Dale Watson & His Lonestars,
Live at the Big T Roadhouse: Chicken S#!+ Bingo Sunday
(Red House, 2016)

The Western Flyers,
Wild Blue Yonder
(Versa-Tone, 2016)

For much of its history country was intended for social occasions, in particular for places where people gathered to drink and dance. Yes, there were anti-social occasions, too, when -- as any number of beloved country songs have documented -- tears flowed into beers as jukeboxes wailed. In time, as an expanding popular radio format, country became, like rock 'n' roll, a commodity that fans would pay to sit and listen to with undivided attention.

The kinds of country bands that provided soundtracks for alcohol consumption and two-steps aren't the ones you'll hear on "hot country" radio these days. Then again, country in the classic definition has been pushed to the commercial margins. Except where it all began, in Texas, and there artists like Dale Watson & His Lonestars continue to thrive. Watson has decided that "country," its very definition hijacked over the past decades (Watson dates its passing around 1980), does not mark what he does. He's refashioned it as "Ameripolitan," under which he counts honkytonk, rockabilly, Western swing and outlaw, the components of post-World War II, mid-century country, otherwise thought of these days as "traditional" (though of course all of them were innovative, even radical, in their time).

I have been listening appreciatively to Watson since his first album, Cheatin' Heart Attack, was released in 1995. Still, on viewing the title Live at the Big T Roadhouse, I experienced the customary diminution of enthusiasm that the L-word generates in me. As I know from long experience, live records are usually good for about one listen, which coincides with the number of times one can enjoy stage patter before it reaches its sell-by date. Moreover, live albums typically get released when an artist or band hasn't enough fresh material to fill a "real" (i.e., studio) recording. Even so, Big T turns out to be a whole lot of fun, its hour and 15-minute playing time replete with good tunes and goofy humor. As one of the world's truest living honkytonkers, Watson doesn't have to be told that a roadhouse is country's natural environment. Big T preserves a cheerfully beer-fueled Sunday afternoon in a Texas joint in the small San Antonio suburb of St. Hedwig.

Watson and his boys, who gig there regularly, are relaxed before a fond, familiar crowd with its familiar rituals, which include not only raucous behavior but raffles and wisecracks. All through the performance Watson vigorously promotes both the establishment itself and his corporate sponsor, Lone Star Beer, which would be irritating if he weren't so damn hilarious about it. And he punctuates the fun at his own expense with regular quotes from the old Leroy Van Dyke chestnut "The Auctioneer," fondly recalled by just about everybody who's ever heard it.

The songs, Watson originals and covers from Merle Haggard and Jerry Reed, take on unique color and energy in the circumstances of the moment. Hardly anybody still writes truck-drivin' songs (rooted ultimately in the otherwise all but dead tradition of occupational folk songs), but Watson does, and very well; "I Gotta Drive" and "Birmingham Break Down" are solid contributions to the genre. Tributes to Mother, in the distant past a hillbilly staple, have vanished from popularity, or even acceptability for that matter, which does not discourage Watson from offering up a sweet original, "Smile," dedicated to his mom. He turns in a couple of solid readings of songs associated with the late Merle Haggard (Hag's original "The Bottle Let Me Down," Liz Anderson's "The Fugitive"), serving to underscore, ironically, that for all the predictableTexas chest-thumping, Watson's most audible influence has always been Haggard, a product of Bakersfield, California.

The Western Flyers, a newly formed trio made up of veterans Katy Glassman (fiddle, vocals), Joey McKenzie (arch-top guitar, vocals) and Gavin Kelso (acoustic bass, harmony vocals), are surely the most accomplished small-band Western swing outfit on the circuit these days. McKenzie and Kelso met while serving with the remarkable Texas-based Quebe Sisters Band. All boast rich, deep resumes as acclaimed masters of their respective instruments, not to mention immersion in the streams that feed into the genre: jazz, country, old-time fiddle tunes, vintage pop.

In a liner mash note, trad-country star Marty Stuart cites drummer Handsome Harry Stinson's definition of how a successful band conducts itself: "Lay it down where it stays down till they leave town." Exactly what's happening as the Flyers revive familiar (though not overdone) favorites in arrangements that feel at once pleasingly spare and yet as full as one could desire. I must say I don't recall hearing the Mississippi fiddle tune "Carroll County Blues," a standard old-time and bluegrass number, done as a swing tune before now. On the other hand, "Old Fashioned Love" is among the first Western swing songs I ever heard -- and that was not recently -- and what a delight to be reminded of its charms. Old-fashioned love indeed.

Western swing kicks up a likable vibe you'd have to be a committed misanthrope to resist. The Western Flyers render resistance particularly pointless. While Western swing's heyday was the 1930s and '40s, it lives on, fresh and moving as ever in the hands of Glassman, McKenzie and Kelso.

music review by
Jerome Clark

30 July 2016

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