Way back in 2001, in that world before the towers fell and the terrors roamed, I reviewed a Brett Watts record titled Solid Ground. It was a debut recording from a guy who had a lot of skins on the wall but hadn’t been in the studio much. Nice little record, and some standout tracks that stick with me even today. Here’s a piece of what I had to say then:
Brett Watts needs some polish, like every artist who self-produces his or her debut album. But he’s chasing his dream and telling stories about old Texas and cowboys and real-life things that matter. “Solid Ground” is a perfect CD for a quiet evening watching a prairie sunset, and it also goes pretty damned well in the cab of a beatup pickup rolling down a deserted highway. These are songs you’d make up picking around a campfire on the Brazos-they’re not all smooth, and some of ’em sound like they were invented ten minutes ago. But they’re good.
Now it’s thirteen years of some hard road in the rearview, for Brett and me both, and he’s finally released something new. First thing that jumped out at me when I spun the record? I was wrong back in 2001. Brett didn’t need any damned polish. I needed some experience and some world-worn wisdom. In my defense, some of the production values of that maiden voyage did need an upgrade. Brett fixed that by running this venture through Rush Creek Studio in Arlington, TX. That’d be the little shop chock full of excellence where Brian Burns produces all of his own releases. If you’re familiar with Burns’ work, then you know what that means in terms of every note being precisely and impeccably in place, while realizing its role as a conveyor for the lyric and the spirit and the soul of the songs that are sung. A master’s touch, that’s what Brian’s built a reputation for. Brett was smart to go with him for this outing. The result is a shimmering, vivid, highly listenable while beautifully raw slice of dusty trails and hardspun lives lived well before the penny dreadful pseudo-artistes could take the truly real and make it simply romantic.
Anybody who knows their history knows the cowboy life was a hard one. We all get riled up when we watch ‘Tombstone’ and hear Kurt Russell yell out “You tell him I’m coming. And Hell’s coming with me!” We get misty-eyed and wistful when we hear Don Edwards sing “Coyotes” or Michael Martin Murphey let out with “Strawberry Roan.” But let’s be honest here, just for a minute. Or maybe two. Because the West wasn’t like those things much. It wasn’t all Ben Cartwright and it certainly wasn’t Victoria Barkley as a rule. Not many top hands riding for Goodnight and Loving had the crystalline voices we’ve come to associate with cowboy singers. But on the flip side, most of ‘em had hearts right up there with Audie Murphy’s. It was from those hearts, borne on those hardy spirits, and sung by voices coated with dust and alkali that the original trail songs came. Those voices knew sadness and hardship in ways none of us in this modern world can comprehend. In our world, companies like Apple get credit for innovation because they built something we didn’t know we needed that now we can’t live without. And while there’s truth in that statement, the simple fact is that having to settle for a Droid doesn’t quite stack up to dealing with hostiles under a Comanche moon. So while the legacy lives on for us, and we honor the boys who rode the trails and built the western half of these United States, unless we dig a little and get some dirt under the fingernails we don’t have a clue what their lives really meant.
Brett Watts does, though. He’s been two kinds of cowboy – rodeo and real. Was once right on the cusp of being the third kind, when he was invited to camp with Tom Landry’s outfit. True story. Could’ve worn that blue star back when it stood for something. While that shot didn’t play out, others have. There may not be a truer cowboy singer in America today than Watts. The perfectionist critic will say that his voice can’t match that of Steagall. They’ll have a point, fair enough in its way. But the soulful listener might say that Red and Don and Mike and even Marty couldn’t put the weathered and authentic patina on a song that Watts can. They’d have a point as well.
So no offense to the luminaries of the genre, all of whom this reviewer loves to listen to at every opportunity. But kudos to Brett for taking what was once perhaps the realest of existences and making it resonate in a world convoluted with smartphones and tablets and SUVs and satellite radio.
When Brett sings “Gringo’s Delight,” you can smell the salty sweat and see the sunlight reflect off the bronzed skin of the senoritas. In “Still A Cowboy” you readily recognize the influence of the smoother latter day artists who sing of the romanticized western life, but the longing and nuance and exhilaration come through like a clarion call. You’ll wax nostalgic about things you’ve never known while you eat the dust from the remuda and like it. That’s a tall order right there, kids. But Watts delivers on every level.
High Lonesome Cowboy is as true a tale and as faithful a rendition as you’ll find of what it meant to be in the saddle on the long rides, and what it means to hold to those ideals today. There are songs here evocative of the very best in the best of us who ever drew breath. “Two Days Out” comes to readily to mind, as poignant and sincere a tune as has ever been penned about the West but with a concomitant sense of saddle sores and bone chilling cold that makes the story real. If you’ve ever been party to the privilege of sharing a life with real friends, “Mi Compadre” will bring you a tear as it caresses your dying brow. Top to bottom, High Lonesome Cowboy is akin to reading the Lonesome Dove tetralogy and learning, perhaps for the first time, what it truly meant to pull a hat down low at a gallop and ride hellbent for the leather – perhaps for the horizon, perhaps away from it, depending on who was giving chase. I don’t know how one calls themself a fan of Western art without owning this album. It’s Remington and Robbins, Russell and L’Amour all at once. Aside from the originals rampant throughout the track list, covers ranging from “Tonight We Ride” to “Bible And A Belt” tie the tale together.
It’s a rapturous ride down trails we’ve all imagined but most have never really considered living. Authentic and honest, homespun and heartwarming, beautiful and heartrending. High Lonesome Cowboy is to Western music as Jim Shoulders was to broncs and bulls.
Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
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