Dale Watson's renaissance surprises even him

Chicago Tribune
Dale Watson, after 20 years as a recording artist, is having a career renaissance, much to his surprise.

After 20 years as a recording artist, Dale Watson is finding himself in the middle of a career renaissance. No one is more surprised by this than the trad-country troubadour himself.

"It's been an overnight success," he says with a hearty laugh, calling from his home in Texas. "You go for so long and try so hard, hitting it for 20 years. Then all of a sudden something happens. I'm flabbergasted by the fortune and blessings I've been getting."

Those blessings have included first-time appearances on the "Late Show With David Letterman," "Austin City Limits" and NPR. "All that stuff happened in the last couple of years, and it's made a huge difference," he says.

Born in Alabama and raised in Texas, Watson's dark pompadour is now white. But at 52 he's busier than ever as a musician, actor and standard-bearer for hardcore country music. He's even the owner of two Texas beer joints that feature live music: the Little Longhorn Saloon in Austin and the Big T Roadhouse in St. Hedwig, outside of San Antonio.

Since his 1995 debut "Cheatin' Heart Attack," the singer, songwriter and guitarist has held fast to older roots music traditions. He's a dyed-in-the-wool honky-tonker indebted to the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. His deep, weathered croon makes him a vocal heir to Haggard and Lefty Frizzell.

For 300 days a year, Watson can be found playing on a stage somewhere: touring the states, playing concerts overseas or tearing up the clubs of his Texas home base. On July 4, Dale Watson & His Lone Stars will play the 34th annual American Music Festival at FitzGerald's in Berwyn. The four-day festival runs from Wednesday through July 4 and features more than 40 acts on three stages.

Watson's recent increased exposure in the mainstream has significantly widened his fan base and helped propel him from cult stardom into higher visibility gigs. He's eager to take advantage of the interest, with a dizzying itinerary that includes more gigs as a thespian.

His evolving acting career includes work in commercials and an appearance in the 2013 family holiday film "Angel Sings," where Watson played a supporting role alongside heavy-hitter musician-actors Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Lyle Lovett. He has a cameo in the upcoming action-comedy "Lazer Team," and this fall he's scheduled to star in the indie film "Yellow Rose." He's also been a featured musical performer on an episode of ABC's reality love drama "The Bachelorette."

In February he sets sail on SiriusXM radio's inaugural Outlaw Country Cruise. "That boat is in danger," Watson chuckles. "We've got like-minded folks. It's definitely not going to be your typical cruise where you see people playing shuffleboard."

Soon after he's back from the high seas, Watson returns to Austin for the third annual Ameripolitan Music Awards. Founded by Watson, the show honors artists who make roots music far outside the mainstream confines of Nashville, Tenn.

He helped coin the term "Ameripolitan" as a way to describe traditionally leaning roots music. He wanted to avoid the term "country" because some people hear the word and think of the music of mainstream bro-country artists or pop star Taylor Swift.

"'Ameripolitan' doesn't have any kind of preconceived notion," he explains. "We've got our own fans and supporters, so it doesn't really matter what Nashville does."

Watson's new album, "Call Me Insane" (Red House/Ameripolitan Records), finds the artist in fine hard-country form. He's backed by His Lone Stars, his crack touring band that features Don Pawlak on pedal steel guitar, Mike Bernal on drums and Chris Crepps on upright bass. Watson and band were joined in the studio by Danny Levin on piano and members of the Honky Tonk Horns.

It's a rich album that harks to the past without sounding retro stale. "A Day at a Time" recalls the blue-collar struggle and pride of Haggard's "Workin' Man Blues." Watson wrote "Jonesin' for Jones" as an homage to George Jones in the wake of the legend's death in the spring of 2013.

"When he died, it was a real shock," Watson says. "Three days later I was at the Continental Club in Austin. That night I mentioned I was going to be doing a lot of his songs. I said, 'I've been jonesin' for Jones.' Then I thought, 'That's a good idea.' That's how it was born."

The shadow of death plays a role in another song on the record. In 2000, Watson's girlfriend, Terri Herbert, was killed in a car accident, an event that threw him into an emotional tailspin for a time. She was the inspiration for his 2001 release, "Every Song I Write Is for You."

Watson's new song "Burden of the Cross" relates how the small white cross that marked the accident site on the highway was removed for construction reasons. Watson sings in the mournful song, "They pulled up the cross to build a wider road/ But they don't know the cost of that road's heavy toll."

Today, Watson is past the raw, early days of the original loss. But as he sings in the song, "Years have dulled the ache/ But I still feel the pain."

"It reminds me of something that happened to Terri's mom a couple years after Terri's passing," he recalls. "Her mom's friend said, 'Aren't you over that yet?' It is amazing that she'd say that to someone who'd lost their daughter. Terri's mom said, 'You never get over it. You just learn to live with it.' So that's it. It doesn't go away. You just learn to live with it."

The album's title track recalls the sonic vibe of Glen Campbell's classic hits "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston." The lyrics came about when the several-times married Watson was trying to court a new potential girlfriend.

"The song was inspired by a gal that I was interested in seeing at the time. She thought about it and said, 'No. You're not good at relationships. You don't have a good track record,'" he recalls with a laugh. "I said, 'Yeah, I must be crazy to want to do this, but I do. I guess I'm insane.' It's like the saying that it's insanity if you do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. I applied that to love."

The new album was recorded with producer Lloyd Maines. The father of Dixie Chicks member Natalie Maines, he is a veteran musician and go-to Americana producer who has worked with a long list of artists' including Lone Star mainstays Jerry Jeff Walker and Robert Earl Keen.

"We recorded the album in four days," Watson says. "I let it be Lloyd's baby and his production. You gotta trust the guy. He's so easy to work with. It didn't even feel like work. He makes it fun. And, really, that's the only rule I've got. You ask any of my band members — I only have one rule in the band. It's to have fun. Because once you make this not fun, it turns into work."

Chrissie Dickinson is a freelance writer


FitzGerald's 34th annual

American Music Festival

When: 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. July 3 and 4

Where: FitzGerald's, 6615 Roosevelt Road, Berwyn

Tickets: $25 on Wednesday, $35 Thursday-Saturday, $100 for 4-day pass; 708-788-2118 or ticketweb.com

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