The other Man in Black

Dale Watson’s true grit
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  May 16, 2007

VIDEO: Dale Watson, "Justice for All" (from From the Cradle to the Grave)

Dale Watson makes country music the old-fashioned way, cradling his strong baritone voice with weeping steel guitar and fiddle as he spins yarns of love and death. But there are contemporary issues at the core of this Texas troubadour’s art.

Watson, whose Johnny D’s show this Saturday marks his first local appearance in four years, is on a mission. He’s trying to put a spin on hardcore country that’ll win new listeners while flipping off the major labels and corporate radio stations that he says have run the genre into the ground. Six feet under, if you take the cover of his new, tenth album, From the Cradle to the Grave (Hyena), to heart. He’s wearing a long black coat and standing in a cemetery with a tombstone reading “Country Music R.I.P.” behind him.

“I lived in Nashville for a while, and it was the most miserable time of my life,” he says by phone from Austin, where he got married just the day before. “The music business there today frowns on originality and doesn’t support live music. Even though it’s a songwriter’s town, if you don’t write to formula or play politics, you’re never gonna get anywhere. The big labels have made the term ‘country music’ a travesty. What they make is all about flash and trends and style and no substance. To the point where, when you say ‘country,’ it has a connotation I don’t want to be associated with. And if I say I play old-fashioned country, then people think my music’s not contemporary or exciting. So I call what I do Ameripolitan — original music with a prominent roots influence.”

Watson has even posted a Wikipedia entry defining “Ameripolitan,” and he’s been approached by satellite radio to program a channel bearing the tag. At the moment, however, he’s preparing to take From the Cradle to the Grave’s 10 songs — and the roughly 400 other originals and chestnuts in his repertoire — on the road. Live, he’s a striking figure, grimacing as he sings numbers full of storm clouds in a voice about as close to Johnny Cash’s as naturally possible. And his new album ups the Cash quotient: it was recorded live on portable studio gear in the late master’s old Tennessee-mountain cabin, which is now owned by Watson’s pal, Jackass’s Johnny Knoxville. Cash’s patented train beat underpins plenty of numbers. And Watson’s writing is just as tough and iconoclastic as the other Man in Black’s often was.

The opener and first single, “Justice for All,” is the story of a child killer turned free on a legal technicality and the bereaved father who burns with vengeance. Although the lyrics unfold in simple language, it’s a complex tale of justice, hatred, guilt, and piety. In “Yellow Mama,” Watson assumes the voice of a convicted killer headed for Alabama’s infamous banana-colored electric chair. And the title track is about pondering suicide. The first two are torn from newspapers; the third was inspired by Watson’s cousin’s death. “Obviously, this isn’t a feel-good record,” he intones, chuckling. Nonetheless, “Hollywood Hillbilly,” about a country boy made good, and “Runaway Train,” an upbeat tribute to Cash, give the album a brighter side.

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