If you want to hear what Dale Watson thinks about the current state of country music, all you have to do is listen to him sing. "They took the soul out of what means a whole lot to me," he laments on "Country My Ass." It's enough to set Hank and Lefty (Frizzell, one of Watson's idols) spinnin' in their graves, voicing their displeasure through Watson: "Tell 'em stick it up high where the sun don't shine," Watson has the dead duo saying. "Get pissed, get mad, that's country, my ass."
Watson has been voicing his displeasure with country for the better part of two decades. He agrees with Charlotte's Unknown Hinson, who says there hasn't been any decent country since they stopped playing Faron Young's music. "He'd be the first one to tell you it sucked, even when he was alive," Watson says of Young's take on the genre.
Watson lashed out at Nashville in 1994, breaking out with what he diagnosed as "Nashville Rash": "I'm too country now for country, just like Johnny Cash," he sang. "Help me Merle, I'm breakin' out in a Nashville rash."
Part of the problem Watson has with the new so-called country singers is their lack of preparation. "A lot of these guys don't even know the country standards, the songs you always heard and had to know," Watson says, calling in from his Austin home. "You couldn't get onstage anywhere in any honky-tonk and not know 'Your Cheatin' Heart,' but some don't." Watson says most of the new country boys and girls who came along during the '80s and '90s had no roots -- they just started doing country music a year before they had their record.
The singer is so disgusted by the current musical state of affairs that he won't call what he does country. He's renamed it "Ameripolitan," which he defines as "original music with a prominent roots influence."
When he first started out 20 years ago, Watson found his biggest fans in Europe, where fans were more roots-oriented and curious as to where the music came from. But in recent years, that's gone to hell, too. "You go over and you'll see Starbucks, McDonalds, TGI Fridays," Watson says. "They've lost a lot of their identity the same way country music has lost a lot of its identity." Still, he calls Europe his saving grace, one of the main reasons he's been able to keep going all these years.
Not that Watson doesn't have a strong fan base here -- it just takes a hell of a lot of hands-on work to maintain it. Watson tours constantly, but the venues he plays are usually not country ones. "If I play a country place, it's usually just a festival," he says. "I still play rock venues and the original music venues here."
Still, Watson gets his message out. Two recent videos have boosted his image, with the unlikely help of Jackass star Johnny Knoxville. Watson wrote and recorded From The Cradle To The Grave in a rustic log cabin Knoxville bought from Johnny Cash and loaned to Watson. Once the record came out, Knoxville helped out once again, appearing with Watson in a video for "Hollywood Hillbilly," helping him promote another video from the record, the Cash-like "Runaway Train" on MTV.
Hanging around with a "Jackass" didn't entail Watson getting shot with a paint ball gun or tipped over in a toilet, though. "If there are any shenanigans going on, he makes sure they leave me out of it," Watson says. "Knoxville has a lot of respect for this stuff. He's got a great collection of old country music, old TV shows from the '50s and '60s we sit and watch."
Those old sounds of country won't be coming back with this generation, Watson believes. "They're too American Idol-ized," he says. "The type of music we're talking about is probably gonna go the way bluegrass did, and go off to the side."
Meanwhile, Watson is thinking of taking some drastic measures to get his Ameripolitan voice heard. He's been getting some offers to open from the same "country, my ass" boys he rails against. "I don't know if I could even open for Kenny Chesney, but you can't keep a closed mind to it, even though I'd rather not," he says.
"I'm thinking well, shit, I'm trying to get some folks to hear what roots are like, Watson says. "And, like me, maybe there'd be somebody out there who'd go back and listen to Lefty Frizzell and say, 'Oh, that's what the original sounded like."
Dale Watson plays Puckett's Farm Equipment, 2740 West Sugar Creek Road, on Saturday, April 5, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20.