Dale Watson is about as country music as it gets. Dapper in classic western attire, complete with Stetson, big belt buckle, and boots, his shock-white pompadour and rich, deep tenor lend an air of authenticity. Watson is the archetypical country-music artist. There’s a reason he’s often referred to as the “real deal.”
Yet, despite the obvious associations, Watson says he is not a country artist. In fact, he is adamant that country music, at least in the traditional sense, no longer exists — something he prophesized years ago.
“I am a little vindicated in a way,” Watson explains by phone from his dressing room at Austin’s Continental Club. “I was screaming in the forest about the music losing its identity in 1990. And it came true — it’s 100 percent lost its identity. [Country music] became something else. That’s why I don’t call what I do country music anymore. I’m not a country artist by any means.”
While Watson has stayed true to his roots after growing up on a diet of George Jones, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash, he likens the situation to that of yuppies moving into poor neighborhoods.
“I think what’s really happened is that we who grew up with country music have lost sight of what country music has become. I don’t think we realized it changed, and we let it,” he says. “It’s like being in an old neighborhood and they come in and gentrify it, put in all these condos in place of all these fun places where you used to hang out. It’s the same neighborhood, but it’s totally changed. We just don’t belong in that neighborhood.”
Watson separates himself from the so-called country music that is clogging up the airwaves. He calls himself an Ameripolitan, an artist playing music in the four traditional country music senses — honky tonk, rockabilly, Texas swing, and outlaw country.
“Ameripolitan is a new genre that had to come about because the music we make doesn’t have a home in country music,” he says. “They put us in the same category as novelty music or something like that. They think it’s retro.”
Retro, perhaps, yet no matter what he calls it, there is no denying the appeal of his music. There is a down-home, down-to-earth, real-life feel to Watson’s songs. These are not written by some suits sitting in an air-conditioned room in Nashville, but rather a man living on the road, going to real places with real people and real situations.
“When you’re a troubadour, you tell about the people and real things you run across. It’s what makes a big difference,” he says. “In today’s music, you’ve got four middle-aged guys sitting in a room in Nashville trying to figure out what a teenager who gets pregnant feels like.”
Is it too late for country music as we once knew it? The answer is a definitive yes and no. While there will always be old-school artists like Dale Watson holding tight to country music’s pure essence, it’s the current generation of so-called country artists and their influences that worries Watson.
“You don’t hear that (roots sound) today because the music today you can absolutely trace … I guarantee in their record collections you’ll find Boys II Men, New Kids on the Block, and whatever hip-hop band was popular in the 1990s. That’s what you get today,” he says, an air of exasperation in his voice.
Luckily, the real deal is still out there.