Dale Watson & the Texas Two,
The Sun Sessions
(Red House, 2011)

"I have no regrets on this album," Dale Watson takes care to let us know in the liner notes to The Sun Sessions, his first release on the folk-oriented Red House after a long career on various roots-and-country independent labels, most now defunct. The note of defensiveness seems understandable. This is a curious album, and it's bound to raise eyebrows, followed by questions starting with this one: What's the point? Even I, a Watson admirer of years' standing, wondered exactly that on first exposure.

Yes, as you may infer from the title and the cover photo, this is a whole lot like a lost Johnny Cash album, ca. 1957. It was precisely this kind of music that changed my life when I was in high school in the 1960s. From early Cash, it was on to Bob Dylan and a whole lot of other people who in due course led to my presence here. Hearing Watson (vocals, acoustic and electric guitars) and his Texas Two (Cash's Sun-era band was the Tennessee Two) -- Chris Crepps (upright bass) and Mike Bernal (snare drum, muted guitar on one cut) -- I experience the sensation of falling into a time warp.

Sessions bows to the young, Memphis Cash, not the later, relatively more sanitized Nashville one. Even then, Cash was a "country" artist only because there was no other category to put him into. Nobody sounded like him then, and nobody has sounded like him since. He was as much a folk singer -- albeit like none other -- and a rockabilly pioneer -- albeit one who did not try to imitate Elvis -- as a country star.

What gives The Sun Sessions its unanticipated success is that Watson, who ordinarily applies himself to in-the-tradition honkytonk and truck-drivin' material, meets the challenge he's set for himself. It helps, naturally, that he's a true talent, a top-notch songwriter, and a passionate lover of country music at its most grounded. The more I heard it, the more it assumed the resonance of a Dale Watson record. Through Cash's vision, he almost miraculously communicates his own over the course of 14 strong originals. My own favorite is the partially autobiographical "Ponder Why, I Ponder Why," a moving meditation on tragedy, injustice and survival. As a song it's superior to Cash's "Man in Black," which may have been its inspiration. Here Watson manages to beat the master at his own game.

Another of Sessions' strengths is the consistent quality of the material. Cash wrote lots of songs, some classics, some merely serviceable, others wholly forgettable. Watson's material is uniformly listenable -- and, more important perhaps, re-listenable -- and some of it sticks in the head as you go on with your life in the world. I suspect that only someone with Watson's unique constellation of gifts and obsessions could have walked this line.

music review by
Jerome Clark

26 November 2011

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