If you're like me, you write off much of what passes as country music today as something other than true country.
I'm not saying that you have to mimic the old country elite or sound like you're from the 70's, but too much of what's called country today is merely pop music wrapped in a little twang and given a Nashville polish, then sent out to radio for the soccer mom set. With few exceptions, long gone are the days of hearing the likes of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette on contemporary country radio stations.
Granted, there are a few artists who still keep the country traditions, but musicians like Randy Travis, George Strait and Brad Paisley are few and far between and even they put their own modern spin on the genre. Somewhere bubbling underneath the mainstream, however, there are still a few artists with a uniquely traditional vision for country music.
One of them is Dale Watson, an Alabama-born, Texas-raised singer/guitarist who not only adheres to the old country standards, but has spent most of his career railing against Nashville's pop culture mentality. His style recalls the days of the Bakersfield sound and he unabashedly channels the spirit of Cash, Haggard, Price and countless others with material that is at once fresh and comfortably familiar.
The last time I crossed paths with Watson, he had just released From the Cradle to the Grave, which he tracked in a cabin once owned by Cash. That album had a distinctly Cash-oriented vibe, drawing inspiration from the surroundings and history that surrounded Watson while recording. Since then, he has released The Truckin' Sessions, Volume 2, a sequel to his 1998 tribute to the country subgenre and last year's stellar Carryin' On, perhaps his best and most consistent album to date.
After years or railing on the modern Nashville establishment, Watson has quit grinding that axe (with the exception of closing track "Hello, I'm an Old Country Song") and truly found his voice, channeling the spirit of the classic country movement of the 50's and 60's. Part of that comes from the classic touch of his songwriting and storytelling, but this disc takes it a step further.
For his current disc, Watson enlisted steel guitar player Lloyd Green as band leader for a group that included old-school greats like pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins and steel guitarist Pete Wade, renowned session players that contributed to the sound and vibe of those classic 60's country records. A few of the younger generation players like upright bassist Dennis Crouch (who plays with Allison Kraus) and Fiddler Glen Duncan were part of the sessions as well.
As a result, Carryin' On, straddles a fine line between modern technology and classic vibe, sounding crisp and clean, yet warm and classic at the same time. The combination of classic fiddle and pedal steel lines with Watson's rich baritone and natural vibrato on songs like "You're Always On My Mind" and "Heart of Stone" could place theses songs in a cannon next to George Jones, Charley Pride and Charlie Rich. Elsewhere, Watson steps into country swing territory with "Whatever," which is already a fan favorite in his live show.
Perhaps the only problem with Watson's sound is that it still doesn't fit modern country radio's format. Nevertheless, he continues to move forward with his own classic vision, garnering airplay on internet and satellite radio stations and continuing to grow his following. Although he may not have a fan base a huge as the modern country stars that have more in common with pop and rock, Watson's vision isn't lost on true country fans and those looking for a break from formula. After releasing his debut, Cheatin' Heart Attack, in 1995, he's still going strong and releasing some of the best material of his career 15 years later.
Part of that longevity can be attributed to Watson's old-school approach to the music -- not only in sound, but in how he promotes it. Watson is a road dog in the true sense of the word, touring tirelessly from coast to coast, playing dance halls, honky-tonks and small bars: wherever his audience is. In his old stomping grounds of Austin, Texas, that calls for him playing in a traditional venue like The Continental Club on S. Congress Avenue. In Tulsa, it means he plays to a loyal following at Mercury Lounge at 18th and Boston.
In fact, Watson will be returning to Tulsa this Wednesday night, Jan. 12, for an intimate show at Mercury Lounge. Over the course of the evening, he'll undoubtedly touch on all corners of his catalogue, from the early burn of Cheatin' Heart Attack and Blessed or Damned to his contemporary classic, Whiskey or God, right up through Carryin' On. If you've ever wondered what happened to real, old-school country music, a night with Watson will reassure you that it's still alive and well, just brewing under the surface of the mainstream.
Watson always puts on a great performance when he shows up at Mercury Lounge and this week's show will be no different. You'll want to arrive early, however, because Mercury should be packed out when it turns into a honky-tonk for the night, especially since the cover charge is only $10 at the door. Music starts at 10pm, but make sure and arrive early to find your spot and settle in for the evening with a modern master of classic country.
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