In a 1995 tune called Nashville Rash, Dale Watson roared on unapologetically about being "too country now for country," a remark that underscored just how vast the distance was between his brand of hard core honky tonk and the wave of pop attitudes that were already overtaking the roots-driven music he grew up with.
Today, the veteran Texas singer takes an opposite view. Longtime fans shouldn't fret, though, as the heavily traditional country sound, descended directly from giants like Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, remains his steadfast style. But the distance between that music and the Nashville norm has him modifying his perspective.
"What's happened in the 20 years since I wrote Nashville Rash is that now I'm actually not country enough in terms of the new definition of what country is," Watson says. "I am so light-years away from what country music has become that I'm not country enough for country.
"You know what? That's a good idea. I hear a song coming on."
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A regular Lexington visitor at Lynagh's Music Club in the mid-to-late 1990s, when his recording career commenced, Watson's honky-tonk vocabulary remains devoted to tradition in two of his newest albums, 2013's El Rancho Azul, which vastly upped his national exposure through considerable critical praise and television appearances, and this summer's Lloyd Maines-produced Call Me Insane. But for an artist with such a scholarly command of country tradition, one may find a few surprises scattered among his list of musical heroes.
"Three stand out in my mind: Elvis (Presley), Johnny Cash and Dean Martin," Watson says.
Dean Martin? One of today's most versed country traditionalists finds inspiration in the cocktail swigging, '60s swinging swagger of Dean Martin?
"Oh yeah," Watson says. "I loved his voice right off the bat. But when I watched The Dean Martin Show, you could tell he had fun. He sang great, but he had so much fun onstage.
"That's our main objective as a band today. Our only rule is to have fun. That's it. We remind each other of that when we get onstage. Just last night, one of the cats said that right before we went on."
While his music hasn't changed over the years, Watson has done a lifetime of hard living since those '90s shows at Lynagh's. After the death of his fiancée in a car accident in 2000, Watson dropped into a personal tailspin of alcohol and drug abuse. After a yearlong recovery, he recounted the whole devastating saga in the tribute album Every Song I Write is for You and a 2006 documentary film titled Crazy Again.
"Hey man, I survived living," Watson says. "It's not easy sometimes. Most of the time, in my case, I was my own worst enemy — a lot of times, really. But if you can survive yourself, at the end of the day, you have a pretty healthy outlook on life. I know I'm happier these days than I ever have been.
"The documentary was my way of fulfilling a promise. I wanted to let people know what I've been through. I thought that was really important. It wasn't easy, but I've had so many people come up to me and tell me how that particular documentary or album helped them out. It makes you feel good to share something like that."
Watson certainly doesn't maintain the commercial profile of today's country stars (he continues to call his music "Ameripolitan" as opposed to country), but the favorable reception for El Rancho Azul and Call Me Insane represent subtle breakthroughs, spreading the word of serious country tradition for a devout and expanding fan base.
"It is weird, you know?" Watson says. "To be the age I am (52), having been in the business so long, and now having some success is scary. I've been banging my head against the wall for so long that it's strange to finally have the breaks start coming. It's an unusual place for me."