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Dale Watson loves these songs

By Brian Wahlert, July 1997

Dale Watson is an artist full of contrasts. He's at the forefront of a group of artists recording traditional country music, yet his biggest market is the United Kingdom. He's a favorite of the alt. country scene, yet he had never heard of Gram Parsons until years after the alt. country pioneer's death. He called his latest CD "I Hate These Songs," yet he wrote all 14 of the songs.

And he's one of the best country artists today, yet most country fans are more likely to think of Disney's red-nosed chipmunk when they hear his name than this man with the big, slicked back black hair and sweet voice of Merle Haggard.

Since he's spent much of the first half of this year touring places like the U.K., Ireland, Scotland, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Germany and Holland, the natural first topic of conversation is Europeans's surprising love for traditional country music.

"The best I can figure is they like more traditional-sounding country music," he says from his Austin, Texas home on a quick pit stop between a British tour and a New Mexico date. "People that are into country music over there in the first place didn't get into it through the rock 'n roll way. They got into it from liking country. So if you try to give them country music, it needs to sound something close to it."

Strangely enough, Watson has gotten much of his stateside recognition from the alternative country scene. "Most of them are coming from a Gram Parsons bag - that name keeps getting thrown up a lot when I talk to them - and quite honestly I never even heard of Gram Parsons til I moved to L.A. in '88... I was there when Buck Owens had 'Tiger by the Tail' as his hit. And Gene Watson, when he had 'Paper Rose' and "Farewell Party"...But I'm glad to involved in it because I think anything that's roots is healthy. But at the same time, I think it's more a rock country than it is country."

Indeed, Watson's music comes from another era, when country radio played real country music that hadn't yet been and filtered through The Byrds or The Eagles.

And even though many of today's artists point to Haggard as an influence, no one else wears that influence out on his sleeve quite like Watson does.

"When I was getting out of high school, it was right after the Urban Cowboy thing, right at the tail end of it...I did 'Looking for Love' and Mickey Gilley songs and Charlie Daniels. I did all the covers that were popular, but the thing about the radio back then was it may have had Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on it, but that was pretty much the exception. You'd mainly hear Gary Stewart and Moe Bandy and Gene Watson and Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Mel Street. You heard all this on the radio, and the other stuff was every now and then, so it was a little different. I mean, I was doing covers then, but it seemed like the covers weren't so brutal."

As Watson has become a prolific songwriters, he's had less time in his shows to perform covers.

He still does a few, though, and almost sounds like a classic country crusader as he says, "Sometimes I do contests and give away a T-shirt or a CD to who can tell me who originally did this song. For instance, lately I've been doing 'Above and Beyond the Call of Love.' And I made a stipulation - tell me the original artist. I picked that one because there's two artists in particular that I wanted them to know have done that song, and maybe they've got it on a record or heard of it or would see it on a record somewhere and buy it."

And the answer, for a Dale Watson souvenir? The remakes were done by Buck Owens and later, Rodney Crowell, but the original was by Wynn Stewart.

Even though his third and latest Hightone album, "I Hate These Songs," includes no cover songs, just about every one of its songs sounds like a country classic straight out of the Sixties. So why the negative title?

"A buddy of mine ... listens to my tapes and CDs a lot, and he said to me, 'Dale, you gotta write me a song called 'I Hate These Songs.' Because he hates the way it's so honest. He hates the way it connected his mind to his heart, that kind of thing. And I know what he's talking about because if you hear a song, and you're in a certain mindset of that song - maybe it's pointing out something you don't want to know or it's a bathing in your sorrow type of thing or just pointing out the obvious, maybe being fed up with something and leaving - it makes it personal to you. And that's the way all these songs were for me."

One song that really connects with Watson is the drinking song "Hair of the Dog" that includes the classic line, "Give me the hair of the dog that bit me."

Watson says with a laugh, "Well, that one, I hate that song, boy. That was a night in Denver that I'll never forget. Don't go drinking in Denver, that's all I gotta say!"

As popular as Watson's albums have been, with the first two going to number one on the U.K. import chart and this new one headed in that direction, one has to wonder if he's outgrown his indy record label.

Although he is definitely pleased with his fan base and says, "I've got the credibility now that the people have enough faith in me to know that each album is going to be pretty much like the last," he is talking with three major labels.

Watson has told each, "Let me record my songs in Austin with the producer of my choice," and since all three have agreed, he says, "It's just a matter of picking the one that's monetarily going to support me in the long term."

This wouldn't be Watson's first brush with a major. He signed with Curb about seven years ago, released a few singles, and that was it. On Hightone, he put out "Cheatin' Heart Attack" in 1995 and "Blessed Or Damned" last year with its barb at Nashville, "Nashville Rash."

So if major labels are beating down his door to sign him, does that mean that he'll be at the forefront of a new traditional movement, much like the one around 1990?

He doesn't sound too optimistic but says that if it happens, "I don't know if I'd be leading it, but I'd love to ride on its coattails!"

The more likely scenario, he says, is that traditional country will go the way of bluegrass.

"You know, country music kind of kicked them out of the radio spots, so they just went and developed their own festivals all over the country. And they got a huge following, and that's mainly how they existed all these years, through those festivals...So I'm kind of thinking that if it doesn't swing back toward this more traditional side, then that's the way it's gonna go."

He mentions Big Sandy & the Fly-Rite Boys ("I think they're the best band out there"), Wayne Hancock, Don Walser and The Hollisters as some of the artists who would play such festivals.

Although he's heading out to a movie with his family, he wants to clarify one point before ending the interview. "It's not a retro thing. Just because it sounds old-fashioned doesn't mean it's out-of-date...If you see the people who come to the concerts, they're glad to be at a show that's real country."

When it's suggested that "timeless" might be a better way to characterize his music, he agrees. "Yeah, I'd like for it to be considered timeless."