Dale Watson is one of my big honkytonk heros... A real throwback to the days when country stars hit the road, toured hard and showed a little humility while they knocked the socks off of audiences, Watson is about as great a hard country singer as you could ever hope to hear. Thoroughly steeped in the history of real honkytonk and classic commercial country, he is one of the most powerful and confident performers of the last decade. Where most "alternative" country types try to cover up their lack of country roots by clowning around, Watson is the real deal, and he takes his craft very seriously. Fans of Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Conway Twitty owe it to themselves to check this guy out.
Dale Watson "Cheatin' Heart Attack" (HighTone, 1995)
The first time I heard this album, I thought, "Aw, this guy's just trying to sound like Conway Twitty..." It took me a while to realize just now cool that was...! Although this isn't as compact and punchy as his later records, it's still a doozy of a debut. I also met Dale Watson around the time this came out and had him in to do a radio interview, and found him to be one of the nicest, most humble, down-to-earth people I've ever met... Plus, his passion for real, true, hard country music was refreshing ang bracingly honest... Comes through loud and clear on his records as well! I was, am, and shall remain a diehard fan.
Dale Watson "Blessed Or Damned" (HighTone, 1996)
It's hard for me to tell you how awesome I think this record is. In the middle of a hipster "alternative" country boom which is flooded with folks who are either only half-serious about the music, or only half-able to play it, hearing a hardcore honkytonk album like this was like taking a dip in a cold creek on a hot, hot day, knowing that you've got a six pack of really good beer waiting for you when you get out. Dale Watson is the real deal, and this album is what cemented that fact in my brain. Watson takes his country music seriously, knows its history, writes awesome songs, and has the follow-through to produce a smooth, killer album which stands up to anything that, say MCA Nashville might have made in 1975. It's totally the same sound -- slick, punchy pedal steel, a cool backbeat, twangy guitar and vox that are half Red Simpson, half Merle Haggard, and all country. The super-gems on here are "A Real Country Song," his lament for the passing of the same sound that he is so ably revitalizing, and "Poor Baby," one of the best, most fun country harsh-out songs ever recorded. There are also nods at other conventions of the genre -- trucker songs, shitkicker songs, love ballads, and even a goofy pro-Texas anthem. What more could you ask for? It's all killer, no filler -- one of the best country albums of the decade.
Dale Watson "I Hate These Songs" (HighTone, 1997)
Another great record in which Dale takes his Merle obsession to the next logical step... Spanish guitar riffs start to creep into the mix, and there are one or two songs that are formulaic enough to be downright goofy (such as "Count On You" and "That's Pride"). But hey, that kinda goofiness is still pretty true to the old country vibe. Besides, there are also knockout honkytonkers such as "Wine Don't Lie" and "Leave Me Alone" which blow anything out of Nashville so far out of the water that Music City might as well be in the Gobi Desert. Another highly recommended album!
Dale Watson "Truckin' Sessions" (Koch, 1998)
Dale skipped out on HighTone, and over to Koch Records... For his first album he narrowed his hard country focus to the fine art of writing trucker tunes. He's pretty much sticking to the 1960s brand of gear-jamming goodies, with the fuzzed-out guitar and honking sound effects. Kind of an odd choice to do a theme album, but it's a pretty good record, packed with Watson's country true-believer sentiment.
Dale Watson "People I've Known, Places I've Seen" (Dale Watson, 1999)
An excellent self-released record, featuring Dale at his Haggard-y best. All the songs are Watson originals, and they all rock. Dale pays tribute to the road itself, and to some of the folks he's met while out on it -- bartenders, doormen, and liquored-up dancin' fools. Nice to hear that Watson's great track record remains unblemished. Recommended!
Dale Watson "Every Song I Write Is For You" (Audium, 2001)
One of the most mournful albums you're ever likely to come across, this was written in the wake of the accident-related death of Watson's fiance. Dale slows things down to a Conway Twitty-ish countrypolitan crawl for the majority of this album. It's finely-crafted material, but unlikely to draw in either his diehard hard-country fans, or the Nashville types. Sure, he could have leavened it with a few uptempo tunes, and made things easier on himself, but tunes such as "I See Your Face In Every Face I See" will demand the attention any serious country fan, and anyone who's really confronted the wrenching loss of a loved one will know where Dale's coming from. It's sad, but worth checking out. (This period of Watson's life is also examined in a documentary film called Crazy Again, by director Zalman King.)
Dale Watson "Christmas Time In Texas" (Audium, 2001)
This hard country hero throws himself into holiday classics like "Silver Bells" and "The Christmas Song" with the same true-believer gusto he's brought to honkytonk music the last few years. He's also written a slew of really great new originals, such as the slam-bang "Honky Tonk Christmas" and "Christmas Without An Angel"... The real diamond on this disc is "Santa In My Semi," wherein Dale gives Old Saint Nick a loaner when Rudolph throws an axle... They don't make songs like this anymore, but they really oughtta. A couple of tunes fall flat, but overall this is exactly what we need to spice up the holiday country song pool... Less string sections, more Dale Watson! (For other Christmas records, see my Hillbilly Holiday section.)
