Chris Wall,
El Western Motel
(Cold Spring, 2012)

Dale Watson & His Lonestars,
El Rancho Azul
(Red House, 2013)

Two veteran practitioners of Texas country music, where the honkytonk and storytelling traditions remain intact, however long vanished from mainstream Nashville, showcase their latest.

Chris Wall's one intersection with mainstream success was two decades ago, when country-rock band Confederate Railroad enjoyed a top-10 hit with his jokey "Trashy Women." Mostly, though, Wall writes and sings songs that span a wider spectrum of themes than is standard among country singers. The influence of folk on the acoustic-based El Western Motel is inescapable, most emphatically in the title ballad; not only in the narrative, but in the guitar intro, which quotes -- consciously or unconsciously -- Ian & Sylvia's "The French Girl."

If you like your songs delivered without adornment and in direct line from the heart -- my personal definition of soul music -- you need entertain no qualms about checking into Motel. Its spare, stripped-down arrangements underscore the straightforward melodies and the plainspoken lyrics, dealing with life's conflicts, the open road, old cowboys, Western movies and country music itself. It's the musical equivalent of sitting on a barstool next to a grizzled raconteur who's seen it all and remembers it lucidly.

Wall co-wrote "Hello, I'm an Old Country Song" -- Motel's concluding cut -- with Dale Watson, who returns to his basic honkytonk sound in El Rancho Azul after an excursion into re-imagined 1950s rockabilly and Johnny Cash on The Sun Sessions (which I reviewed here on 26 November 2011). In short, Watson is back to a style, vocal and instrumental, that recalls early Merle Haggard, with echoes of Haggard mentors Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell and Webb Pierce.

This, however, ought to bother precisely nobody. Remove the influences of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams from traditional country music, and a huge chunk of it is gone. As an artist Haggard is fully the equal of those two seminal artists, and Watson is never less than an able writer and performer in that vein. On Azul he delivers the tried and true: songs of alcohol and love gone wrong (presumably inspired by a recent divorce), albeit in an amazingly cheerful voice. Perhaps the most extreme manifestation is the weirdly light-hearted"Where Do You Want It?" -- which is the actual question fellow Texas country singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver raised before he shot a bothersome drunk in the face. The incident occurred outside a bar near Waco in 2007. Shaver, who pleaded self-defense, was acquitted, though not before quoting Jimmie Rodgers.

I first heard Watson two decades ago. Because I grew up with hard-core country, I have never had the option of disliking what he does. This time around, it's 14 cuts where people drink, dance, get together and break up, and daddies give their daughters away ("Daughter's Wedding Song," sure to jerk tears from all of us who are fathers to daughters). Country music, in short, like they used to and, happily for us who care about such things, Dale Watson and His Lonestars still do.

music review by
Jerome Clark

23 March 2013

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