Back in 1995, Dale Watson recorded a song bemoaning the state of modern country music. “I’m too country now for country,” he declared, “just like Johnny Cash.” The singer then turned to an elder statesmen for guidance: “Help me, Merle! I’m breaking out in a Nashville rash.” It’s a funny song and a gutsy one — on his debut album, Watson was already putting himself on par with two of country’s greats.
Watson’s aversion to country’s mainstream still fuels his music two decades later. Playing at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom last night (July 11) in support of his most recent full-length, Call Me Insane, he displayed a finely-tuned approach to advocacy. Like a smart politician, he knows the importance of defining terms and repeating them, so he calls his brand of music “Ameripolitan.” This is a label far superior to “alt country” — it’s hard to think of a more meaningless modifier than “alt” — and Ameripolitan also suggests much more than the truly bland “Americana.” The name claims national tradition, but “politan” is important: it suggests that the music can be for city folks too.
At times, Watson’s musical ambition matches his lobbying efforts. In 2014, he wrapped up a three-album project entirely dedicated to songs about trucks, called, appropriately enough, The Truckin’ Sessions. There’s a knee-jerk reaction to country songs about vehicles (though no one raises a fuss when Bruce Springsteen records another song about driving), but Watson showed that being stuck behind the wheel doesn’t have to constrain creativity: he explored the truck from every possible angle — as a means of subsistence, as a place of shelter, as a friend, as a prison.
Despite his efforts, Watson hasn’t reached anything close to the popular heights of Haggard and Cash. As he sang in ’95: “it’s lookin’ like I’m falling in the cracks.” (At least he went in with his eyes open.) But overlooking Watson is especially puzzling now, when aesthetically conservative singers like Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves are routinely championed as a medicine for whatever is ailing country music. Given all the critical acclaim being showered on those two, it seems only fair that Watson, who has been fighting the good fight for twenty years now, should get a piece.
At the Bowery Ballroom, Watson played a charming, jubilant set. His musical tools have been the same for most of his career: honky tonk, western swing, and rockabilly. He worked with a loose three-piece band — drums, stand-up bass, pedal steel — and led the group with his own lead guitar, driving and argumentative.
The crowd was scant — especially compared to the packed halls that greet Sturgill Simpson on his regular trips through town — but fervent. These were the Ameripolitan disciples coming to get their fix. They cheered lustily when Watson made jokes at the expense of the mainstream (Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift), traded banter with the singer, and yelled song requests.
One advantage of the small crowd: it left plenty of space for movement. As Watson ripped through “Texas Boogie” late in his set — a raucous track as explosive as anything Merle has recorded — a pair of couples near the back of the crowd started dancing: twirling, laughing, completely lost in the tune. Ameripolitan has a few more converts.