Dale Watson "Live In London... England!" (Audium, 2002)
I once had the good fortune to see Dale Watson play a show in Glasgow, Scotland, and the intensity and devotion of that UK crowd is ably reflected in this concert album, where the London fans hoot, holler and sing along to a brace of oldies and a slew of new originals. This is Watson in fine form, stripped down and honkytonk as all hell. He takes advantage of the concert album tradition to get a little dirty and cuss some, but mostly this is about Dale and his high-test, kickass band, who don't mess around for even a note or two. Authenticity is Watson's watchword: he opens the set up with his hick music anthem, "A Real Country Song," reprises his version of the Jimmie Rodgers classic "In The Jailhouse Now" (which was also a highlight of a recent Webb Pierce tribute album), and thumbs his nose at Nashville with "Country My Ass..." Maybe he's not being too subtle, but he sure sounds good. You can't hear solid country playing like this anywhere else but on a Dale Watson album. Highly recommended!
Dale Watson "Once More, Once More" (Continental Song City, 2003)
Dale Watson "Dreamland" (Koch, 2004)
Looking at the album's cover, two things struck me right away: one was that Asleep At The Wheel's guiding light, Ray Benson, is the producer, which made me think, uh-oh, since AATW has kind of lost my allegiance over the years... The other thing that hit me was how much Dale seems to have aged in the last few years -- he's gone completely gray, and looks more haunted than haggard on the trio of photos that grace the album's cover. But inside -- ah, inside! This is another rock-solid, grade-A, kickass, all-American, hard country gem, a record made the way only Dale Watson can make 'em. It's hard to pick out favorite tracks, since the whole record is, well, just so darn good. Dale's grasp of old-style West Coast honkytonk, as well as his deepening interest in countrypolitan, ranks him as one of the most accomplished, masterful country singers around. This album is also a welcome return to form after a couple of shakier efforts, a solid, well-measured, mature record, with a richness and fullness of production that's a real pleasure to hear. His version of Tony Hazzard's "Fox On The Run" (last heard as a hit for Tom T. Hall) is particularly masterful... This is a record that really should grow on you as the years go by... Recommended!
Dale Watson "Heeah!" (Continental Song City, 2005)
Dale Watson "Whiskey Or God" (Palo Duro, 2006)
Hardcore honkytonker Dale Watson is back, in a big way, with this rock-solid set of steel-drenched, straightahead, real-deal country tunes. A loping Texas shuffle laces through the uptempo tunes, and a modest, tap-tapping snare drum keeps the time when things slow down.... You feel like you're right there with the band at the bar, taking a quick sip before Dale cuts loose. In the liner notes, Watson explains that this disc contains a bunch of older songs that he hadn't recorded 'til now and sure enough, this is packed with the kind of songs that made him a favorite of countless hard country fans when he first started out, over a decade ago. The first half of the album has the most heft -- weepers like "Sit And Drink And Cry," "I Don't Feel Too Lucky Today" and "Whiskey Or God" pack a lot wallop in their compact frames... Midway through, some of the songs start to feel more like tossoffs, but even a so-so number by Dale Watson beats the hell out of half of what comes out of Nashville. One standout is the unrepentantly retro "38-21-34," which may be sexist and offensive in theory, but is such a good-natured, lusty tune that even if Katha Pollitt might not sing along, Susie Bright definitely would. All in all, another fine entry into the canon -- Dale Watson is still a force of nature!
Dale Watson "Live At Newland, NL" (Me & My Americana, 2006)
A 2-CD set of a live show recorded in the Netherlands, also documented on film. (See the DVD reviews, below).
Dale Watson "The Little Darlin' Sessions" (Koch, 2007)
Dale Watson pays tribute to Little Darlin' Records, the scrappy 1960s indie that brought the world Johnny Paycheck, and helped launch an odd career or two. For this project, Dale teamed up with some of the original Little Darlin' studio crew, including steel player Lloyd Green, guitarist Pete Wade and pianist Hargus Robbins, with the old label head Aubrey Mayhew signed on as producer, plowing through a jovial set of oldies by Johnny Paycheck, Joe Poovey and others in Mayhew's old orbit. This album is an interesting idea though apparently Dale himself says it was rushed to release and is unhappy with how it turned out. Still, even with a somewhat flat feel overall, this disc has some killer country tunes on it, including soul-searing weepers like "Touch My Heart" and "If I'm Gonna Sink (I Might As Well Hit Bottom)" as well as lesser yet enjoyable novelties such as "Pint Of No Return," et. al. Dale may be ticked off about this disc, but he did a fine job bringing these old tunes back to life... Hell, I'd take a Dale Watson demo tape over almost anything on the modern-day Nashville charts... It's certainly worth checking out.
