Watson finds cure for the rash

Joel Bernstein, July 1996

It turns out that Dale Watson got his "Nashville Rash" from close contact.

It's been pretty much a deep dark secret, but Dale Watson was once a member of the artist roster of Curb Records.

Watson's brief stint on Curb was unsuccessful enough to be easily kept secret, but he did actually have two singles released. Released to radio, at least, which, then as now, had little interest in Watson's honky-tonk vocals.

Curb originally started as a production company, signing artists like The Judds, Lyle Lovett, and Sawyer Brown and then leasing them to major labels. By 1990, they decided to eliminate the middle man and start their own label. With their established stars contractually obligated elsewhere, they had to build a roster from scratch.

John Jorgenson of Desert Rose Band, another Curb act, brought Watson to the label and produced his two singles.

"It took (Curb) a while to learn how to do it," Watson says. "They started out just throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. They didn't like what I was doing, and I didn't have the freedom to record what I wanted to. I had to use L.A. (session) musicians. John Jorgenson did a good job, but it sounded more like Desert Rose Band than my own music. And Curb didn't like drinking songs."

"I thought that's the way you're supposed to do it," Watson says now. "As long as you do your job, as long as you do good, you'll be a star. In the real world, it's who know and how well you play the game."

He's learned his lesson. "For me to be satisfied artistically, I just do my kind of music," he says. "We do have an audience for it. Radio is a game I can't play. I can't afford to play it. It's too much of a high dollar game."

Watson is now on Hightone, an Oakland-based label carving its own niche with a string of quality country albums that manage to sell adequately without much help from commercial radio.

He is currently on tour to support the release of his second album, "Blessed Or Damned." The tour, in part, includes stops at truck stops.

When Watson released "Cheatin' Heart Attack" last year, his unrepentantly pure honky-tonk music, combined with his classic country vocals, took the world by storm.

Well, it took part of the world by storm - the part that is fed up with Nashville's assembly-line pabulum.

The song that really made an impact was "Nashville Rash." This scathing (but melodic) criticism of how Nashville and country radio has utterly rejected country's pioneers "struck a vein that needed to be acknowledged," Watson says.

But the song almost never made it to the album.

Even a non-Nashville label like Hightone was reluctant to put it out. "The label was uncomfortable with it," Watson recalls. "'Dale, you're shooting yourself in the foot' 'It needs to be said' is what I told them. Nashville doesn't like me anyway. If Nashville is pissed off, let them prove me wrong. It doesn't seem like they're going to. I'm proud to have it used as a soapbox."

Watson won that battle because "Hightone is for the artist. They're not in the business of 'making' the artist, they're in the business of 'recording' the artist. I'm really happy with Hightone. They give me artistic freedom. I'm not even trying for radio airplay, just trying to make good records that make us happy."

Watson continued the anti-Nashville theme on his new album. One of the most popular tracks is called "A Real Country Song", and like "Nashville Rash" it invokes names from country's past in bemoaning the current state of country radio.

Watson senses a backlash growing. "In the past year there's a big difference," he says. "People are turning off to the Top 40 candy stuff. I'm seeing a really different mix at my shows - 25- year-old cowboy hats I would've thought were stuck in the boot-scooting, but they're tired of it."

We mention that Johnny Cash has always been among the favorite country artists of college students, and compare this to the current vogue for Tony Bennett among the youth audience.

"It's the sincerity thing," Watson says. "They (Cash and Bennett) are not faking it. College kids have more sense about them. They're not going to choose somebody plastic and force fed. They listen and they'll make their own choices. I give them a lot more credit now than I used to having not grown up around them."

Watson, an Austin resident, is being hailed by country purists for reviving the classic country sound. But he doesn't want to be pegged as a retro act.

"It's not old country songs, it's new songs done in the old way." Watson insists. Indeed, his two Hightone albums contain only one cover, Stonewall Jackson's hit "Don't Be Angry" which closes out his first album. And that cut, fine a song as it is, is actually less satisfying than most of Watson's originals.

However, Watson is also realistic enough to know that he's not doing something really groundbreaking with the old sounds. "A lot of people tell me I sound like Johnny Paycheck. I listen to mostly Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Johnny Cash too. The last record I bought was an old Ray Price album. I hear all that when I'm listening to my stuff. I'll hear myself copping a vocal lick from Ray Price, Johnny Bush, Waylon Jennings, or Johnny Cash. (Texas legend Bush, pretty much unknown this side of Oklahoma, makes a guest appearance on "Blessed or Damned."). That's what influences are, a melding of everything I listened to."

Watson cites other influences, who had varying degrees of success in the '70's. "There are a lot of people I grew up listening to, people like Moe Bandy and Mundo Earwood, that you just don't hear anymore that were original," he says. He also cites Gene Watson, who is not related.

When you're short on radio play, you have to reach the people another way. Watson just returned from Europe, where his type of music has never gone out of style and where radio play has always been less crucial to sales. "I'd been to Norway before, and Sweden, but it was my first time for the other places. It was really great. The first record had been the Number One import country album in the U.K. Radio over there is wonderful. If they hear something they like, they play it. That's the way it should be."

Back home, Watson recently embarked on a "Truckstop Tour." It began in California the day before we spoke to him, and over the next four months will wend its way East. The gigs benefit The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Watson will also do some club dates along the route to support the trip.

Like almost all small-label acts, Watson sells his music at his shows and gets a large percentage of his sales that way. It's one of the classic dilemmas of the indie artist. Selling at gigs gets you a lot of sales you might not otherwise get. ("You're touching the people right there. A lot of those people don't go to record stores" says Watson.).

On the other hand, this leaves few sales to be made in stores, creating a bit of a vicious circle in which stores have less incentive to consider stocking music by these artists, and many of the possible store sales are lost from lack of availability.

Hightone, now distributed by WEA through Rhino, has an easier time getting into stores than it had previously ("It really is easier to find my albums now, a lot of people are telling me that," Watson confirms) but most indie labels are not.

But Watson isn't really bothered by this. "I'm not worried about keeping Tower happy. It's me paying the bills. This is what I do for a living."

And then he utters what may be the creed of many musicians. "I found out that to do original music, all you need is a CD and a place to play. If there were no stores and no label, I could still put out CDs to sell at gigs. That's what a troubadour does."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com