The old-country pioneer talks rockabilly fashion victims, immortalising Gumly Gumly, being ‘Ameripolitan’, feeling zen around Willie Nelson and owning two honky-tonks
Everything about Dale Watson is old-school, from the country music he plays, to his manners and his dapper dress sense. The 50-year-old silver fox grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Texas, and – while having travelled the world many times over – he likes to return there. While his last album concerned itself with recreating the Sun Records era, his 21st album, El Rancho Azul, is a return to hard drinking and honky-tonks.
Watson’s back over this November and December, but leave the Melbourne cool at home – he didn’t put ‘Quick Quick Slow Slow’ and ‘Slow Quick Quick’ on this album for you to just stand with your arms folded. In fact he called them that so that those too shy to ask how to dance will have no excuses.
Dale, country & western, along with rockabilly, has very much been in fashion again for the last few decades, even if it’s niche fashion. What do you think when you see someone who’s obviously gone out to get all the right tattoos and clothes?
I did the same thing. Everybody’s got a scene, even if your scene is “no scene”. Dressing up is all a part of it – you can tell by what people wear what kind of music they like. I get my clothes from thrift stores and the internet. I do like to dress up, because if you look like you just walked out of the audience it doesn’t seem like you really give a damn.
You’ve got a great Waylon Jennings-style guitar strap.
That was the fans. I didn’t have any of that stuff made. I got a belt, a strap, guitar pickguards and a lot of other things from fans. The straps are highly detailed and expensive.
You’ve got four songs with the word ‘drink’ in the title on this album. Do you think it’s possible to be a great country & western singer in sobriety?
(Laughs) Oh sure, yeah! Buck Owens didn’t sing a lot of drinking songs. There’s lots of folks. I just play to my audience and a lot of my audiences are in honky-tonks and bars.
Are honky-tonks only in the southern states?
No, it used to be more that way, but surprisingly to me I’ve seen honky-tonks in California, Minnesota and New York. It’s really not so much the geography anymore as the vibe and the feeling.
Would you like to have one yourself?
Actually, I got two (laughs). There’s Little Longhorn in Austin where I play on Sundays, I’m partner in that, and I’m buying one in the next week called Exit 109. It’s in St Hedwig [pop. 2189], up by San Antonio.
What attracted you to that one?
It’s going to be easy to park my truck there and it has the old vibe of stuff I grew up with.
What’s on your rider?
Lone Star Beer… other than that, we’re not particular. Anything will do.
‘Where Do You Want It’ is about Texan country music outlaw Billy Joe Shaver, who shot a guy in the face at a bar. Reading up on him, he could be a character in a John Steinbeck novel.
Old-country songs are great for describing lives filled with misfortune.
He’s a Texas legend who’s written major, major hits for Waylon and others. His life does read like a Steinbeck novel. There’s been a documentary on him with Robert Duvall… he’s has the worst luck and the best luck of anybody I know.
It must have been nerve-racking writing a song about a songwriter you admire.
(Laughs) Yeah. Once I did it I called him up because I’d been going by what TV and radio was saying, but it was a legal matter too, you know? He said, “Go ahead and release it. But songs are like children. You get some ugly children – and you’ve got an ugly young ’un right there.” Telling the ugly truth, you know?
Are there any other characters that are still on your list to write about?
Absolutely, on the next record I got one I wrote back in ’97 in Australia, about a guy called Phillip who works in a Gumly Gumly gas station called Caltex. I thought, “This guy’s name is Phill-ip and he works at a gas station.” (Laughs.)
Australia has some great place names to put in songs.
Oh yeah. I've written a lot of songs about Australia. Like I said, 'Fill Up at the Station', 'Road Train'... I've been all over it. Wagga Wagga, Gumly Gumly...
Two years ago you made news over here with your revenge song ‘Tiger Airways’. That takes songwriting-as-catharsis to the next level.
That was a catalyst. The song wasn’t great, but it said what everybody felt. When I came out again there was a guy who was paralysed in a wheelchair trying to get to his mother’s funeral and they wouldn’t let him on the plane.
It’s a shame it was YouTube only, because if you’d released it as a single you might have sold millions.
(Laughs) I wish!
You also wrote a song about new country star Blake Shelton after he said nobody wanted to listen to “grandpa’s music” – so you can now add ‘I’d Rather Be An Old Fart Than a New Country Turd’ to a repertoire that includes ‘A Real Country Song’ and ‘Country My Ass’.
Nashville is just bubble-gum teenage girl music. American Idol-type stuff. [Watson calls new country ‘the Nashville Rash’]
Justin Townes Earle calls it nu-country-dubstep.
Yeah, it is. That’s why that genre, ‘country music’, doesn’t fit me or my life anymore, so I’ve started another genre to get away from it, called ‘Ameripolitan’. It’s just a name that when you hear it, you have no preconceived notion about what it is. The best definition is “original music with a prominent roots influence”.
New country lacks that black sense of humour as well.
You can write about anything in [old] country music: death, dying, hurting, paying taxes, not paying taxes… killing, saving… you can’t do that with the new sloppy stuff.
You’re a real chameleon with your voice – I can hear elements of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Hank Williams depending on what mood the song requires.
You’ve just named my biggest influences right there. People can’t really hide their influences. That’s why it really bothers me when I hear big Nashville entities claim George Jones was a big influence when they sound more like Boyz II Men. It just doesn’t ring true.
Well someone that definitely rings true is Willie Nelson – you recorded El Rancho Azul at his studio, as you often have in the past. What’s his studio like?
I was about to point out, Willie Nelson is the person I know without any ego whatsoever. I was in a room once and Johnny Cash walked into it. I had my back to the door and he walked in the room by himself and I actually felt like electricity was in the room. It felt like there was a 20,000-volt wire loose in the room. I looked around and there was Johnny Cash in the doorway. By the same token, when Willie walks in the room, everything gets calm. That’s how his studio is – very calming.