Country music is one of the most maligned genres around these days as a lot of people, myself included, can't resist taking shots at it. Of course with the big hair, the rhinestone suits, and too many songs about pick-up trucks and the girl running away with the dog and getting killed by a run away train, it kind of leaves itself open to it. The problem is that because of those factors there's a tendency to forget some really important information and ignore some really great talent.
One of the things that most of us forget about is that people like Bob Dylan owe as much to country music as they do to anything else for shaping the direction their music went in. Bob's great idol, Woody Guthrie, might have sung songs about Dust Bowl survivors and building strong unions, but his musical roots were firmly in the hills of Oklahoma. Country music originated with the descendants of Irish and Scottish settlers singing their versions of traditional folk songs of the British Isles, and grew from there. It was only in the '60s, with the commercialization of folk music, that country was relegated to a second-class citizenship.
However the really good country musicians like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Jeff Walker never lost sight of their origins and kept singing and writing music that was firmly rooted in the communities they came from. Now while the big hair set still get most of the publicity, some of today's performers haven't completely forgotten where they came from. Listening to Dale Watson's most recent release on Hyena Records, From The Cradle To The Grave, reminds you that country music, in the hands of the right person, can be every bit as real as any other music.
Of the 10 songs on From The Cradle To The Grave only one, "It's Not Over Now" clocks in at over three minutes in length. When I popped the disc into my CD player and the read out said 10 songs in under 30 minutes I was really taken aback. In these days of digital music it's rare for a new release to have under 40 minutes of music what with discs now being able to hold over an hour's worth of information. Yet once you start listening to Dale you are so taken up in the songs and his delivery that considerations like that become irrelevant. He's able to accomplish in under three minutes what very few people can in twice the time.
First of all he doesn't fool around with his lyrics; they are direct and to the point without being simplistic or trivial. He has an amazing ability to communicate complex thoughts and ideas with a very few words, while still managing to maintain a certain poetic elegance. The first song on the disc, "Justice For All," is a great example of this as it presents both sides of the capital punishment argument succinctly and fairly.
"An eye for an eye would leave the whole world blind" versus "Vengeance is mine says the Lord; the Lord is one lucky guy." I can't think of anyone else who would be able to compare the need for impersonal, blind justice, with the emotional desire for revenge as succinctly as Dale does on this song. Not only does he give both sides of the issue their due, you're never quite sure which side of the issue he comes down on. For although he sings "I'd gun that bastard down with a smile on my face" he also says "When on a journey of revenge be sure to dig two graves." When you can pack that much into a song in under three minutes what need is there for long winded epics that don't really say much of anything.
Dale delivers all his songs in a rich and smooth baritone, that's saved from being too polished by the forcefulness of his delivery. He doesn't make any attempt to hide the debt his voice owes to Johnny Cash, and even points it out when he inserts the line "I hear that train a coming" at the very end of his song "Runaway Train," the last song on the disc. Of course the fact that the song reads like a homage to the late Mr. Cash could also play a part in him adding that line on at the end, but it takes a brave man to draw such an obvious parallel between himself and an icon like Cash.
You run the real risk of being taken to task for doing something like that, being accused of exploiting memories or whatever, but after having listened to the first nine songs on the disc you know that Dale Watson has far too much integrity for that to be true. This is a man who sings songs that are rooted in the concerns of real people and doesn't discolour them with mawkish sentimentality or make cheap attempts at exploiting emotions, so you can trust the choices he makes with his material as being honest and sincere.
If you've been wondering if there's anyone out there in the glitzy world of country music whose worth mentioning in the same breath as some of the old guard like Nelson, Kristofferson and Cash, well you don't need to wonder anymore. Dale Watson is a reminder that country music can speak with a voice that we can all recognize when it's performed with heart and integrity.