For Dale Watson, his latest comes from suffering

Jon Johnson, September 2001

As much of a clichˇ as it is to say it, from suffering oftentimes comes art.

And Austin country singer Dale Watson might well agree. His new album, "Every Song I Write Is For You," released in late July on the Nashville-based Audium label, is a compelling and deeply personal account of love, loss, grief, and moving on, based on recent events in Watson's own life.

The new album is easily Watson's best since 1997's "I Hate These Songs" and could well be regarded in years to come as his masterpiece. Time will tell. But the album came at a heavy price.

Watson and Terri Lynn Herbert met last year at a mutual friend's birthday party, while he and his wife of nine years were involved in divorce proceedings. Hitting it off, the two soon began dating, fell in love and were planning on marrying.

"Hopefully you'll get a little feeling of how she was by the songs," says Watson, 37, in a telephone interview from his label's Nashville offices. "She was extremely bright. She was an attorney for the attorney general's office in Texas. Very quick-witted and always helpful, smiling, cheerful, and optimistic. Just everything you'd like in a person."

It all ended for Herbert on Sept. 15, 2000. Just outside of Austin she lost control of her car, which then rolled. Not wearing a seatbelt and mortally injured in the crash, Herbert was pronounced dead at the scene.

"She was going to Houston where I was supposed to be going. And I changed my mind because I was tired. I'd played all night, finished eating breakfast, and I didn't want to make the drive. So, I left my phone in the van, and she went ahead on. They're not sure whether she fell asleep (at the wheel) or dropped her phone and was trying to get to (it). We think that's probably more likely since she didn't have her seatbelt on. We surmise that she bent down to pick up her phone, and the car went off the road, and she overcompensated and flipped."

For Watson, the months after Herbert's death were like a bleak, twisted version of the movie "Groundhog Day," in which Bill Murray wakes up every morning to the same day that he had lived through the day before.

"Every day I woke up was like the first day I heard Terri was killed - all day long - for (three-and-a-half) months. I guess the closer I got to the Christmas season, it was unbearable being there 'cause of all the plans me and her had made for the cold weather. It would have been our first winter together. It all came to a head, and I couldn't cope with it."

On Dec. 28, 2000, deeply depressed and unable to deal with Herbert's death any longer, Watson checked into an Austin hotel and ingested a combination of sleeping pills and vodka in hope of killing himself.

Fortunately, he was found in a semi-conscious condition by his road manager, Donnie Knutson, who got Watson to a hospital before any permanent damage could be done to his internal organs.

"Yeah, who knows how he found me. He don't even know. I never told anybody where I was; he just guessed from a remark I'd made earlier in the day about the general area."

Although Watson recovered from the suicide attempt after a short hospital stay, he was still in the same emotional state.

"I was out of my head. I was bouncing off the walls. It was part of the post-traumatic disorder that I had. It put me in that frame of mind. Anybody who's been through a big trauma's been through that kind of thing. What happens is your mind doesn't go into R.E.M. (Rapid Eye Movement) when you sleep. You don't get a deep sleep, and it's surmised that that's when your mind copes with the events of the day. If you don't cope, you're stuck, like a needle in a groove."

Immediately after his hospital stay, Watson was treated at a local counseling center with a technique known as eye movement desensitization and reprogramming - E.M.D.R. for short - which allows victims of trauma to cope with events that would normally be dealt with during the R.E.M. or dream stages of sleep. Watson swears by the technique.

"What really did it was this E.M.D.R. In this therapy, they focus on what your main trauma is. And, of course, mine was guilt. They don't know how it works, but it works just like the R.E.M. does. After that was when everything clicked. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders."

Much like his 1998 trucker album, Watson's latest - largely written and recorded before his suicide attempt - started life as a shorter (10 songs vs. its current 14), independently released recording aimed purely at his hardcore fan base.

"I didn't plan on putting it out because I didn't think it would appeal to anybody. I thought it was such a personal album nobody could identify with (it). I just wanted the songs down for my own reasons. I didn't put it in a magazine, and I didn't try to sell it on the internet or anything. But I started getting such a big response, (I decided) it was a really important album to get out."

"I've always been the first one to (say) Nashville's putting out the same records, and not taking any chances. But Audium's in Nashville, and look what they've done."

Watson has also been mastering a tribute CD entitled "Austin, Texas Through the Eyes of Terri Herbert," which will feature contributions from a number of local musicians who Herbert had assisted in one way or another, including Kelly Willis, Matt Powell, Seth Walker and several others. Watson's contribution is a previously unreleased number entitled "Blue Eyes," the only song that Watson wrote about Herbert before her death. Watson describes the album as "a very good record, but very eclectic - it shows all the aspects that Austin is."

"She always wanted me to write a song for her. And I told her, 'You can't ask me to write a song for you. It's just gotta come.' And luckily 'Blue Eyes' did come before she died. She loved that song. That's the only one she got to hear."

The Audium deal comes following a brief period during which Watson was signed with the revived Sire label, the home of Madonna, the Talking Heads, and the Ramones during its '80's salad days. Internal label politics and a merger kept Watson sidelined until he was finally released from his contract last year.

"Sire merged with London Records, and they wanted to put my record out in fall of 2002. And I said, 'Nope, this ain't gonna work. We want off the label.' And (Sire label head Seymour Stein) said, 'Just bear with me. We'll find a place for it. We can't afford to pay you off.' So I said, 'Don't pay me anything '. Just keep the record, and let me off.' And they did."

While with Sire, Watson completed an unreleased album that will probably remain that way.

"I liked the record. It came out really good. It had James Burton playing guitar on some stuff. It still would be one of my better records ever, but it'll never see the light of day."

Though nearly signing with Sony's Lucky Dog imprint after the Sire debacle, Watson ended up throwing his lot in with Audium, also home to Loretta Lynn, Ricky Van Shelton, the Kentucky Headhunters, and The Tractors.

"A couple of different people knew Nick Hunter and Audium and knew the integrity of what they wanted to have on the label. People came up to me and mentioned Audium in that same fashion, too, because they knew that would be the type of label I'd want to go to. A friend brought Nick some CDs and Nick liked 'em. He made a phone call to my manager, and we just got together and started talking."

Watson adds that the American versions of both the live and Christmas albums will differ from the European versions.

"Me and Danni Leigh are going to re-cut the vocals on 'Christmas Love,' so that's going to be different. And with the live album, they put out an edited version of the CDs burned straight from the board. And what's going to come out in the states is a mixed version off the 24-track tape with some different songs on it."

Over the past year, Watson has also been performing on the Grand Ole Opry on a semi-regular basis, including a featured slot on the TV segment in early August. When asked how the Opry has been reacting to the man who wrote "Nashville Rash," Watson laughs heartily.

"We get requests for that all the time! We (also) get requests for 'Country My Ass,' which is a song that's on the live album. The only people who come out and see us at these shows in Nashville are people who know the machinery. They're educated. They know what's going on."

When finally asked how he's feeling these days, Watson thoughtfully answers, "(I feel) like you would seven months along after something like this. It's really been since January that I was able to start the grief process in a normal fashion. I'm doing good, but I still miss her all the time. The thing I love about this album is that it lets me say to her what I never got a chance to."

"I never listen to any of my albums, but this album I do. Late at night, I pour me a glass of wine, listen to it and think about her."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •