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Dale Watson Shoots Straight From The Heart

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Although mainstream country music bears little resemblance today to its simple roots, there are still some recording artists whose brand of music recalls the bygone era of AM country radio, delivering songs that are focused on common human emotions.

Dale Watson’s latest album, Call Me Insane, is another in a long line of classics from the Texas-based songwriter and guitarist. 

Watson’s songs could be from 1961 or 2030 because one thing that seems constant throughout time is how people experience happiness and pain--and pain may actually be the more fruitful of those two emotions.

“That, I guess, is a silver lining in a 'kind of a bad thing' or bad experience—whether it’s in a relationship or in life—from losing a job to losing a girl. That all gives you some emotion, which is what you write about—the emotion of it,” he says. “It is harder to write songs when everything is happy and going your way.”

And the old adage that the best writing comes from what the writer himself knows also applies.

“There are songwriters that just write no matter what they’re feeling. They do it as a craft and just say, ‘OK. We’re going to write a sad song today,’” he adds. “To me, I think you can really hear the difference between pre-manufactured songs and ones that came from a real place.”

Watson tried his hand at that pre-manufactured method while living in Nashville during the early 1990s and attempting to make a living as a Music Row songwriter. It didn’t go well.

“I was with two other guys in a room that I’d never met before, and we were supposed to write a song about a pregnant teenager,” he recalls, “and here we are three guys in our thirties. ‘Ah, I don’t think this is for me. I’m out of here.’ I guess they wrote the song, but I didn’t stick around for it.”

One writer and singer that Watson has long admired is the late George Jones. Watson pays tribute to the man many called Possum or No Show during his long career in country music on the song “Jonesin’ For Jones.”

“He was able to sing a happy song and a real tear-your-heart-out song and that’s not that easy to do. You’re either one or the other,” he says.

Watson first fell in love with Jones’ music via the song "White Lightning."

“I didn’t really know what it was about," he says. "I just loved it. He sounded happy singing it.”

Watson later heard songs such as “The Door” and the quintessential Jones classic, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Much of the music he heard as a young man came via AM radio.

“It was more bearable then. Mainstream radio when I was listening to it was KIKK in Houston and even when I was a pre-teen in North Carolina, WKLM. What I heard on the radio was George Jones, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Ray Price,” he says. “Those people were still playing and doing shows and had hit records. It was pretty darn good radio. But I couldn’t listen to a mainstream radio station today. I can’t even listen to one song.”

Some of what has disappeared on the commercial dial is the diversity that Watson and others grew up with.

“I love to think about the five buttons—I don’t think people have buttons on their radios anymore, do they?” he says. “But the five buttons were programmed to your taste at the moment. There was the rock radio, then there was easy listening, then there was country, then there was talk radio. Whatever your taste was at the time. Nowadays it’s hard to figure out what’s different from one station or the other.”

Dale Watson performs Monday evening at the Lizards Lounge in Wichita.