Dale Watson’s ‘Ameripolitan’ Ways

Dale Watson talks with Pollstar about songwriting, forgoing setlists and why his “Ameripolitan” genre is for artists who are too country for country.

Honkytonk, rockabilly, western swing and outlaw music are the four categories you’ll find in Ameripolitan, more than enough for Watson to bring his musical stylings to life.  Possessing a strong and sturdy baritone and backed by his incredibly talented Lone Stars, Watson fits right in with the world of George Jones, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.

While his tour bus rolled down the road between Columbus and Cincinnati, Watson also discussed his new album, Call Me Insane, playing the lead role in “Ghost Brothers Of Darkland County” and his early days as a member of the house band at North Hollywood’s Palomino nightclub. Call him a “maverick” or “old-school country & western” and chances are Watson wouldn’t argue with you.  But don’t you dare ask him for a “tush push.” Not if you want to stick around for the rest of the show.

Photo: Bill Reaves

You sang about being “too country for country” in the song “Nashville Rash.”  Is that still the case?

I guess I’m too country [that] I even left the town.  I left country.  I don’t really consider myself country anymore.  By today’s standard I’m not country enough.  … I don’t have enough pop and rock.

What are your impressions whenever you listen to a contemporary country music radio station?

I very seldom listen to it.  I used to listen to it just to have an informed argument, but now I don’t even do that. It was futile.  I guess 98 percent of the stuff had nothing to do with what I used to know as country music.  What they call “country music” now is that pop stuff.  That’s what it is.  I gave up the fight and said, “I’m going to go with ‘Ameripolitan.’  Ray Price helped me out with it.  We launched it pretty well.  We’re in our third year of the awards ceremony.  I don’t really have to worry about what they’re doing with corporate country anymore because it doesn’t pertain to me.

But long-time country fans have been making that same argument for years – that contemporary country isn’t the “country” they grew up listening to.

Absolutely.  It’s nothing new.  That’s why, at some point you have to give up … if all you’re going to do is complain and not do anything, then nothing changes.  That’s why we created the “Ameripolitan” genre.  It’s thriving.  We have people who realize they have a home now.  We don’t have to worry about what they’re doing in country.  We don’t always complain about it because it doesn’t pertain to us.

Do you consider other genres, such as “roots country” and Americana, to be part of Ameripolitan?

It’s only honkytonk, rockabilly, western swing and outlaw music.  Bluegrass has its own thing and they do great. … There’s a very definite line between Americana and Ameripolitan.  I support Americana music.  I think it’s necessary and a good thing.  It’s just too wide and didn’t encompass us very well. … It’s great because it does recognize all aspects of American music, and I applaud them for that.  But I just wanted something that’s a little more focused on the honkytonk, western swing, rockabilly and outlaw music.  I wanted something more focused on what George Jones, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Ray Price – what they’re doing. 

Do you have a mental picture of what an album will sound like before you even go into the studio?

Yeah. We don’t stray too far from things.  I add things that we can’t do on stage being a four-piece band, like a piano, tambourines.   But that happens after you recorded it and say, “Wouldn’t it sound good if we added this or that on it?”  As far as what we know will go in, we’ve been doing the songs on stage for a while so we kind of know what it will sound like.

When writing the songs, do you already have an idea when the pedal steel will kick in or when someone will take a solo?

We’re on the cusp of live.  When I wrote “Jonesin’ For Jones,” I just went with what feels right.  Sometimes, [you] change it in the recording process, especially when you involve an outside producer like we did with Lloyd.  He goes, “Why don’t you take the first solo and he’ll take the second one and we’ll do this, there.” That’s a big difference on this record.  It wasn’t so much as it was on stage.

What do you think might be the biggest surprise for fans on this record?

I think it’s the sonic … how it sounds.  Lloyd is great about details, where I’ve always been, “That’s good enough.”

Are you one of those artists that, no matter how much time and sweat you put into an album, are never totally satisfied with the finished work?

I don’t think there’s a record I ever made that I didn’t say, “Oh, man, I wish I had [done] this.”  We only had four days to do the record.  My schedule and Lloyd’s is so tight.  We’ve been trying to get together for years and finally said this [album] is going to be the one we do. Wouldn’t you know it that the last few days of the record I caught a cold and I can hear it on some of the songs.

The end of the ’80s found you playing in the house band at The Palomino in Los Angeles.  What was the country scene in L.A. like at that time?

