Nashville Rash

Texas troubadour Dale Watson is waging a war for the heart and soul of country music

These might be the darkest days in the history of country music. The industry has always been a two-faced creature. While Nashville has long paid lip service to the history and traditions of country music, it's rarely ever practiced what it preached. After all, these are the same people who blackballed Hank Williams from the Grand Ole Opry, and then publicly embraced him as their own the minute he turned cold in the back seat of the Cadillac.

Today, the problem is crystal clear. Pick up the most recent issue of Country Music magazine and you'll see a cover blurb promising a feature on Michael Peterson that poses the question, "Too Sensitive for Country?" The article goes on to describe Peterson as a "soft-spoken singer/songwriter who spent 12 years as a motivational speaker in high schools, encouraging kids to respect and care for themselves and others. Those are the same things he now seeks to promote with the songs he writes and sings." Too sensitive for country music? How about too sensitive for Dan Fogelberg fans? If only Spade Cooley was alive to offer his special brand of "stomping" therapy to Peterson.

Or how about the other cover feature which offers the story of singer David Kersh, with the clever tag "No Shirt? No Problem." Inside we get a lengthy piece on Kersh, a hunky Texan who was the subject of a recent Playgirl pictorial. An avowed Def Leppard fan (big surprise), Kersh has scored a series of hits with bile-inducing ballads like "Another You," "Day In Day Out" and an even more boring take (if that's possible) of Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight."

After paging through the rest of this glossy bimonthly, I was nearly paralyzed with outrage, and burdened by half a million questions, the main one being, "Is this what it's come to?" How did failed sensitivity trainers and graduates from the Handsome Boy modeling school become the de facto representatives for country music? Where are the ex-cons, the rig-rockers, the tattooed wild men, the two-fisted troubadours, and the Western swingers? Take a long, hard listen to country radio. Where are the songs about cheatin', drinkin', ramblin', trucks and trains? Where's the much-talked-about influence of Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and George Jones? Where? Where? Where?

After calming down, I reminded myself that all those things are safe and being well-preserved in the music of Dale Watson.

Ironically enough, the Austin-based Watson is given some ink in the very same issue of Country Music magazine. The outspoken singer offers his opinion about Garth Brooks in a story about the marketing-savvy entertainer titled "Mogul or Madman?" "They quoted me pretty good in that one," says Watson from his home. "I imagine I'm going to be getting some death threats from all these 'hat acts.'"

Watson is being facetious. Although he calls Brooks "the anti-Hank" and goes on to compare the superstar and his Resistol-wearing ilk to "watered-down whiskey," it's hard to imagine that he really expects any kind of reprisal for his comments, certainly not from the current legion of soft boys and factory-made mannequins posing as country singers. For Watson it isn't the first time--and certainly won't be the last--that he'll speak out against what he views as the utter corruption of the music he loves, and has lived his whole life.

Country music runs thick in Dale Watson's blood. His father, Don, was a part-time musician and trucker with a full-time love of country music. "Sometimes he'd do six nights a week of a house gig when he was between a job or something," recalls Watson. The younger Watson was born in Alabama but settled with his family in a small town just outside Houston. Growing up in the Lone Star State, he was steeped in the native country styles, including the Western swing and dance hall of Bob Wills, Ray Price and Johnny Bush. But it was Watson's father who had the most profound influence.

"He came from Kentucky and was raised in Alabama and Tennessee. There's a little bit of difference in his kind of country music and the kind in Texas," says Watson. "His thing was more like Roy Acuff, George Jones, Charlie Pride, Lefty Frizzell. All the things you'd consider hard-core country."

The elder Watson's love of country translated into something of a semiformal education for young Dale. "It was like going to country music school. Whenever Hee-Haw would come on when I was a kid, we'd watch it and he'd say, 'That guy used to play for so and so.' Or, 'That guy playing guitar wrote that song that so and so sings.'"

The seeds his father had planted began to bloom at the tender age of 14 when Watson began his lifelong career of recording and performing traditional country music. After graduating high school in the late '70s, Watson joined his brothers in a local country band and spent the better part of the next seven years playing in and around the honky-tonks of Pasadena, Texas.

"We were called the Classic Country band. We played beer joints, really. It was traditional music, but we did some of the stuff that was on the radio," recalls Watson. "But the radio wasn't as bad as it is now. We still had Gary Stewart doing songs, and George and Merle were still putting out great records."

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