Dale Watson and his Lone Stars
There was a wonderful poster that Dale Watson began using to promote his concerts more than two decades ago that left no question about the intention of his songs and how removed they were from the Nashville norm.
It read: “The music in this show contains lyrics about honky tonks, truck-driving men, drinkin’, cheatin’ and other topics considered to be too provocative for today’s (expletive) country music.”
The Texas-through-and-through singer lives by that credo today, so much so that he has distanced himself enough from the fold of contemporary country music that the artist has coined a sub-genre of his own — Ameripolitan — as a tag for his roots-driven songs. You can sense that sound and attitude as much in recent stellar albums, including 2013’s El Rancho Azul and 2015’s Call Me Insane, as you can in early recordings: 1995’s Cheatin’ Heart Attack, 1996’s Blessed or Damned and 1997’s I Hate These Songs, a trio of honky tonk-heavy works for the Hightone label that made Watson a frequent visitor to Lexington at the defunct Lynagh’s Music Club.
Few of those early songs defined Watson’s rootsy and rebellious streaks more definitively than Nashville Rash. The 1995 work was written as an open letter to Merle Haggard, the country giant who died earlier this year and was a formative influence on the kind of real-world barroom confessionals that have long been a Watson specialty (Haggard’s 1966 classic Swinging Doors, in fact, was a favorite cover tune for Watson to dig into at the Lynagh’s shows).
“You can’t grow when you rip the roots out of the ground,” Watson sang. “Looks like that Nashville rash is getting ’round.”
“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 told me before a July 2015 performance at Willie’s Locally Known’s previous home on North Broadway. “I am so many light-years away from what country music has become that I’m not country enough for country.”
Watson returns to Lexington on Sunday for a performance at the new Willie’s on Southland.
El Rancho Zul is a blast of unapologetically rustic country that is traditional even by Watson’s standards, from the swing-savvy charge of I Drink to Remember to the wordplay on the album-opening I Lie When I Drink. The latter is positively scholarly when compared to the assembly-line come-ons that pass for lyrics in present-day Nashville. “I walk in and the bartender rolls his eyes,” the song goes. “At the same time the waitress, she just smiles. He’s heard the truth about you. She’s heard it too, but slightly skewed.”
Call Me Insane ups the ante. It remains true to Watson’s Texas-size sense of country tradition, but it widens the horizons a bit. Everybody’s Somebody in Luckenbach, Texas, for instance, is all honky-tonk swing that is second only to the 1977 Waylon Jennings hit Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love) as the most formidable ode to a certain Lone Star town. Curiously, the spirit of Jennings returns to close the album with Mamas Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to Be Babies, a role-reversal of the 1978 version of Mamas Don’t Let You Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys that Jennings and Willie Nelson took to the top of the charts in 1978. Watson’s tune, though, boasts a vocal growl worthy of Kentucky-born country renegade Sturgill Simpson.
Be on hand at Willie’s (the Lexington one, that is) to see how all the steadfast honky-tonk charm plays out as Watson serves up some Saturday night gusto to a perhaps unsuspecting Sunday evening crowd.