Dale Watson cuts to the chase when he sums up the commercial pop-country music scene.
"Nashville is the whore of whores," he says with a good-natured laugh. "It really is."
The 37-year-old singer-songwriter is equally forthcoming when it comes to talking about a rebellious youth that effectively put him on his own at 14 and the days he "'bout starved" in Nashville as a writer in the early '90s. There's also the former record label that won't pay him his due, and a succeeding major-label deal that fell apart when the company sat on his new recording so long that Watson asked to get out. He also freely admits to his share of domestic problems and owns up to being "one critical son of a bitch."
But all of this is anything but woe-is-me stuff. Watson is friendly, upbeat and generous over the phone from his downtown Austin digs. He's readying for a Southeastern summer tour that brings him and his Lone Stars to Poe's Pub on Tuesday, June 20, and for a European tour in August. He has three promising leads on a new recording deal and he steadily cultivates growing numbers of fans internationally. His six CDs are selling well in Europe, and he's free with compliments for friends who helped him get started in the business. Watson is clearly a man who has learned he can successfully sustain his underground status if he works hard and keeps a level head.
"Like I said," he says, repeating a frequent theme of the conversation, "you've got to go within your means."
Watson learned such lessons early growing up in Pasadena, Texas. His dad was a country musician, his older brother had a band, and Dale picked up the guitar at age 10. He says he ran hard as a kid but he found an answer in country music. He saw shows by Willie Nelson "I snuck into that one" and Conway Twitty, and he sang in his brother's band until he formed his own group. Dale gigged the beer joints of Pasadena for seven years before striking out for Los Angeles in 1988.
"That was an eye-opener," he recalls. "There were all these great players."
The three years Dale spent in L.A. were good ones. There he found a scene that, for the first time, welcomed his original music. He also made friends in the business.
A later move to Nashville proved less successful. Watson's original songs follow in the truckin' and cheatin' tradition of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Dave Dudley and Music Row record executives weren't interested. In an era of slick production and carefully groomed entertainment packages, Watson stuck to a barroom-hardened style that didn't fit.
"It was an ugly scene," he says flatly. "Nashville wasn't interested in country music."
Watson returned to Los Angeles before moving to Austin in the mid-'90s. In 1996 he played the first of many European tours. He's been received well over there though he's discovered a dietary downside. "I'm learning to take instant grits and peanut butter, especially to England," he says.
Three hundred gigs a year admittedly can take a toll. But Watson says in the end that's OK. He and the others who live life and play music their way on the honky-tonk circuit don't have a choice. "Most didn't choose it," he says. "It chose us."
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