Dale Watson says he didn't plan to become a rebel. It was never his intention to fight fashion. If you ask Watson, it's more of a case of fashion fighting him.
Take, for example, the time he was hired to play bass in a video for country music chanteuse Pam Tillis. Watson was asked to update his hairdo for the shoot by losing his pompadour.
"They wanted me to comb my hair forward," Watson says. "I got told Tillis was trying for a certain audience, and I didn't look like I would fit that audience. I said I wasn't going to look like a fool for anyone. I was going to get paid whether I was in the video or not, and so they could find someone else to play their bass."
At least Watson got a song out of it. "I told someone the way they do business in Nashville these days gives me a rash. That's how I came to write 'Nashville Rash.'"
The irony here, of course, is that Pam Tillis is the daughter of Hall of Fame country artist Mel Tillis. Dad wore his hair in a pompadour.
Watson, at least musically, is a lot closer to Mel Tillis than Pam is. People who don't normally follow the country music business would likely regard Watson as typical country. He possesses a deep baritone, and his songs deal with what used to be the stock themes: death, heartbreak, the struggle to earn a living, simple pleasures, etc. Hearing Watson for the first time will remind the listener of Merle Haggard. Buck Owens, Lefty Frizzell, and Red Sovine are also present in the Pasadena, Texas, native's style.
Of course, those who don't normally follow the country music biz might not be aware of what has happened to it. Artists who sound old-timey can wait at the bar, while those with the hip image have their music on the radio and their pretty faces on CMT.
"They're trying for a young audience," Watson says. "They want this new country to be party music. They want the singles crowd. I won't have anything to do with that line-dance stuff. I'd rather play before no one than have to be a line-dance act. That's baby milk."
One would also think that Watson has painted the moguls of the new country music into a corner. Unlike other earthy, traditional artists who have been snubbed by the establishment, Nashville cannot cop out by calling Watson alt-country, folk, country-rock, rockabilly, or any other euphemism they've used to keep so many potential stars at bay. Watson's sound is the very definition of country music. "Yeah, but they try to stick me with the 'retro' label," Watson says. "I'm not retro anything. Look at BR5-49--and I'm not slamming BR5-49, because I know them, and all are great guys, but they're trying to be retro. That's fine for them, but it's not what I do.
"I don't dress retro. I don't do cover versions of old rockabilly songs. I don't use 1950s expressions like 'daddy-o' or words like that. Not a thing about me is dated.
"My music is a mature music. You have to have experienced life a bit to appreciate what I sing. I have to know what it's like to know that the one you love is unfaithful, or that you'll never see your children, or that you will wake up every morning without your partner on the other side of the bed."
So, if you're not a nostalgia trip, what's with the Elvis pompadour?
"I wear it because I like it," Watson says. "I've always worn it. It's the way my dad wore his hair, too."
Dad was a truck driver, as is Dale's brother Larry. It's this closeness to the business that led Watson to record his most recent album, The Truckin' Sessions. As the name suggests, it's all about the folks who drive the big rigs. "I dedicated the album to my brother," Watson says. "Really, though, it's dedicated to truck drivers everywhere. As a touring musician, I'm around them so much. My crew and I ride the same highways, eat the same food, drink the same coffee. They do the same things we do, but they do it longer, and the work is harder.
"Trucking was in its heyday when I was a kid," Watson continues. "You had trucker shows on television, and Dave Dudley [a country star who specialized in truck driver songs] was big on the hit parade."
Watson included one or two trucker songs on his first three discs on Hightone Records: Cheatin' Heart Attack, Blessed or Damned, and I Hate These Songs. But when he suggested a whole album's worth, his former label, Hightone, was cool to the idea. "They told me not to do it," Watson says. "They thought things like that were passe. So when my obligation to Hightone was up, the first thing I did with [new label] Koch Records was The Truckin' Sessions."
The disc was first available only through Watson's fan club. Demand was so great that the record--originally called Good Luck, and Good Truckin'--was released to the world. It contains fourteen originals, with titles like "Flat Tires," "I'm Fixing to Have Me a Breakdown," "Help Me, Joe" (about the medicinal powers of coffee), and "Have You Got It On?" Watson even did a tour of truck stops to benefit charities that deal with homeless and missing children.
"It was generally well-received," he says. "Sometimes we would get to a truck stop, and they'd have no idea we were coming. That was kind of embarrassing. But when we were on the road after the truck-stop tour ended, and we would pull into a truck stop, we would have someone say they recognized us for the time we played at such-and-such a truck stop on that tour."
Fans of no-nonsense, twangy honky-tonk music recognize Watson as the real thing and hope he has the shiny side up and the rubber side down for a long time.
Dale Watson & the Lone Stars. 9 p.m., Tuesday, March 30, Wilbert's Bar & Grille, 1360 West Ninth Street, Warehouse District, $7, Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.