As country music consumes itself in tireless cycles of big hats and arenas, alt-roots and college bars, the question of authenticity comes up as often as the question of talent; earning that cowboy hat is often more important than writing a decent song. For Dale Watson, it's never been worth crying in your beer over, yet the question of authenticity is one he's often asked -- and to which he's often the answer.
A ghost haunts Watson, appearing in the corners of his songs and his voice -- in part, it's the collective ghost of Johnny Cash, Roy Nichols and the heavenly host of country musicians who've crossed the river Jordan since the dawn of the 21st century. The Austin, Texas, songwriter's recent album, From the Cradle to the Grave, was recorded in a Tennessee cabin that once belonged to the Man in Black, and, as Watson said, "his presence was so strong up there, I decided ... [to] go with the feeling." But the whole of Watson's haunting is something more grand.
Decidedly influenced by the "golden age" of honky-tonk singers (Lefty Frizzell) along with Bakersfield (Buck Owens) and the renegades (Cash, Merle Haggard), Watson's aching-heart sound, washed in pedal-steel guitars and crisp brushed drums, immediately earned him a small but dedicated following. He became famous playing truck stops, from Texas to I-80 in Western PA. But he became legend by performing as many as six weekly four-hour gigs in Austin.
His songs rank alongside those of Billy Joe Shaver or Haggard -- and few others. And his voice resonates with deep, dusky regret, the kind of voice that can convincingly declare, "[You're] burnin' the candle at both ends, son / when you gonna learn that the fire is hot / If you always do what you've always done / you'll always get what you've always got."
In the spirit of that lyric, rather than beat his head against a wall with the country-music establishment, Watson has dealt with it by walking away. "I'm too country now for country / just like Johnny Cash" he sang in "Nashville Rash," 13 years ago. With Cradle, Watson went a step further and declared his music a new genre, "Ameripolitan," and rejected any concept of success outside of his own: great original songs rendered in a classic American style.
Wrestling with nomenclature should never be a musician's job, but the fact that Watson has withdrawn entirely from what he now calls "the 'c' word" is a harsh statement about the condition of America's roots music. As No Depression and Harp magazines disappear in a wisp of disinterest, it seems that even the "alt-" can't save country music. Perhaps it's time the truck-stop singers and honky-tonk entertainers distanced themselves from the industry that has done so much damage with its carrots and sticks, and set about re-forging America's music with fewer big hats and "alt-" tags, and more truly gifted singers and songs -- with Dale Watson as their guide.
Dale Watson with Izzy & Chris. 8 p.m. Wed., April 9. Thunderbird Café, 4023 Butler St., Lawrenceville. $13 ($15 day of show). 21 and over. 412-682-0177 or www.thunderbirdcafe.net