Dale Watson,
From the Cradle to the Grave
(Hyena, 2007)

Always a superior hard-country vocalist, Dale Watson has evolved into a songwriter of formidable expressive skills. On this, his first release on Hyena (not a label with a lot of country artists), Watson has outdone himself, even if at a relatively stingy 10 tracks and 26:56 minutes' worth of playing time -- more EP than full-length CD.

Still, he makes the best of things, and the best is very good, indeed. He discloses that he composed the songs in Johnny Cash's cabin over a three-day period last year, and the promotional material stresses an allegedly Cash-centric approach, in contrast to the pure honkytonk usually associated with Watson. The unsettling first cut, "Justice for All," an elliptical ballad about murder and vengeance, does recall Cash, as does the title song.

To my hearing, however, From the Cradle to the Grave is closer to the sort of album the late Waylon Jennings -- who seems inexplicably in the process of fading from collective memory -- was cutting at his mid-1970s creative peak. The stoic "It's Not Over Now," my personal favorite, could have been dropped into Jennings' revered Dreaming My Dreams (1975), one of the greatest country albums of all time, and held its own. "Why Oh Why Live a Lie" and "Yellow Mama" are another two. This is, mind you, serious praise, not put forth lightly. And it doesn't even mention "Tomorrow Never Comes," its menacing, fatalistic, doom-laden ambience ensuring that this particular song will tolerate no listener's inattention.

The cover photo has Watson, brow furrowed, standing in a graveyard. A tombstone behind him identifies the deceased: "COUNTRY MUSIC R.I.P." Once he hoped to reform country music by taking it back to its barroom roots. After that didn't happen, he has now declared country no longer extant -- meaning, I presume, as a mass-market popular music -- and he's right, of course. (The stuff that comes out of Nashville these days really ought to be renamed "Southern pop." At least then we country fans could stop being mad about it.) Watson has decided to call his music "Ameripolitan," whose sound in fact recalls the best tradition-oriented country of three and four decades ago. Jon Blondell's trombone puts a bottom to that sound. The rest of his splendid band consists of Don Don Pawlak (pedal steel, and yes, it is two Dons), Don Raby (fiddle), Gene Kurtz (bass guitar) and John McTigue (drums).

Cradle makes clear Watson's devotion to his muse is continuing and as uncompromising as ever. Though I can't claim to have listened to all of his albums, this is the most consistently satisfying one of the several I've heard to date. It's short enough to leave this listener wanting more and looking forward to the next one. This man may have greatness in him.

review by
Jerome Clark

28 July 2007

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