Dale Watson,
Whiskey or God
(Palo Duro, 2006)

Except as a marketing slogan, "country" as a strain of commercial popular music is to be found at some location between comatose and dead. It's also a misnomer. No longer the voice of rural and small-town America, country music these days is actually a slick, vaguely Southern suburban pop. Even acts thought traditional in the context of current Nashville product -- that cold-blooded music-industry term is richly justified -- are fairly pallid practitioners of honkytonk, which is what is usually understood to describe trad-country. Honkytonk defined country music in the 1950s (when the very name "country music" was invented) and the 1960s, and it was still not hard to find on radios and jukeboxes into the 1970s. It is now as little-played in those venues as bluegrass is.

Yet both honkytonk and bluegrass flourish in their own small corners of the world. If not genres for the masses, they lay claim to legions of committed followers who like their hillbilly unadulterated. In the kingdom of honkytonk, Dale Watson is a prince, a terrific singer who brings to mind a rougher-hewn Merle Haggard (who still rules that realm). An able songwriter, he tells gripping blue-collar tales set in bars, dance halls, truck stops and workplaces, lacing them with pathos and humor. If you love country music but can't find it anywhere anymore, Whiskey or God is where you want to go.

Born in Alabama, raised in Texas, Watson has released approximately 10 recordings, depending on how you're counting. I haven't heard all of them, so I can't tell you how his current release stands up to the rest. My experience, however, informs me that Watson has carved out his own territory from which he seldom strays. Some discs are themed (one around trucking songs, another inspired by grief over the tragic death of a lover). That aside, their core elements are the same: slow sad songs, novelty numbers, shuffles and, here and there, rockabilly beats or Tex-Mex inflections. Watson doesn't hesitate to add horns and strings -- always lightly -- when he thinks they fill out the sounds in some meaningful fashion. On road and recording his sound is anchored in his excellent, hard-driving Lone Stars band.

Watson says that the current album consists of "some old songs I had written but never recorded." Not many songwriters can afford that luxury, given the consistent quality of the material here. The title song alone, a fierce and even courageous conceit, leads one to wonder what took so long. "Whiskey or God" is as raw and true an evocation of existential terror as one is going to hear anywhere, in or out of country music.

On lighter notes Watson revels in the sort of word play that used to delight country audiences: "I Ain't Been Right, Since I've Been Left" and the even more entertaining "Outta Luck" ("outta breath, outta time, outta sight, outta mind, outta money, outta gas, outta sorts" and dizzily onward). On the other hand, "Truckin' Queen (I Got My Night Gown on)," about a truck-driving transvestite, strikes me as rather infantile, though it may seem funnier if you hear it in a bar with a few beers downed and ordinary sensitivities dulled.

Don't let that keep you, though, from Whiskey or God's many wonderful moments. Watson is a bright star in hillbilly's heavens, and let us hope he shines on for years to come.

by Jerome Clark
23 September 2006

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