the title track and the first single, “Justice For All.” Did you worry at all about it sounding too much like a Johnny Cash album? I mean, apart from the vibe of the cabin, was it a conscious decision on your part to write songs in that vein?
I tried not to. “Justice for All” was something in my head as I was driving up to the cabin, because unfortunately it’s a current topic, with all these child killers and child predators in the news. Having two young girls myself, it’s always a worry in the back of my mind that these guys are out there. And at the time I was going up to the cabin, there was a guy in the news getting off the death penalty on a technicality. So it was just that frustration with the whole thing, and I thought, “I’m not going to write this until I get to the cabin.” And when I got there, it was pretty easy to pull out. It definitely had that Johnny Cash style about it, but I didn’t fight that one, because I knew he always liked to make a little social commentary in his music. But then the other ones started coming out like that, too, and I thought, “I don’t want to make this just a Johnny Cash cop.” But ultimately I realized, if I was going to write some Texas shuffles, that wasn’t the place to do it!
I don’t know. Maybe it was a subconscious thing, because I’ve read so much about Johnny Cash, but none of it was intentional. It’s just what happened. I know Johnny Cash was real close to Roy Orbison and Waylon Jennings, so some of their influence crept in, too. Going into that cabin, it’s about as close as you’re going to get to … it’s like every time I’ve played the Ryman, you get that same feeling of musical reverence and creativity and passion — a vibe of people that you just have a kinship with. That’s the way it was in that cabin. You just walk in there, and the air is thick. So it’s easy to plug into it if you’re open minded to it. You can make a connection on a lot of levels, depending on what you want to do. I went there to write and record and have fun with my guys. But I imagine if somebody went up there to write a book, they’d experience the same thing.
Did you ever get a chance to meet Johnny Cash before he died?
Oh yeah. Several times. But the very first time is my favorite story. It was back in ’91. I got selected to be a part of a fundraiser in L.A. that saluted four songwriters: Buck Owens, Johnny Cash, Hank Cochran, and posthumously, Roger Miller, who had just died a few months before that. It was quite a big lineup, with all these people like Ray Charles, Hal Ketchum, Marty Stuart, Trisha Yearwood, and I think Dwight Yoakam. They asked me if I’d do a couple of Roger Miller songs. I did ‘Dang Me’ and ‘Chug a Lug.’ But right in the middle of the transition into “Chug a Lug,” I couldn’t remember the first line. So I did what I’ve always done when I forget the words to a song: I do this Johnny Cash thing where I just go, “Ah hmmm” — just hum, because I’d heard him do it all them years. I didn’t even think at the time that Johnny Cash was sitting maybe 10 feet in front of me, in the front row.
So I get offstage, thinking, “I screwed that up.” But then I go backstage to get my camera, and Johnny Cash grabs my shoulder. Johnny Cash grabs my shoulder, and hollers, “Hey June, here’s that boy!” And then he says, “Hi, I’m Johnny Cash, I’d like to introduce you to my wife. I just want you to know that you made our night. You made it very special, because Roger Miller was our dearest friend, and we miss him a whole lot.” He told me that whenever they would see Roger play, he would do just what I did — “Ah hmmm ” — just to say hi to them and to let them know he knew they were there. So when I did it that night singing Roger’s song, they felt like it was Roger’s way of saying “Hello, and I’m OK.” I mean, that made my day, to be part of that special thing for them.
That’s pretty incredible.
Yeah. I didn’t feel so bad about forgetting the words after that!
Speaking of friendships — what’s it like hanging with Johnny Knoxville [of Jackass fame]? Do you get into a lot of trouble with him, or is he more mellow than some folks might think?
No, he is not mellow. [Laughs] That is one word I would not use to describe Knoxville. And yes, you do get in trouble. I’m just lucky that whenever he’s around, we’re in places where people know me, like the Continental Club or the Saxon Pub, so if something really goes awry, we can usually wiggle out of it. But he’s a wild child for sure — I couldn’t live his life. He just told me about being at his kid’s birthday party recently in L.A., where he blew up a bunch of helium balloons and gave his daughter and her friends BB guns to shoot them down. Well, the neighbors see him and all these kids running around with guns, and they call the cops. The cops come out and jump him — they had him on the ground, foot behind his neck, handcuffs, everything. Until they realized who he was and went, “Oh, sorry!” Then, in Johnny Knoxville fashion, once they let him go, he asked if he could get a picture with them. So there he is posing with the cops, still in handcuffs with no shirt on, and all these kids around him, smiling! He told me he wants to make the whole thing part of the video for the next single, “Hollywood Hillbilly.” He wants to direct it.
So is that song about him?
Oh yeah. That song is definitely about Johnny Knoxville. And it’s all true — he really knows all that stuff [about country music]. Even I’ve learned some things about Lefty Frizzell from hanging out with him.
It’s hard to imagine anyone knowing more about that kind of stuff than you. It’s always amazed me to see you able to play pretty much any obscure classic country request you get at shows. Do you ever get stumped?
Oh all the time. Like just recently, somebody asked for “Slipping Around” by Floyd Tillman. I remember my dad singing that song all the time. But he passed back in ’91, so I don’t hear it much anymore. All I could remember was the chorus. So there’s times like that where I get stumped, but all that does is fuel my passion to go dig through my records and relearn that stuff.
Do you have any idea how many songs you know?
Well, this is my 14th album. So probably my own songs, I know about 200 songs. And classic country songs, I probably know about 400.
I say that many. But if somebody were to hold me to it … nah, that’s probably an accurate number.
When did you first get possessed by this kind of music? Was it pretty much from the cradle?