What drew me to it was the fact that it was kind of a Bakersfield revival.  Rosie Flores is a friend of mine.  She talked me into going out there visiting.  Jim Lauderdale was out there.  There was a real roots revival happening.  A Town South Of Bakersfield had just come out.  It felt like there was something happening out there.  Then line-dancing came along and stomped it to death.

Were there moments when you were playing a club date and the audience suddenly broke into a line dance?

Oh, yeah.  I’m pretty famous for a point of view … people would come up and instead of asking for a song they would say, “Can you play a ‘tush push’ or a ‘slappin’ leather?’”  I’d say, “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.  If you can give me the name of a song.  I’m a singer; I’m not a choreographer.”  That’s when I realized I was going back to Texas.  We dance in Texas, too.  Somebody would say, “You got a two-step?  You got a waltz?”  I grew up with that and maybe I don’t find it offensive because it’s two people dancing together.  Two people asking for a waltz – I’ve been used to that all of my life.  But if they ever ask for a tush push or a slappin’ leather in Texas, they’ll have to move somewhere else.

Not only have several great artists played The Palomino, but many acts made it a point to visit the club whenever they were in Los Angeles.  Who might have been in the club on any given night while you were playing in the house band?

Jerry Lee Lewis would come in often.  Dwight Yoakam, he was there a lot. There was a cross section, too. Brian Setzer would come in a lot.  Red Simpson …  As far as what was happening at that point, everybody  that was touring would come into the Palomino.  Marty Robbins, he built the door to the stage.  The owner said he would build the door but he never did.  So one day Marty Robbins came in early and took a chain saw and made a door to the backstage. 

You were in the Stephen King / John Mellencamp production “Ghost Brothers Of Darkland County.”  Was that a major step outside of your own comfort zone?

A major, major step.  I’ve done a little acting.  I don’t consider myself a great actor at all.  Doing stage is a whole different animal.  They were gracious to me.  It was fun.  At the same time, doing a play is so different from doing TV or a movie.  You’re doing the same thing, saying the same thing every day at the same time of day.  It got so monotonous, like the movie “Groundhog Day” to me.  My problem is I get easily bored.  I don’t even do a setlist.  I can’t imagine doing over 300 dates a year and doing the same songs in the same set.  That would drive me nuts.  It was a great experience doing [“Ghost Brothers …”] and I’m glad I did it.  But I don’t think Broadway is in my future.”

Since you don’t have a setlist, how do you communicate with the band about what the next song will be?

Sometimes I’ll announce a song and that helps them get [ready].  Lots of times I just go into it and they know where I’m at.  My guys have been with me long enough. … Whenever someone asks me for a key or what we’re doing, it takes away from what I’m doing. … Not that they have to read my mind, but I have guys who understand exactly what we’re doing because we play so much.  I hit the first couple of notes and they know where we’re at.  I feel very blessed to have the band members I have.

Does that level of communication continue after the show? 

Absolutely.  We know when someone wants to be alone.  You can tell when someone is tired and doesn’t feel like joking around.  Or if someone is tired of being alone and wants to talk.  We’re friends.  Even when we’re off we’ll invite each other to our houses for barbeque.

Would a visitor riding on the bus feel kind of lost or left out of the conversation?

No.  That’s what I love about these guys, too. We have time when [people] get on the bus and hang out and everybody is gracious to them.  “You want a soda?  You want some food?”  We know this is our rolling home. 

My brother drives for me.  He drives the bus and I drive it, too.  Growing up, we talked to each other like you’d never talk to your friends.  We just edge each other on. That’s kind of what the band does, too.  We kid and tease each other.  We try to calm it down whenever we have company.  It’s a family. … Thought it’s a little dysfunctional.

Was it always the guitar for you?

Yeah. My older brother Jim played guitar and he wanted to learn to play lead.  So he taught me rhythm and chord progressions and I played them over and over until I felt my fingers were going to bleed.  Doing that, he was able to learn lead guitar and I learned how to play regular guitar.

How old were you at this point?

About 9, 10 …

That’s pretty early to set one’s path through life.

I’m a big believer that you shape your future.  When growing up, in school whenever teachers asked me what I was going to do … they had me write it down … I always put “entertainer.”  But I actually wanted to go into the service and be career military.  But I had an eye injury when I was 12 years old and that nipped that right in the bud.

I was going into the Marines in the buddy system with a friend of mine.  At the recruiting office, I found out later what they do often is take turns on who walks into the door and oftentimes flip a coin on who’s going to get to sign the guy.  The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines – they’re usually in the same building.  So I went in there and said, “I want to be a Marine like my dad.”  They asked me what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to be a medic.  And they said all of their medics were in the Navy. “You ever see M.A.S.H.,” they asked.  “All of them?  They say Army but they’re all Navy.” And what did I know? I was just trying to enlist.  I just assumed that was totally true.

What is the writing process like for you?  Do you begin with a melody, a lyric line, a riff?

Sitting down and writing a song – I don’t really do that all that often.  I like doing it from the stage.  We play so much and my inspiration comes from the crowds.  “I Lie When I Drink” and “Jonesin’ For Jones” I wrote on stage on an envelope.  Of course I refined it later.  The latest song I’ve written, my step-dad had just passed away.  When you try to sit down and do it, it’s hard to do it.  It finally just came to me.  That was the first time I wasn’t on stage when I wrote a song in a long, long time.

No setlist, writing songs on stage – it sounds as if your career is all about spontaneity.

A lot.  Especially at this age, whenever things are happening … I’m constantly amazed at how lucky and blessed I am.  I’m doing the same thing I’ve been doing forever.  Again, it’s almost a handicap.  If the audience isn’t having fun, I find it hard to have fun.  I only have one rule in the band and each band member will tell you what it is – have fun on stage.  I really need that feedback [from the audience].

What do you see when you look out on the audience?

Last night, [for example] when I was doing “Jonesin’ For Jones” I saw people smiling, which is what I want them to do.  Whenever I think of George Jones’ music, I smile.  I want people to think, “I’m so glad George Jones was here and gave us all that he did.”  So I see the smiles and people singing along with the choruses the first time through.  Like “Baby Makes Me Gravy.”  When I do that song people smile and sing along with that line. 

You said, “at this age,” yet I’m sure there are older fans who wish they could say they were your age again.

I’ve been a Merle Haggard fan for a long time. When he came out with that song “I wish I Was 30 Again” I was only 20.  I thought, “That’s weird. I can’t even cover that song because I’m not 30 yet. Why would you want to be 30?”  Now I totally understand that.

I think this type of music is a mature person’s music. I don’t think a teenager is going to have the same things in life to deal with that I have or someone 15 years younger than me.

But listeners can hear songs in different ways as they grow older.  A song you first heard when you were a teenager might take on a different meaning when you’re, say, 25 and starting a family.  Your life’s experiences can result in relating to songs in different ways.

 “White Lightning’” was that way for me. I remember hearing that as a kid and thinking, “This is fun.”  I just assumed it was talking about lightning itself.  But years later I knew he was talking about moonshine.

Your songs have been covered by other people.  Any favorites?

I’m just honored anybody even takes the time to do that. … Billy Joe Shaver, [Kris] Kristofferson and those guys – they’ve done so many covers that they [probably] don’t know who [originally] did them.  I think Whitey Morgan pretty much nailed “Where Do You Want It.”  I appreciate that very much.

You’ve recorded a few cover songs.  For example, Call Me Insane includes a Tony Joe White song – “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up To Be Babies.”  How do you approach recording someone else’s song?”

Somebody actually thought I wrote that song, then they said it sounded like a song I wrote. I took it as a compliment. … I’ve been doing that song for 20 years.  Once you’ve been doing a song that long, you feel comfortable with it. I have a cover album that’s probably going to come out in the fall.  I picked the songs I’ve been doing a long time.  I told Merle Haggard about this cover I did of “Here In Frisco.” … He goes, “I forgot all about that song.”  He’s written more great songs that he’s forgotten about than I have ever written.  I don’t do the lyrics the exact same way. I don’t do the arrangement the same way.

The same with Tony Joe White.  I didn’t do the lyrics exactly the same way they were done back then because they evolved over the years.  Maybe I’d forget a verse and add something else.  Essentially, you make something  your own.  They’re obviously someone else’s songs, but you got to do something to make it your own.

Has White ever commented on your version of “Mamas …?”

No.  I got to meet him one time. He came to Austin and when I asked him about the song, he doesn’t like taking credit for it. [Ed Bruce] wrote “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” and [White] didn’t feel comfortable having written [his] song inspired by that other song.

What do you think is the biggest lesson you have learned from your career?

Compromise with yourself.  I’ve always been hardheaded and a bit of a control freak, but once I learned to compromise with myself and be open to being helped, it made a big difference in life.

Photo: Bill Reaves
“I only have one rule in the band and each band member will tell you what it is – have fun on stage.”

