Honky-tonk singer and songwriter Dale Watson doesn’t have much use for Nashville, at least the cynical, pop-driven music business part.
Over the past three decades, the Alabama-born musician with the frosty pompadour has become a favorite of critics and alt-country fans who love his trucker songs, punk attitude and deep baritone vocals reminiscent of the late Merle Haggard.
A road dog known for playing some 300 shows a year with his trusty band, the Lone Stars, Watson has singlehandedly worked to carve out a space for the kind of noncommercial, singer-songwriter country troubadours he loves.
He even came up with a new term (and award show) to better describe his mix of roots country, Western swing, outlaw and rockabilly: Ameripolitan.
Calling it country just didn’t work anymore, he explains.
“If you put the word country on it, you have to depend on that person’s definition of country,” he says. “Anybody 35 and below, they think of traditional country as Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Blake Shelton. It doesn’t do me any good. … In Nashville they’re in the business of making money. They want that pop audience.”
The day I catch up with him, he’s hopping in (what I imagine is a very cool) car with his partner and fellow singer, Celine Lee. They’re leaving Memphis for Nashville to perform that night at the brand new Johnny Cash Kitchen and Saloon, adjacent to the interesting Cash Museum downtown. The pair divides their time living between homes in Austin and Memphis.
Long a fixture in Austin, Watson recorded his latest album, “Call Me Lucky,” at the legendary Sam Phillips Studio in Memphis.
“Sam designed the studio from the ground up. He invented some baffles unique to that studio, a reverb chamber that was unique,” he says. “They don’t even allow pictures of it, or people to sample it. It’s amazing reverb.”
If the historic location wasn’t enough, the album also features Johnny Cash’s longtime drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland, who played on Carl Perkins’ recording of “Blue Suede Shoes” in 1955. The two have become good friends over the years, Watson says.
“It’s like having a friend who’s a piece of history and remembers every part of it,” he says, laughing. “Like stepping into a time machine.”
Speaking of nostalgia, Watson recently watched a little of the Ken Burns country documentary on PBS, but took it with a grain of salt, he says.
“There was so much left out. It’s frustrating. But if you don’t know about it, you won’t miss it,” he says. “No Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s a daunting task and a lot of stuff he got right. But he ended it on Garth Brooks, which is a sad place to end it.”
Watson says he would’ve preferred the series ended on the alt-country movement: “Yeah, like Wayne Hancock — exactly — that’s where the hope was.”
Over the years, Watson has seen some letdowns. One of the coolest scenes he was involved in was the one surrounding the Palomino club in North Hollywood in the early 1980s, which pushed for a resurgence of the Bakersfield sound.
“And for a while it was happening. But then line-dancing came along and stomped it to death, literally,” Watson says. “I’ve still got fond memories of when cow punk met honky-tonk. [Guitarist] James Intveld’s my best friend still. Rosie Flores, Lucinda.”
The new album includes a song, “David Buxkemper,” named after a trucker who Watson met via a fan letter.
“Trucking songs have to have some insight into the trucker life. On my last trucking album I talked about the navigo and DEF [diesel exhaust fluid], electronic log books, and stuff truckers nowadays have to pay attention to,” he explains. “Buxkemper, I just saw him last week in Amarillo, he’s a good friend now. He’s pretty tickled about [the song]. He says he’s a celebrity at his bank now.”
Watson recalls playing Richmond spots such as Shenanigans, Poe’s Pub and Moondance (“back when Chuck [Wrenn] had it”) but he hasn’t played a Folk Fest stage since the very beginning when the National Folk Festival started in Richmond.
“I love it. I get to meet a different audience. So many different genres, people discover you,” he says. “And my fans discover new acts, too.”
If you’re ever in Memphis, you might want to stay at Watson’s own Airbnb, Little Graceland, which is up and running with an analog studio underneath it. Or check out his upcoming reopening of the legendary 1940s bar, Hernando’s, which is coming back to life with a Dead Celebrity party this Halloween.
“Memphis is kind of like Austin was in the ’80s,” he says. “Little bit of danger, all the adrenaline, lot of great music — lot of soul.”
Dale Watson and the Lone Stars perform on Saturday, Oct. 12, from 3:45 to 4:45 p.m. at the Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion and from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Altria Stage. They perform on Sunday, Oct. 13, from 4 to 4:45 p.m. at the Altria Stage.Back to the Richmond Folk Festival