Dale Watson & Ray Benson Talk Duets Album, Differences Between 'Ameripolitan' & Americana & Country Music

Lisa Pollard
Dale Watson and Ray Benson

The new album from Ray Benson and Dale Watson starts with "The Ballad of Dale and Ray," which sounds like a theme song for a happily sloshed country comedy revue. "I like to drink Lone Star," sings Dale. "I like to smoke pot," continues Benson. Then both join in: "It makes us happy, we do it a lot."

It just so happens that booze and weed aren't the only things this pair is interested in: both share a zest for country tradition. As frontman of Asleep at the Wheel, which released its first album in 1973, Benson has been a boisterous proponent of the country sub-genre western swing, while a typical album from Watson, who debuted in 1995, draws on the hard-nosed edge of '60s country, boogie woogie, and rockabilly. So it makes sense for them to join forces on their new album Dale & Ray. "His influences are the same as mine," Watson tells Billboard over the phone from Houston. "Like Ray often says: we put the western back in country western music."

The two have worked together intermittently in the past -- Benson produced Watson's record Dreamland, while Watson joined Asleep at the Wheel on "Hot Texas Christmas Day" from the superbly named Santa Loves to Boogie album -- and in conversation, they carom off each other like a speed-talking wise guys in an old screwball movie. "'The Ballad of Dale and Ray' is probably going to go down in history," Watson declares, but before he can finish the thought, Benson interjects, "or go down in flames." "I thought up the name Dale & Ray," Benson says proudly. "It took a lot of creative talent." "Most people pay a lot of money for consultants," Watson adds. "We didn't hire a consultant, we hired an insultant."

Dale & Ray is slight, tight, and amusing, full of fiddle, pedal steel, and explicit and implicit references to the music they hold dear: covers of Willie Nelson and the Louvin Brothers along with tributes to two Bakersfield Sound pioneers, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. "Just 'cause we're doing it in a style that's familiar doesn't mean that it's old," Watson cautions. "Songs we got on the album are written in a classic vein, but they're contemporary." 

Achieving that equilibrium is important for these two. "What I've always said about the reason that country music has gone astray is that it has always been built on the past with a look to the future," Benson explains. At some point, he believes the "past" part of the equation became less important. But don't mistake him for a snob who believes it was all perfect in the old days. "Even in the '50s, there was lousy country music and there was great country music," he notes.

These days, Benson and Watson mostly prefer the label "Ameripolitan" to country. This is not to be confused with Americana. "Americana starts with Woody Guthrie and goes on to things like Bob Dylan, Steve Earle," Watson says. "Ameripolitan starts with Jimmie Rodgers, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, rockabilly." 

Their refusal to participate in the ongoing conflict over the meaning of country music demonstrates a veteran savvy: unlike many of today's young, would-be country firebrands, Benson and Watson are well aware that this struggle was played out long ago. The rote language of genre revolution and the lobbing of rhetorical Molotov cocktails at figurative Nashville windows are now just marketing tools like any other. Instead, the best way to convert listeners to your idealized vision of country music is to play it anywhere and everywhere. As the critic Ben Ratliff wrote in 1997, "theoretical rebellion is no longer the issue. Making music that sounds inevitable, that sounds as if it couldn't not exist, is the issue." 

There are several tunes in this vein on Dale & Ray. The road song "Bus Breakdown" has the winsome, damn-the-torpedoes qualities of a children's ditty. And the record comes to a close with "Sittin and Thinkin' About You," an unbothered love ballad that surely must have been written by a country striver decades ago. The fact that it wasn't is a strong argument for the continued relevance of Benson and Watson.


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