Yeah. My dad, Don Watson, was a picker, too. He actually recorded a record himself in the ’60s, up in Chicago. It was just a demo though, never did go out. He was born in Hazard, Kentucky, and he was a marine, and then a truck driver in the ’60s and ’70s, and then owned his own gas station and finally went back to truck driving. But he always played music on weekends.
Did you ever go through a rock phase? Or was it always country?
It was always country. I never did rebel against the kind of music my dad made. I liked it. Every Sunday he’d have the radio on, but back then, what was on the radio was pretty cool. It was tandem to what you’d find on an oldies station now, but without the Alabama and all that other crap they play now. So he’d play the radio and play along on his Telecaster. That was in addition to playing his own gigs and writing his own songs. All of that always permeates my memory. The very first band I was in was with my brothers, and it was called the Classic Country Band — that came from the Classic Country Hour, this show I used to watch on the PBS channel in Houston, where they’d show old videos from the Grand Ol’ Opry. When I moved to L.A., people thought I was rockabilly because of the way I dressed and combed my hair, but that’s the way my dad combed his hair! [Laughs] When I got hired as the guitar player in the house band at the Palamino, they told me, “You’ve got the right look.” I thought, “Um, OK.” I told them, “I don’t know rockabilly music.” But what they called rockabilly music was just old country to me, because it was stuff like Charlie Rich, old Elvis, Carl Perkins and Conway Twitty. Later on I learned a little more about “real” rockabilly, but that’s as far as I ever got into that.
You were born in Alabama. When did you first move to Houston?
I was 12 when we moved to Pasadena. I started playing music there and stayed until I was 25 or 26, and then went out to L.A. for three years, then went to Nashville for a year and then came back to Texas. I’ve lived in Austin for about 16 years now.
Growing up in Pasadena, did you ever make it out to the old Gilley’s?
Yeah. I played there a few times. I was just starting out, as a kid. I was pretty awful. But that was the first place I ever saw Willie. When I was 14 years old, I snuck into Gilley’s.
It’s obvious from all of this — not to mention by your own records — how much country music means to you. So why ditch the word “country” in favor of “Ameripolitan”? Isn’t that a little extreme?
That was only made up out of frustration. I was the angry young man for so long, raging against the machine — I think that’s a band, but I like the term. The machine of course was Nashville, and what it does to the music. But I finally realized that you’re not going to get anywhere doing that, just screaming “Somebody wake up!” It’s like trying to get your heroin addict brother or sister or even mother to wake up and snap to reality, and finally realizing it just ain’t gonna work. Coming up with a new term for the music was just a more constructive way of dealing with the whole thing. Here’s the problem: people who make music like I do, we just aren’t considered country anymore. We can’t get played on country stations because we don’t fit their definition of country. The current definition has changed, because they’ve successfully stolen it. So instead of arguing against that, like I have been, I just wanted to have a word that meant nothing to begin with and had no preconceived notions. For years I’d even ask people at shows for suggestions, and they’d come up with stuff like “real country,” “old country,” “jukebox music” and “Texas music.” But whenever you put the word country on it, you’re automatically drawing on today’s definition. And when you say old country, you’re making it sound like a retro thing, like you don’t have anything new to offer. And “Americana” doesn’t work, because that’s really a lot more folk and rock influenced.
So how exactly do you define “Ameripolitan”?
“Ameripolitan” is original music with a prominent roots influence, which could be rootsy blues or rootsy country. That means its inclusive to guys like Big Sandy and the Fly Rite Boys, who are a cross between Bob Wills and Ritchie Valens, but exclusive to people like the Tim McGraws and anyone else who really only have roots in today‘s country. But Merle Haggard? He’s Ameripolitan, because he got his influence from Lefty and Jimmie Rodgers. Johnny Cash is Ameripolitan, because he got his influence from Jimmie Rodgers, too. I mean, it’s a pretty easy line to make, when you think about it.
Yeah, but … what happens when Kenny Chesney produces a Willie Nelson record? Is that Ameripolitan?
Is that a joke?
No, that’s the truth. It’s happening. Honest.
[Long pause.] Oh, man. You just ruined my day.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
God almighty. The only thing I can say is, Willie is nicer than the law allows! He’s a guy who just can’t say no. [Laughs] He’s got such a big heart, so I can’t fault him for doing what he’s doing. But that breaks my heart. I can guarantee you that’s not a record I’ll probably buy. It just seems to go so against what he’s doing right now with Merle and Ray Price.
Have you heard that record yet, Last of the Breed ?
I just ordered it, but I haven’t gotten it yet. Is it good?
Yeah, it ain’t bad.
At least I know Ray’s still singing great! What’s funny is, Ray Benson was telling me that, sometime back in the ’70s, Ray Price made a comment somewhere that he was getting away from country music. He actually said he didn’t like country music anymore. And now he’s probably one of the staunchest [traditional country] guys still around. What I’m saying is, you’re not going to hear Kenny Chesney do a record on Ray Price. I don’t even know if Kenny Chsensey would be able to get on the same bus as Ray Price!
A lot of the newer guys on the radio probably haven’t even heard of Price.
Nope. Back when my record Blessed or Damned came out, which must have been around ’96 or ’97, I went to Nashville and was doing a morning show on one of the radio stations there. I was talking about singing this duet with Johnny Bush, and how honored I was by it. And the DJ team went, “We don’t know him.” I said, “Johnny Bush. He’s pretty much a Texas legend. He had a couple of hits of his own, and also used to play drums for Ray Price.” They go, “Ray who?” “Ray Price.” “Don’t know him either.”
That’s when I realized, “Boy, we are in trouble .”