Dale Watson has been thinking a lot about luck lately. Not because he’s just released his nearly 30th studio album since 1995 titled – appropriately enough – Call Me Lucky (Red House Records). But because he’s reflecting on how the concept has played out in his own career.
“Well, being on David Letterman’s TV show [in 2013] was a big one in terms of being lucky. That really boosted my career a lot when he became a fan,” Watson says today. “And certainly taping ‘Austin City Limits.’ But the luckiest thing long term was that I wasn’t the flavor of the month in Nashville, but I stuck with my intention of keeping roots in my music.’”
Indeed, as a casual listen to Call Me Lucky – or really, any of Watson’s music can attest to – he is something of an artist out of time. Someone almost exclusively comfortable singing and playing the kind of tear-in-my-beer ballads, raucous honky tonk floor swirlers, and character studies more apropos to what he and many other traditionalists consider is “real” country music. The kind made by guys with names like Hank and Johnny and Merle and Waylon and Willie.
He’s even co-dubbed this kind of melding of outlaw, swing, rockabilly, and honky tonk musics as “Ameripolitan.” And he’s a fixture on festivals, concerts, cruises, and even award shows dedicated to the genre. But he is a realist, and he knows that those types of sounds will never be heard on Top 40 country radio again.
“No, it’s gone too far. The pendulum will swing back, but you’ll hear somebody five years from now say ‘it’s got that classic sound of Blake Shelton!’” Watson laughs. “There’s no way those people will be able to relate to Hank Williams or Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard. It will be like comparing Florida Georgia Line to Kenny Chesney. And Kenny looks like Hank Williams compared to them!”
On Call Me Lucky, Watson has fattened up the music a bit by adding more horns than he usually does, using many of the same players he does on his regular western swing shows in his hometown of Austin. And all but one of the album’s 12 tracks were recorded in Memphis, Tennessee at Sam Phillips Recording. Not the late producer/engineer’s storied Sun Studios (Watson’s already done a record there), but the place he opened after selling the original Sun.
“The record has got that Memphis flavor, and there’s something to be said for recording in places that your heroes did. I think about Charlie Rich,” Watson says. “That studio still has the vibe, just the air around the building is historic. I fed off the mojo there, that studio has a real character and personality.”
One of the tracks is called “Johnny and June,” an ode to the love bond between the Cashes of country music that Watson recorded as a duet with his real-life girlfriend, rockabilly singer Celine Lee. Watson wrote the music, and the pair collaborated on the lyrics via text message while Lee was living in New York City.
Lee also has accompanied Watson on Ameripolitan-themed music cruises. Though one of her suggestions on how he could travel incognito on the floating vessels with rabid fans at every turn didn't quite pan out.
“I’ve tried wearing a hat, which she said might work, but it didn’t. That white hair I have shines out through that!” Watson laughs. Still, he’s not an artist to lock himself in his cabin and emerge only when it’s time to perform.
“I’ll go out to eat and people will want to stop me and take pictures and sign things, but you’re lucky if that happens. You should take that as a good thing, because it’s keeping your music out there,” he says. “And you should appreciate that people even give a darn about you. “If you think you can’t go out and meet your fans, then your fans probably know your unapproachable and you build your own wall.”
In addition to his busy performing schedule and writing new material, Dale Watson has added another title to his resume: club owner. He bought the storied Memphis live music institution Hernando’s Hideaway, and it’s of huge importance to him that it be the kind of place that’s just as welcoming for the performers as the audience.
“I can identify what artists appreciate in a club, not just from the stage but how they are treated. Musicians are road weary human beings that need their own space,” he reflects. “And to have a venue and a green room they feel comfortable with. I’ve played venues like that…but I’ve played more venues NOT like that!”
Some places of both those characteristics Watson say he played in Houston and surrounding areas, beginning after a teenager when his family moved to Pasadena in the late ‘70s. He fondly recalls “cutting his teeth” as a performer in honky tonks there as well as along Buffalo Speedway and T.C. Jester – which to him were like “going into an entirely different town.”
And he also recalls playing real “pressure cooker” clubs like the Cedar Lounge and the Four Palms on Telephone Road. Which, of course, begged for a definition.
“Pressure cooker clubs were where ladies would go in the afternoon and put food in their pressure cookers, then dance and cut it up with guys, but get home in time to serve dinner,” he offers. “I learned a lot in those clubs!”
Dale Watson and his LoneStars play 9:30 p.m., March 8, at the Continental Club, 3700 Main. For information, call 713-529-9899 or visit ContinentalClub.com/Houston. $15. For more on Dale Watson, visit DaleWatson.com
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