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Dale Watson lives in dreamland

By Jon Johnson, June 2004

Current photos of Dale Watson show a much older man than the one who stared out of the cover of his 1995 debut, "Cheatin' Heart Attack."

Hair that was once dark brown is now entirely gray. There are a few more creases in his brow these days, and more than a little sadness in the eyes; more than one might expect from a man who's still only 40. He's still a handsome man - striking, even - and has preserved his wiry physique admirably. But it's clear that years of touring have had an effect.

At this point, it's a bit of a truism that Watson would have stood a very good chance of being a major star had he been around in the '60s or even in the '70s. His good looks, songwriting and singing would have fit right in with that era.

Unfortunately for Dale Watson, his first album came out in 1995 - the peak of the Garth Brooks era - rather than in 1965 or 1975.

Asked if he thinks he might have been more successful had he been born 10 or 20 years earlier, Watson - who has just released a new album, "Dreamland," on the Nashville-based Koch label - replies, "I'm not sure I would have been more successful, though I do think I would have fit in better."

In a lot of ways he's always been on the outside looking in. Born Kenneth Dale Watson in Birmingham, Ala., Watson grew up listening to country music from birth. His late father, Don, was a country singer, trucker and gas station owner, and Dale cut his teeth playing first with his brothers and then in his father's band as a teenager at a time when most other American teenagers were sneaking hits of reefer while listening to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

Watson says that his father's approach to country music was similar to his own. The A-side of Don Watson's only single, "Poor Baby" - released on a small Chicago label in 1968 - was covered by Watson on his second album.

"That was really his song. I put my name on (the songwriting credits) to make the publishing easier to deal with, but he wrote it. My recording is pretty similar to the one he did," adding that he's considering covering the single's B-side at some point in the future.

In 1984, Watson recorded his first single, "Moments Passed Me By" backed with "I Couldn't Take Her Gone," a very rare record which he'd just as soon see stay that way, including a picture sleeve showing a 20-year-old Watson with moustache and puffy '80s hair.

Moving to Los Angeles in 1988, Watson soon became a fixture in the local country music scene which had catapulted Dwight Yoakam to national prominence just a couple of years earlier.

Befriended by Desert Rose Band guitarist John Jorgenson, Watson recorded scores of demos during this period, many of which were excellent and provide a valuable glimpse of a young man who still wouldn't record his first album (for which a handful of the demo tracks were rerecorded) for another five years or so.

Watson recorded two now-rare singles for Curb Records ("One Tear at a Time" and "You Pour It On and I Pour It Down") in 1990 and 1991, and lived for a short time in Nashville working as a songwriter before returning briefly to L.A.

Watson settled permanently in Austin, Texas in 1993, intending to start repairing motorcycles for a living (Watson is an avid motorcyclist when not on the road) and put music on the back burner for a while.

Watson's west coast efforts attracted the attention of the California-based HighTone label, however, and the label signed him in 1994.

"Cheatin' Heart Attack" put him on the map with fans of traditional honky-tonk. Watson was photogenic and a more-than-capable singer, songwriter and guitarist whose "Nashville Rash" became an anthem for those who felt that the country music industry's successful grab for the brass ring had at the same time caused that industry to forget its roots.

"I'll tell you, I don't even like calling what I do 'country music' anymore," says Watson. "Because people associate 'country music' with (what's) coming out of Nashville now. My ex-wife went to a club a while back where they had a DJ, and she went and asked the guy if he had any Buck Owens. And the DJ said no and asked her if Buck Owens was some new guy. So I don't want to associate myself with that by calling what I do 'country'."

So what does Watson call what he does, if not "country music?"

"If someone hasn't heard me and they ask what I do I just tell them 'original music.' That's all - 'original music.'"

Watson recorded two more albums for HighTone before leaving the label (he has little good to say about the label these days) and released a string of concept albums beginning with 1998's "The Truckin' Sessions," starting a long association with Koch Records and its country imprint Audium which continues to this day; interrupted only by a short stint with Sire Records which resulted in one still-unreleased album before he asked the label to release him from his contract.

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