Dale Watson,
The Truckin' Sessions, Vol. 2
(Hyena, 2009)

Trucking anthems were the end of the road for the venerable folk tradition of occupational songs. Their lineage stretched back to the songs of sailors, soldiers, miners, lumberjacks, factory and mill workers, cowboys, farmers, ramblers and gamblers, even convicts and criminals, who put to melody their thoughts on jobs worth loving or loathing. I refer to trucking songs in the past tense because, while a staple of popular country music from the 1940s into the 1970s, they have long since faded into radio silence.

If anybody is going to revive them, it's honkytonk classicist Dale Watson, a talented singer and songwriter steeped in the styles of Ray Price, Merle Haggard, George Jones and others who shaped what is now called "traditional country music" -- in other words, the finest of what got played on 1960s country radio, which hadn't yet forgotten the previous generation's giants: Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells and Lefty Frizzell.

By the 1960s country had evolved into a tough-minded sound awash in shuffles, rockabilly rhythms, steel-guitar whines and rawly voiced blue-collar emotions. Its roots in older Southern rural music weren't hard to discern, which is why it was called "country" even though its proximate points of origin were cities like Nashville, Dallas, Houston and Bakersfield.

On his previous Hyena release, From the Cradle to the Grave (which I reviewed here on 28 July 2007), Watson seemed to be moving into an almost radical new direction. Evidently he thought so, too; he even had a name for it: "Ameripolitan." It reminded me of something like the reconstituted -- "outlaw," in the dopey cliche -- country sound the late Waylon Jennings pursued, only taken forward into the new century. Cradle also recalls Johnny Cash's later work, which ranged far beyond the usual themes of country music into meditations on life's meaning, death's certainty and society's ills. "Justice for All," for one, is a pure country song, but in its fierce look at the desire for vengeance versus the primacy of law it's unlike any other pure country song I have ever heard. Cradle also brings new textures to Watson's music, including a recurring, luminously employed trombone.

On the other hand, in Truckin' Sessions Watson returns to the good ol' stuff, to the sorts of songs and sounds of steel, fiddle, acoustic rhythm, electric lead and rolling baritone vocal that crowded the jukeboxes of truckstops, roadhouses, urban blue-collar districts and small towns during country's all-too-brief golden age. Watson is a master at this, and as usual he's written or co-written every one of the songs, 14 in this instance. If you love hillbilly music as much as I do, you'll feel happily at home, or maybe -- better yet -- in a crusty bar with a good dance floor, or on the open road with one tattooed arm hanging out a big rig's window.

Watson's lively and accomplished road band, the Lone Stars (they're based in Austin), backs him, with the more than able assistance of the legendary electric roots guitarist Redd Volkaert (whose last name is twice misspelled in the credits). The songs all hold their own against the trucker classics they are meant to evoke.

In some cases, in fact, their specific inspiration will be readily apparent to those who know their truckin' music. "Hey Driver" is unabashed Dave Dudley, down to the snapping guitar rhythm, and is no doubt intended to be exactly that. I suspect the same of the exquisite, folkish "Let This Trucker Go," which could pass as a sequel to Red Simpson's 1966 hit "Roll, Truck, Roll." Watson recorded the outrageous novelty number "Truckin' Queen," said to be a true story (about a transvestite trucker), on a previous disc. Funny, tragic, happy, sad or any point between, Watson's songs manage to get it right.

review by
Jerome Clark

30 May 2009

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