Texas Music

Honky-Tonk Heroes Are Scarce Nowadays, Except Dale Watson

Dale Watson is a straight shooter and the most authoritative baritone this side of Johnny Cash; when he sings something, you believe it straightaway. He usually spends a couple of hundred days a year on the road, and whenever he goes out of state or overseas, Watson reinforces an image of Texas and its music that meshes with the myths these audiences have probably been fed most of their lives: cowboy boots, honky-tonks, steel guitars, longneck bottles, hardwood dance floors and so forth. The truth is that image is a little outdated these days, but it sure is persistent, and Watson’s music is probably one of the biggest vehicles that continue spreading it around the world.

Watson is also a prolific son of a gun, averaging about an album a year since his first, 1995’s Cheatin’ Heart Attack. On the song “Nashville Rash,” he bragged “I’m too country now for country, just like Johnny Cash.” Strong words, but Watson sang them at a time when Cash had recently re-emerged with a pair of Rick Rubin-produced albums that kick-started his career in his sixties. Watson, now 52, hit his stride around 2010’s Carryin’ On; was invited to perform his first feature-length set on Austin City Limits following 2013’s El Rancho Azul; and carried on the streak earlier this summer with Call Me Insane.

His latter-day albums showcase a wiser and more mature brand of honky-tonk, less brash than Watson’s earlier records, mellowed by loss and age but lightened by humor. From his latest, the wrenching “Burden of the Cross” addresses the death of Watson’s fiancée in a car wreck several years ago; on the other end of the spectrum, “Heaven’s Gonna Have a Honky-Tonk” and “Jonesin’ For Jones” take a more lighthearted look at the hereafter, the latter a tribute to the late George Jones.

Still, Watson has lost no love for the existing country-music establishment and now refers to himself as an “Ameripolitan” singer. His nascent genre even has its own awards show; winners this year included The Derailers (Honky Tonk Group), Kim Lenz (Rockabilly Female) and Jesse Dayton (Outlaw Male). Speaking to Outlaw Magazine in February 2013, Watson said he wanted to specifically avoid using any language to describe his music that employed the word “country.”

What’s important about that is I wanted people to start from scratch in what they would hear. To this day when someone asks what kind of music I play I never say country because they would naturally think of the Blake Shitheads of the world and not Haggard or Jones. Once people hear what is tagged as Ameripolitan, then they will know and expect it to be roots based, not retro mind you, but new original music with prominent roots influence.

Watson has also set himself apart from honky-tonk culture, or at least what little of it has survived into the present day. The definitions of “honky-tonk” at dictionary.com are full of allusions to gambling and prostitution. Traditionally, frequenters of honky-tonks not prone to those vices have still been regarded as coarse, drunken and belligerent folk, and often hostile to both women and outsiders on top of that. That is certainly not the image any civic-minded Texan would care to project into the 21st century. It’s an altogether more diverse, urban and civilized society, or so we’d like to think.

In his 2007 memoir Whiskey River, Houston native and honky-tonk legend Johnny Bush says he believes the phrase “honky-tonk” comes from the familiar, sometimes offensive slang term for white people.

I’ve been called a honky a lot of times, but I was never offended, I guess mainly because I don’t know what it means. “Excuse me. Let me look that up! It may piss me off.”

But I do know that when I was coming up, a honky-tonk was a bad place to be. They were on the outskirts of town. You didn’t want people to see you go in. They were made out of scrap lumber and tar paper. They had beer bottle caps thrown out in front of the place to serve as gravel or paving so you wouldn’t get that mud all over you or get your car stuck. This was a honky-tonk, and it’s where I learned my trade as a singer and musician.

Fast-forward 40 or 50 years, and in many parts of Texas, the “outskirts of town” is simply the suburbs. Everything is paved. Modern-day building codes prevent most structures from being built out of scrap lumber and tar paper, while rising real-estate prices have made it difficult for small businesses like the neighborhood beer joint to keep their swingin’ doors open. Few people would be caught crying in the craft beers served at popular Texas nightspots nowadays, unless they happen to steal a look at how much those beers cost. One of the world’s most famous honky-tonks, Austin’s Broken Spoke (where Watson appears regularly), is managing to hang on, but developers are constantly nipping at the heels at proprietors the White family. For years the Spoke was the tallest building on its stretch of South Lamar, but today it’s surrounded by blocks of apartment buildings indistinguishable from those in Houston’s Midtown.

After years of playing there almost religiously, Watson actually bought another Austin beer joint, Ginny’s Little Longhorn, a few years ago and thus saved it from being turned into another Jiffy Lube. But Blanco’s, the wonderfully incongruous honky-tonk in River Oaks, held on for years before finally succumbing to the expansion of neighboring St. John’s School in late 2013. However, some of that spirit survives at Alice’s Tall Texan on the Northside, where there’s no live music but the people are friendly, the parking is free and the $2 goblets of Lone Star will knock you sideways if you’re not careful. Watson is easy enough to call up on the Internet jukebox, right alongside his heroes Willie and Merle and George Jones. The D&W Lounge over on Milby might strike a familiar chord or two as well.

So honky-tonk culture is still with us, it has just largely crossed over from reality into the realm of Texas myth. And whenever Dale Watson is onstage, it becomes both myth and reality.

Dale Watson and His Lonestars, with special guest Rosie Flores, perform at 6:30 p.m. tonight at Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney. Free.
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray