Though Dale Watson’s recording career spans two decades, the maverick country traditionalist has never before released an album like this. “There’s nothing here that’s retro,” insists Dale of Carryin’ On. “I was really hoping to make a record with today’s technology, but with the musicians who played on the music I grew up on. I’m pretty happy with the way we’ve merged today with yesterday on this album. It will remind people of the old records, but it sounds like something new.”
The new album on a new label marks a fresh start for Watson, a major leap from the hardscrabble honky-tonk that has won him an international following, earned him induction into the Austin Music Hall of Fame and established him as a leading crusader against the “Nashville Rash” plaguing the country music industry. Without compromising his musical values, he sounds here like a singer with nothing to prove and no one to fight. The angry young man has matured. The result, says Dale, is “the pinnacle of what I’ve done, in terms of the songs, the production, the musicianship.”
The project features a dream band of Nashville A-Team studio alumni, virtuosos whose playing graces so many of the “countrypolitan” classics of the 1960s and ‘70s that remain touchstones for Watson. Steel guitarist Lloyd Green, whose resume extends from Johnny Cash and George Jones through the Byrds and Paul McCartney, helped Watson assemble the band, with guitarist Pete Wade and pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins providing the nucleus. Add fiddler Glenn Duncan, acoustic bassist Dennis Crouch and the seasoning of background vocals on many of the tracks, and you’ve got more a polished sound than the rougher, roadhouse style that has dominated Watson’s career.
Yet the results are pure Dale Watson. He produced the sessions. He wrote all the material. He even financed the project, so that there would be no concessions to outside forces. And it was his decision to loosen his own grip, to see what some studio masters would bring to his music, to make a recording in Nashville that would have a different feel than his live shows and previous releases with his great Texas band, the Lonestars.
“You just take a leap of faith,” says Watson. “The control freak that I am had to let go and let them interpret the songs. When I’m writing a song, I have definite ideas on signature licks and how a solo’s going to go. But when you do a studio session with Nashville musicians, you pretty much have to trust them to do what they do—if you’ve got some heavy hitters like I’ve got. I don’t want to go over there and tell Lloyd Green, ‘Play it like this.’” I got the guys I wanted to play on it, the songs I wanted to record, and I think I came out with the best record I’ve done to date.”
Born in Alabama, raised outside Houston, based in Austin, Watson came to country music early and naturally. His truck driving father moonlighted as a country singer, and his older brothers had bands as well. Dale remembers receiving his first guitar at age 7 and starting to write songs shortly after—“the same stuff I’m writing about now,” he says with a laugh.
During his formative years in Pasadena, Texas (the town on the Houston outskirts that Gilley’s would put on the musical map), he began playing the local honky-tonks while still in high school. “I was definitely an outsider,” he says of those days. “All my friends were pretty much an older crowd. The people my age were listening to the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. I didn’t necessarily think it was bad—it just wasn’t what connected with me. I grew up with the music my dad listened to. I inherited his record collection, and I’m as big a Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and Buck Owens fan as he is.”
The kind of country Watson loved had fallen from favor when he moved to Nashville in 1981 to launch his career. He fared a little better after relocating to Los Angeles, where his traditionalism attracted Curb Records, and he released a couple of singles in 1990. Yet he ultimately decided that Texas was the natural habitat for his brand of music, and he quickly won a popular following, along with a record deal with Hightone Records, after moving to Austin in the mid-‘90s. His 1995 debut album, Cheatin’ Heart Attack,and its “Nashville Rash” anthem spread his renown across the Atlantic, with Europe remaining a popular stronghold for Watson.
His musical roots and values remain very much in evidence throughout Carryin’ On, but the maturity of the material, the ambition of the arrangements and the subtlety of his vocal performances distinguish the album from so much of Watson’s earlier work. The title song sets the tone, with its reflective ruminations on the morning after a long night’s partying: “Crashin’ into 40, might better think about growin’ up,” he sings “You got a wife and kid that lean on you/ Brother are you strong enough?” By the end of the song, it’s plain that the singer is looking in the mirror.
“Ain’t That Livin’” offers the flip side of that theme, a companion piece that celebrates the enduring pleasures of domestic contentment over a night’s excitement. “You’re Always on My Mind” channels vintage George Jones, while the cantina balladry of “For a Little While” sounds like a Marty Robbins classic. On “Heart of Stone,” Watson offers the most nuanced vocal performance of his career. It’s the sound of a man in full command of his artistry and one who has found peace with himself. Even the hardcore drinking song, “Tequila, Whiskey and Beer, Oh My!” has a playfulness to it, as Dale hails the bartender as “the Wizard of Booze.”
“I let go of the angry young man a good while back,” he says. “When you try to fight something, it’s more of a struggle. I’ve just learned to do what I do. The people that appreciate what we do are out there and multiplying. It’s just gotten bigger and better when I’m spending less time attacking what I don’t like and more embracing what I love.”