Last time I reviewed a Dale Watson record, the year was 2001 and Dale was recovering from a stint as one seriously heartbroke and busted up sumbitch. He’d lost his girlfriend, Terri Lynn Herbert, in a car accident; she’d fallen asleep behind the wheel on her way to Houston to meet him. It was a tough and tragic time, and Watson dove into some serious depression. Understandably so. Wound up needing professional help. Part of coming out of it for him involved writing songs. Deeply personal, private songs. The kind not intended for other ears. That process helped Watson come to terms with the demons and the loss, provided an avenue for standing up to crippling heartache and finding a way to struggle back up on his own hind legs again. Through the process, some of the songs got heard. Struck vibrant chords with others in the process. Wound up being a CD, Every Song I Write Is For You. Completely different effort than what listeners were accustomed to from Dale. In his role as a self-proclaimed (legitimately self-proclaimed, by the way) defender of true country music, Watson and his band had long mined with aplomb the slower ballads while consistently unleashing an uptempo brand of country music that kept dancers sweaty and exhausted on hardwood floors coast to coast. This record wasn’t like that at all. It was slow. Nuanced. One of those still waters run deep kind of experiences that proved the wisdom in that old cliché on levels too numerous to count.
It was my first detailed introduction to Dale Watson. It sticks with me to this day. And because it was my first intro, it’s likely that I look at Watson’s work in a slightly different light than others who first found him with albums like The Truckin’ Sessions. When a new Dale record lands in my player, I’m always looking for the deeper threads that consistently permeate his work.
And they’re readily available on El Rancho Azul. In its own way this album is as beautiful and poignant as anything Watson’s ever done. Top to bottom it’s one of the best he’s released in some time. As always it’s as country as it comes, and love and loss and hope and pain and joy and nuanced longing take sustained star turns while the notes dance across your ears. It’s simply a beautiful record.
Interestingly – and in spades rewardingly – this is actually the first time Watson has recorded a studio record with this traveling band. So fans who are passionate about what happens when Dale and his Lonestars play live will feel right at home. Those who haven’t caught the live show get a chance here to understand what the fuss is all about. It’s an eye opening lesson, one of those sawdust and neon history lessons that breaks life down to its simplest components and then amplifies each one in a manner that breathes purpose into this old hard life we all shuffle through. Maybe misery loves company sometimes, but usually the deal is that heartache treasures hope the way a banker treasures gold. And while there’s heartache and loss here in the purest of country tradition, there’s hope and a passion for life that reeks of Saturday nights in Texas and sunrises in Heaven itself.
Watson and the boys (Chris Crepps, Mike Bernal, Don Pawlak, Danny Levin) laid tracks down at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio in Austin. On cuts like “Give Me More Kisses,” though, you’d think someone just expertly captured a weekend show in the Fort Worth Stockyards. There’s Western swing, rockabilly swagger, a banging whorehouse piano and a vocal channeling Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and even Tommy Duncan in places. It swings, it rocks, it jitterbugs and it flows. Buffet for your ears, and a workout your toes won’t forgive you for anytime soon. But cuts like “I Hate To Drink Alone” make you think it’s 1981 again; shimmering steel guitar and a two-step feel that hark from the golden times when a guy named Strait and his Ace In the Hole band were playing San Marcos and Gruene on a regular basis.
Standouts that are vintage Watson abound as well. “Quick Quick Slow Slow” will grab anyone who’s ever stood on the sidelines watching the dance floor filled with those who know the steps and wondering how to learn without looking the fool. On the surface it’s a song about a woman teaching a man how the two-step works. Peel back the layers and it’s a metaphor-ridden picture of the ways we fellas stumble and still fight forward with just a little well placed urging when a brand new love’s trying to bloom in ways we don’t quite understand. This one’ll put you in a place you’d forgotten about, and if it’s been too long since you and your spouse or partner shared the magic of a sawdust floor, you’ll both be thinking the same thing when the bell rings Friday afternoon.
The track list includes “Daughter’s Wedding Song,” which you’ve likely heard if Texas radio is part of your daily routine. It was released last year as a digital single, but its inclusion here provides a genuinely lovely counterpoint and a poignant change in perspective. Where many of the songs on El Rancho Azul talk about love – new love, dying love, old comfortable broke in love, you name it – they generally do so in the first person. Here, though, Watson shifts gears and prepares to walk his daughter down the aisle. No father will get through this one without a twinge in the deepest fibers of his heart and his soul. It’s astonishingly beautiful, poignant and nostalgic and hopeful and sad all at once. Never heard anyone capture better that moment when a man must relinquish his role as the alpha and entrust his daughter to another of her choosing. That moment is one of life’s greatest transitions, and its nuances and emotional shifts are explored here with a tenderness bordering on perfection.
Stellar album, this. Feels different for a Dale Watson release, but in a thoroughly positive sense. There are moments where the songs will have you swinging from the rafters, as is common through Watson’s discography. But overall there’s a more restrained, perhaps focused feel. Country as it comes, songs worn smooth by time and practice and familiarity. El Rancho Azul comes off as a soundtrack for the lives we’ve all lived, and it’s as comfortable and reassuring as your oldest pair of Justins or Tony Llamas that still fit. You know, the ones you’ve had re-soled six times and won’t ever part with.
Dale Watson’s a master. Paired with his band in the studio, he’s got legendary on his hands. Nothing else I’ve heard recently captures life so effectively, so powerfully in an understated yet fully capable way. Early contender for best record I’ll hear this year.
Dale performing live a track from the album, “I Lie When I Drink”:
Release Date is on: Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Note: Dale Watson has another new release this month – self-digital release only available on his website – called Dalevis. Review coming this week.
~ Dave Pilot
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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