Upcoming shows for Dale Watson:

July 15 – Cambridge, Mass., Atwoods Tavern
July 16 – Fall River, Mass., Narrows Center For The Arts
July 17 – Cleveland, Ohio, Beachland Ballroom
July 18 – Detroit, Mich., Majestic Café
July 19 – Pittsburgh, Pa., Thunderbird Café
July 20 – Lexington, Ky., Willie’s Locally Known
July 21 – Louisville, Ky., The New Vintage
July 22 – Nashville, Tenn.,  Station Inn
July 23 – Tulsa, Okla., Mercury Lounge
July 24 – Fort Worth, Texas, Longhorn Saloon
July 25 – Austin, Texas, Broken Spoke
July 27 – Austin, Texas, The Continental Club
July 31 – Horseshoe Bay, Texas, Horseshoe Bay Resort
Aug. 1 – Silsbee, Texas, Honky Tonk Texas
Aug. 3 – Austin, Texas, The Continental Club
Aug. 6 – Plano, Texas, Courtyard Theater
Aug. 8 – Austin, Texas, Broken Spoke
Aug. 8 – San Antonio, Texas, Lone Star Brewery
Aug. 13 – Austin, Texas, The Highball
Aug. 14 – New Braunfels, Texas, Phoenix Saloon
Aug. 15 – Houston, Texas, Silver Street Studio
Aug. 16 – Memphis, Tenn., MainStage
Aug. 20 – Austin, Texas, The Highball
Aug. 22 – Dallas, Texas, Gilley’s Dallas
Aug. 23 – Austin, Texas, Fiesta Gardens
Aug. 26 – Tomball, Texas, Main Street Crossing
Aug. 27 – Austin, Texas, The Highball
Aug. 28 – McKinney, Texas,  Hank’s
Aug. 29 – Austin, Texas, Fair Market Event Center
Sept. 3 – Austin, Texas, The Highball
Sept. 5 – Austin, Texas, Broken Spoke
Sept. 10 – Atlanta, Ga., Smith’s Olde Bar
Sept. 11-13 – Greensboro, N.C., Downtown Greensboro
Sept. 18 – Bristol, Va., Downtown Bristol
Sept. 19 – New Orleans, La., Mid City Lanes Rock ’N’ Bowl
Sept. 20 – McDade, Texas, Sherwood Forest Faire
Sept. 26 – Austin, Texas, Parkside
Sept. 27 – Columbia, Mo., Stephens Lake Park (Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival)
Sept. 30 – Huntington Beach, Calif., Don the Beachcomber
Oct. 1 – Los Angeles, Calif., Echo
Oct. 3 – Placerville, Calif., El Dorado County Fairgrounds
Oct. 7 – Portland, Ore., Mississippi Studios
Oct. 8 – Vancouver, British Columbia, Railway Club
Oct. 9 – Seattle, Wash., Tractor Tavern
Oct. 10 – Stanley, Idaho, Mountain Village Resort
Oct. 11 – Boise, Idaho, Neurolux
Oct. 12 – Bozeman, Mont., Peach Street Studios
Oct. 14 – Salt Lake City, Utah, The State Room
Oct. 15 – Denver, Colo., Goosetown Tavern
Oct. 16 – Albuquerque, N.M., Low Spirits Bar and Stage
Oct. 17 – Austin, Texas, Broken Spoke
Oct. 22 – Austin, Texas, The Highball
Oct. 24 – Austin, Texas, Broken Spoke
Oct. 29 – Austin, Texas, The Highball
Nov. 25 – Fredericksburg, Texas, Luckenbach Texas
Nov. 27 – Plano, Texas, Love & War In Texas
Nov. 28 – Austin, Texas, Broken Spoke
Dec. 4 – Stafford, Texas, Redneck Country Club
Dec. 5 – Fort Worth, Texas, Longhorn Saloon
Dec. 12 – Dripping Springs, Texas, Mercer Street Dancehall
Dec. 18 – Greenville, Texas, Texan Theater
Dec. 19 – Temple, Texas, Azalee Marshall Cultural Activities Center
Dec. 26 – Austin, Texas, Broken Spoke
Dec. 31 – Kendalia, Texas, Kendalia Halle
Feb. 7-11 – Miami, Fla., Norwegian Cruise Line – Norwegian Pearl (The Outlaw Country Cruise)

For more information please visit Dale Watson’s website, Facebook page, and Google + page.