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Bourbon Cowboy

They were about halfway through a take in the video shoot for Pam Tillis' recent hit "MiVida Loca" when the country diva suddenly directed the camera crew to stop filming, turned to Dale Watson and told him to flatten his pompadour.

"She had a problem with my hair," remembers Watson. "Said it looked too rockabilly."

The 32-year-old roots-country artist is a scalding critic of contemporary country music. He had rented himself out to the enemy for the video, but he wasn't about to tone down his flamboyant coif. "I told her, 'You can take my bass and have somebody else do it, because I'm not going to comb my hair down. That really gives me a rash.'"

"As a matter of fact," the singer-songwriter says, "she gave me a rash and Nashville gives me a rash. That kind of small-mindedness shouldn't be happening."

Watson must have quite an itch. One song on his solo debut for Hightone Records, Cheatin' Heart Attack, is called "Nashville Rash." On it, Watson sings, "I'm too country for country, and so is Johnny Cash."

Based in Austin, Texas, Watson views Nashville with the same disgust a Christian righter holds for San Francisco. The capital of the country-music industry, he says, "is like a family member that dabbles in drugs and has a bad habit you'd like to break. Today's country music is made for boot-scooters [line dancers] who eat whatever's shoved at them."

His caustic attitude may have cost him. His first single, "Cheatin' Heart," has gotten the plague treatment from country stations across the country, despite three months on top of the British country-radio charts. "Contemporary radio stations aren't going to play it here 'cause it's not sonically correct," says Watson. "I'd rather my stuff be played on a golden oldies station."

Contacted at her Pasadena, Texas, home, Watson's mother says her son has always been a bit ornery about conformity. "Dale was always rebellious if he didn't get his way or didn't want to do something," says Sarah Cain. "That was a big thing with him."

Apparently, it still is. Heart Attack is a study in raw defiance. In his songs, Watson adopts the persona of a ramblin', cheatin' heartbreaker who drinks ashard as he works. It's pure honky-tonk archetype, an echo of 20- and 30-year-old characters--except Watson also captures a dark, urban intensity that's pure Nineties.

On "Holes in the Walls," he sings: "Holes in the walls and stains in the carpet/Use elbow grease and Spackle and Pine Sol/Be happy now you've gotten what you wanted/I'm sorry about the holes in the walls."

Watson wrote all 14 songs on his album save his signature cover of the Stonewall Jackson tune "Don't Be Angry," which he started performing when he was 14. Thatwas shortly after the singer moved from Alabama (where he was born) to Pasadena with his mother, his stepfather and his two older brothers. (Watson hasa tattoo of his latefather, country musician Donald Joe Watson, who never told his son to "get a real job.")

When Watson graduated from high school in 1979, his brothers recruited him for their band. Forthe next seven years, Watson knocked around in local honky-tonks. Eventually, he hit I-10 west to Los Angeles and started playing barn dances in a north Hollywood nightclub. Watson was on Curb Records for a short while, until he got a note that read, in part, "Nobody in the phone promotion department thinks you've got a hit in you."

Watson has a joke about the music industry that goes like this: "An artist gives a tape to an A&R rep. A week later, he asks the guy, 'Hey man, what'd you think of the tape?' The executive replies, 'I don't know. I'm the only one who's heard it.'"

The singer relocated to Austin after the 1993 San Fernando earthquake rocked L.A. Currently, he and his Lone Star bandmates are stars on two Austin circuits: college hangouts and hard-core country bars. "We get people who come to our shows who have rings in their noses and tattoos up and down their bodies, and they dig our music as much as the old guy in the corner with the cowboy hat.

"I like smaller venues because it's easier to make a connection with the audience," the singer continues. "I don't think country music was meant for huge stadiums. There's a barrier somewhere, and once you cross it, you lose the audience and your message doesn't get across."

Dale Watson is scheduled to perform on Monday, December 4, at the Rockin' Horse in Scottsdale, with Trio Grande. Showtime is 8 p.m.