Dale Watson "From The Cradle To The Grave" (Hyena, 2007)
Dale Watson "Help Your Lord" (Self-Released, 2008)
Dale Watson "To Terri With Love" (Self-Released, 2008)
Dale Watson "Carryin' On" (E-One Entertainment, 2010)
Dale Watson "The Sun Sessions" (Red House, 2011)
Working in a compact trio -- Johnny Cash and Elvis-style -- Watson makes a pilgrimage to the fabled Sun Studios to record a sharp set of rockabilly-flavored hillbilly twang. According to the liner notes, Dale didn't plan these sessions, they just sort of happened, and he found himself having to write a bunch of new songs in order to fill out the album. Not surprisingly, the record has a spontaneous, off-the-cuff feel, and it fits the music well... There's plenty of Cash-style chunka-chunka beats and restrained, rhythmic guitar, also some great songs. Watson's work is still gloomier than it was before the tragedies of a decade ago (the death of his wife) and his weariness feels real -- he's really had the kind of hard-won hard luck that blues and country singers put in their songs. And he makes the most of it. Some songs, like "Ponder Why I Ponder Why" and the gospel-themed "Hand Of Jesus" are sincere spiritual queries, while other songs take a lighter tone. "Elbow Grease, Spackle and Pine Sol" is a very dark, kind of funny song -- one of the most outrageous suicide songs you're likely to hear, but also a good novelty number... There are also trucker tunes ("Drive Drive Drive," the first trucker song I know of that mentions texting), love songs and a tune or two about some of the salt-of-the-earth regular folks Dale has met over the years. You can hear the years in his voice, but also in his heart, and it sounds mighty nice. Keep 'em coming, Dale!
Dale Watson & His Lonestars "El Rancho Azul" (Red House, 2013)
One of the great true-country troubadours, Dale Watson is back in peak condition with plenty of twang and robust, rootsy vocals... On his last album, Watson made a pilgrimage to the old Sun Records studios to tap into the spirit of hillbilly rock; this time he's kicking it at Willie Nelson's Pedernales studio and going for a pure honky-tonk vibe. The album opens at a gallop, with the killer "I Lie When I Drink," which is as good a barroom singalong as Watson's ever made... The playlist is packed with other booze tunes, but also with a strikingly sentimental song about parents with kids growing old ("Daughter's Wedding Song") and young people in love ("We're Gonna Get Married") (There are also a couple of odd novelty tunes that divide the record: "Quick Quick Slow Slow" and "Slow Quick Quick" which seem to be instructional songs about learning to dance and learning to, um, er... ahem... Well, you know. And if you don't, then give the song a listen...!) The boozing tunes predominate, and he sounds a lot like Merle Haggard these days, and I mean Merle at his best, so if you're a twangfan, you'll want to pick this one up!
Dale Watson "Call Me Insane" (Red House/Ameripolitan Records, 2015)
(Produced by Lloyd Maines)
Another rock-solid honky tonk set from Texas treasure Dale Watson... On this album, he's calling his music "Ameripolitan," but while he claims it's a mix of honky tonk, rockabilly, western swing and outlaw, there's some "politan" in there as well, when he goes into the ballads, much like his idol Merle Haggard. His collaborations with producer Lloyd Maines are predictably fabulous, particualrly on upbeat numbers like the opening track, "A Day At A Time," which sounds like the old 1970's Emmylou Harris Hot Band backing 1960's vintage Haggard (yeah, it's that good), or the rollicking faux-gospel "Heaven's Gonna Have A Honky Tonk." The album also includes "Jonesin' For Jones," yet another tune to add to your list of George Jones tribute songs... and Dale pays tribute to the Texas heartland with the good-natured "Everybody's Somebody In Lukenbach," another album highlight. Every record by Mr. Watson is a gem, and this one's gonna be spinning on my turntable for a while.
Dale Watson "Truckin' Sessions, Volume 3" (Red River Entertainment, 2015)
Dale Watson "Best Of The Hightone Years" (Hightone, 2002)
With three great early albums to select songs from, this disc really can't miss. It's a great introduction to Dale, even if one of his greatest tunes, "A Real Country Song," is mysteriously omitted. Really, Watson is so great that you ought to get all of the original records, but if your budget simply won't permit, then this is a mighty fine option. Recommended.
Dale Watson & His Lone Stars "Live @ Newland, NL" (DVD) (Rounder Europe, 2007)
Dale and his band, the Lone Stars, play live at Club Newland, in the Netherlands... Accompanied by the CD version listed above.
Dale Watson "For Fans Only: Live" (DVD) (Rounder Europe, 2007)
Dale Watson & His Lone Stars "Live At Newland.NL" (DVD) (Rounder Europe, 2007)
Hick Music Index