It’s no great stretch to say that Dale Watson and Ray Benson are two of the more recognizable musicians in Texas. Watson is the proud owner of a silver pompadour and often a jet-black wardrobe that instantly evokes Johnny Cash, part of the triumvirate of country-music icons he also celebrates in his songs and in his sound; George Jones and Merle Haggard are the others, though Buck Owens and Johnny Paycheck aren’t terribly far behind.
Benson, meanwhile, is rarely seen without a huge Stetson atop his basketball-player’s frame and a grin as big as Texas, even though he was actually born in Pennsylvania. But that was a long time ago. His decades as leader of Asleep at the Wheel, primary keeper of the flame for Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, and owner of Austin’s Bismeaux studios have fixed Benson in the public’s imagination and the historical record alike as the quintessential Texas musician not named Willie. Watson, with the decades of gigging he’s done hither and yon, one beer joint at a time, may lay an even better claim to that title.
Regardless who actually does, Watson and Benson exemplify Texas music so much it’s a snap to picture them co-starring in a new Netflix or Amazon original series – something called, say, Dale & Ray. Singing classic honky-tonk and Western swing tunes in the cab of a deluxe Chevy Silverado, Dale and Ray take turns behind the wheel and strumming an old Telecaster as they patrol roadhouses and dancehalls across the Lone Star State. Wherever musicians aren’t being paid fairly, waitresses aren’t being tipped properly or empty longnecks are left on the table instead of deposited in the appropriate recycling bins, Dale & Ray are on the case. Or something like that.
Instead, perhaps wisely, they’ve made an album together. The result, also called Dale & Ray, is out now on Ameripolitan/Home Records and available wherever finer records are sold. That includes Houston’s Cactus Music, where Watson and Benson — sorry, Dale & Ray — will appear at its first in-store of 2017 this evening at 5:30; or the merch table at the Heights Theater, where the duo will do a full-length concert January 28. The opening track, “The Ballad of Dale & Ray,” expresses in song their fondness for a number of things — Lone Star beer, reefer and Hank Williams (“Senior!”, somebody yells off-mike) — even as it radiates the longtime friends’ mutual musical affection. Pull up a stool, it seems to say. Let us sing for you a while. So if they ever do make that TV show, this would make a great theme song.
Even if there’s little danger of the two forsaking their main gigs, Benson with Asleep at the Wheel and as host of the Texas Music Scene TV series, and Watson as founder of the too-country-for-country Ameripolitan movement, Dale & Ray (the album) immediately establishes Dale & Ray (the duo) as a ready-made side project that the pair can return to intermittently and indefinitely, whenever their normally unforgiving schedules happen to let up. The album is barely half an hour long, yet it’s remarkable for two things besides Dale & Ray’s natural rapport, or rather that are direct outgrowths of that chemistry. One is the ease with which they can sift through their lives to find happy little nuggets of songwriting, even when writing to form; check the drinking tune “A Hangover Ago” or their sunny celebration of all things Lone Star State, “Nobody’s Ever Down In Texas.”
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The other is the amount of truly fine guitar picking here, both of the Telecaster and pedal-steel varieties. That itch will be satisfyingly scratched throughout this half-hour, but especially on the Louvin Brothers cover “I Wish You Knew” and the Dale/Ray original “Bus’s Breakdown,” which, as a side benefit, leaves little doubt that these two know more than their fair share about tour buses. Here the jokes fly back and forth as fast as the guitar licks, capturing the spirit of Dale & Ray (the album) as a light-hearted, breezy affair with a couple of darker undercurrents that go a long way toward defining what Dale & Ray, the artists, stand for.
First comes “Feelin’ Haggard,” their Merle Haggard tribute that squeezes several of the Hag’s better-known song titles into the lyrics, but gracefully enough that the seams don’t quite show. A few songs later, Dale & Ray revisit a relatively little-known Willie Nelson tune, 1982’s “Write Your Own Songs.” Singing it here must have felt especially gratifying for these two mavericks, one of whom started a band just so he could play a type of music that had not been popular at least 20 years, and in doing so played a crucial role in preserving Western swing for future generations of musicians; while the other has simply founded his own genre altogether.
Mr. ‘Purified Country’ don't you know what the whole thing’s about
Is your head up your ass so far that you can't pull it out
The world's getting smaller and everyone in it belongs
And if you can't see that Mr. ‘Purified Country’
Why don't you just write your own songs
Dale & Ray (the duo) will perform 5:30 p.m. today at Cactus Music (2110 Portsmouth), and again Saturday, January 28 at the Heights Theater (339 West 19th). The duo will also host the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Awards February 15 at Austin's Paramount Theatre.