A country traditionalist before country traditionalists became cool again, Dale Watson upholds the music he's known and loved for decades. Since his teenage years, the 55-year-old singer and guitarist has continually played music halls and holes-in-the-wall around his Texas home base and beyond. With plenty of young "Ameripolitan" artists taking up the cause, Watson now finds himself as a vocal leader and elder statesman in a global underground roots music scene.
"I'm a natural extension of the music I grew up doing," he says. "Everybody is doing the music they're connected to, and there is an intention to stay close to the roots."
One has to see Watson live to fully appreciate his dedication to old-school, unscripted honky-tonk excitement. He only made a set list once in recent memory, and that was just to suit the rules of “Austin City Limits.”
"It's just more fun for me to do a show off the cuff," he says. "Traveling all over and just doing everything from punk clubs to bigger concert halls—going by a set list is just never a fun way for me to do it. It needs to be organic with the crowds."
Playing without a set list allows both the setting and the audience to dictate what gets played from Watson's massive catalog of albums and equally deep well of classic cover songs. "We got a lot of theater shows, and it's more of a listening audience at that point," he says. "When we're playing a rowdy place, people want to hear more rowdy music."
Regional tastes also dictate song selection. While Midwesterners and New Yorkers love tales about life on the road, Watson finds that Southerners prefer Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" and other drinking songs.
Sometimes, Watson takes his celebration of the hillbilly experience a step further, allowing the audience to play a round of Chicken Shit Bingo for cash. Derived from an old Southern tradition of playing a high-stakes game of chance with farm animals, Watson's version uses a live chicken to fairly pick—or peck—the winning number.
"It actually has been going on for 18 years now," Watson says of his version of the game. "It's kind of hard to explain, but people don't realize you use a real chicken. I did a Chicken Shit tour where I carried the pen around. Of course, the venue had to provide the chicken. For $2, you get a random number out of a bag. If it's the same number the chicken picks on the bottom of the cage, you've won money.
“At some places we could do it, and at others we couldn't,” he continues. “It's not gambling, because the house isn't taking a piece of the pie. The only reason we couldn't do it at some places is because if they serve food, it's different. Can't bring livestock in there. It's been going on in Texas and all over the South for a long time."
Known for such original compositions as "Country My Ass"—a bemoaning of modern music based on Waylon Jennings and Haggard's hilarious interpretation of the CMA Awards' acronym—Watson takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to keeping the past alive without mocking his musical predecessors. This humor is a breath of fresh air, considering many of the better artists under the Americana banner normally take a more straightforward approach to storytelling.
Watson gets more help spreading the good word nowadays from the country, Western swing and rockabilly acts celebrated by his annual Ameripolitan Awards, hosted Feb. 13 in Memphis. But don't expect him to let Nikki Lane, Whitey Morgan and the 78’s or other peers evangelize the masses without him anytime soon. Watson stays on the road constantly—though Saturday will be his first-ever stop in Athens—and hopes to have a new album, recorded recently at Sam Phillips Recording Studio, out later this year.
DALE WATSON Iconic "Ameripolitan" guitarist and singer known for his authentic approach to songwriting. See story on p. 12.
CARLY BURRUSS Country singer-songwriter based in Atlanta.