Dale Watson is a honky tonk hero and a legend of country music—in part because he wholeheartedly eschews the mainstream.
Originally from Birmingham, Ala., Watson now calls Austin, Texas, home. He owns a saloon there called the Little Longhorn Saloon, which is home to “Chicken Shit Bingo”—a weekly event during which a chicken is placed on a table with numbers on it.
If you have the number on which the chicken does its business, you’re a winner!
I chatted with Watson before his Friday Stagecoach performance, and asked him the question: What do you love about country music?
“I don’t love country music,” Watson replied. “Not today’s country music—not one bit. I love what used to be called country music. I’m a big fan of a genre called Ameripolitan right now, which is what country music used to be: Western swing, rockabilly and honky tonk music. In that regard, what is it about the country music that I love? I love it because it’s honest; it’s real; and it’s something I can relate to. Today’s country music? I can’t relate to it at all. All the stuff that Ray Price and Merle Haggard wrote and played—it definitely speaks to me.”
Watson compared what’s happened to country music to gentrification: “It’s like walking into an old neighborhood you used to go to all the time, and it was fun to be in—and you find out it’s nothing but condos.”
Despite his anti-mainstream ethos, Watson is still in demand. He has a multi-generational audience, and he is consistently releasing records—while touring constantly.
“We play a lot of festivals and mostly honky tonks, or at least what used to be honky tonks,” he said. “I also play a lot of beer joints, and I even own one back in Texas. I recorded the Live at Chicken Shit Bingo album there, which is coming out this summer. Venues vary, but they all have one consistent theme of featuring roots music, whether it’s blues or whatever. We’ll play for the tattooed younger crowd, and the next night, a theater full of old folks.”
Watson has become a legend thanks in part to a lot of nods from younger outlaw and alternative-country musicians; Hank Williams III has mentioned Dale Watson in his songs, for example. But Watson has also garnered younger fans with his social-media savvy: He runs all of his social media himself.
“The Internet has made being more visible possible for people like me, and people who play my kind of music,” Watson said. “We also tour constantly, so when you tour this much, you hit a lot of places where young people discover you—and luckily, they’ve latched on.”
There was a period during which Watson didn’t tour.
“My kids moved to Baltimore one year, and I didn’t want to freak them out by taking them to Texas or make it harder for their mom, so I moved out there,” he said about his 2004 hiatus. “Then after seven months, I realized they were fine, and got back into the grind doing what I needed to do.
“It was tough not to play. I was miserable. That’s when I learned that the best thing for my kids would be to take care of me.”
Watson said he doesn’t get tired out by touring because he constantly mixes things up.
“I don’t do the same set. I’ve never done the same set,” he said. “It doesn’t happen that way, and I may do the same batch of songs in a week’s time, but there’s always something different going on.”
Watson said he’s always writing.
“I’m not writing operas. I’m just writing real songs based on experiences that happened to me,” he explained. “One I recently wrote is called ‘I Keep Doing Things I Shouldn’t Do,’ and it came out of a conversation with somebody who had an operation on her shoulder, and there she was, going out to the shooting range and doing everything she shouldn’t be doing. I told her, ‘You’re just going to keep doing things you shouldn’t do.’ Sounded like a song to me.
“My songs aren’t rocket science, but it means a lot to me, because I identify with it. I know I’m on the right track when I’m doing a song, and when I’m on the second chorus, people are singing along.”
Watson said that he has three (!) albums coming out later this year, including a cover album called Under the Influences, which will feature songs which inspired him. The album will include songs by Merle Haggard and also Ray Price.
As for what he thought about Stagecoach—where he shares the stage with Nashville stars performing that gentrified brand of country—he said he was enjoying himself.
“It’s great, because I saw a friend of mine who plays with Marty Stuart, and that’s what I really like about it: I get to see people I don’t really get to see that often,” he said. “In Southern California with the beautiful weather, it’s kind of a fun hang.”