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Creative people probably don’t have the temperament to be major label record executives. For decades, the big-money machines have been run by risk-averse accountants. Their process essentially translates into slapping some fresh paint on whatever sold last year and waiting for something “better” to come along.
As country music goes, renegade Dale Watson still recognizes the power lurking beneath the old, trusted chassis, fresh paint or no. Watson relishes the dusty Bakersfield honky-tonk of the ’50sits finger-picked electric twang, its cantering near-rock rhythms, the straight-forward heartache. Watson’s never fit in Nashville, of course, but he’s never really needed to.
Raised in Houston, Texas, Watson found his way to Austin from Los Angeles in 1993. His traditional style and caustic wit were right at home. People clung to his deep canorous baritone, and he churned out canny songs by the album. His ’95 debut, Cheatin’ Heart Attack, earned critical accolades, and he followed it with two more fine albums in the Merle Haggard mold.
But just as his popularity seemed on the upswing, tragedy struck: Watson’s fiancée, Terri Herbert, died in a car accident, and he spiraled into drugs and booze, almost dying of an overdose before checking himself in for treatment, a real-life version of a country tragedy. Crazy Again, a documentary released last year, traces Watson’s breakdown. He admits he’ll never get over his loss, but he does get back into his career: Now, he’s the star of a cowboy movie musical, and his latest, From the Cradle to the Grave, was recorded in a cabin once owned by his itinerant hero, Johnny Cash. It’s suffused with a no-frills, earthy warmth, giving his voice space to make lines like “I curse my healthy heart for keepin’/ The blood runnin’ through my veins” reflect the hurt he’s lived. That’s probably not a hurt the risk-free bean counters have time for from their stars. But Watson’s life never really had time for them, either.
Dale Watson and His Lonestars play Hideaway BBQ with Jem Crossland and the Hypertonics Friday, Aug. 24, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $12-$15.