Posted April 15, 2019 by Jeff in Tunes

Dale Watson Throws a Honk-Tonk Party Wherever He Goes

Dale Watson - Compass Records
Dale Watson - Compass Records

It’s not an exaggeration to say that singer-guitarist Dale Watson is a honky-tonk icon. His career dates back to the 1970s when he started performing in and around Pasadena, Texas with the Classic Country Band. After moving to Los Angeles in the late ’80s, his career took off and he’s been busy touring and recording ever since. Watson holds down a regular gig at the Continental Club in Austin, but early last year, he bought a house in Memphis and now divides his downtime equally between Texas and Tennessee. He even purchased the fabled Memphis nightclub Hernando’s Hideaway to “provide a hospitable place for touring musicians to perform.”

Watson recorded his latest album, Call Me Lucky, at Sam Phillips Recording studio in Memphis and added
some Memphis-style horns some of the tracks. In a recent phone interview from
his Austin home, he spoke about the new album.

I saw you in Austin last year. Your residency at the Continental Club seems like so much fun.

It is. I’ve been doing it for 20-some years. I love that Monday night gig. I write a lot of songs during the shows. It’s a very comfortable setting. If you’re going to see me in Austin, that’s the place to see what I do.

How do you split your time between Austin and Memphis?

It’s pretty much half and half. I play every Monday and Thursday and usually a Friday or Saturday in Austin. I tend to play Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in Memphis. Even on the weekends, I’ll go all over Texas. I’ve got a bus that’s still based in Austin. But it’s only an hour-and-ten-minute flight to Memphis, so it’s easy to go back and forth.

What was it like to cut this album at Sam Phillips Recording Studio?

It’s like going back in time with all the modern gear. We did it analog but also did it digital. It’s a very unique room. It has so much soul and such a great vibe going on, and to record it with Pro Tools and tape was great. It’s the first time I ever worked there.

Were you trying to channel Elvis on any of the songs?

Elvis actually never played there. He recorded at Sun Studios. I’ve done three or four records there. That’s very different vibe. It’s still a very, very cool place to record. Unfortunately, Sun doesn’t have the recording equipment that made it as cool as it was. But still, that room is amazing. Fans of Johnny, Elvis, Jerry Lee and Carl Perkins should all go there. Sam Phillips was built in 1959 and it has that room sound.  

The horn section sounds sharp. What made you want to throw some horns into the mix?

Well, I use them when I play on Thursdays and do a honky-tonk/swang thing. It’s “swing” with an “a.” I mix my originals with the Bob Wills and Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and all that kind of stuff. I flew those guys to Memphis. I thought this record warranted it, especially being at Sam Phillips.

“Johnny & June” is one of my favorite tracks on the disc. What made you decide to write a tune about them?

Me and [singer-songwriter] Celine [Lee] had that song for a while. All of our songs we wrote through texts. She was in New York and I was in Texas. We were missing each other. She thought of that title and we went back and forth with it and that’s what came out. It’s one of my favorite songs on the record too.

Did something in particular inspire “Haul Off and Do It”?

You know what’s weird is that I didn’t know it until after I had recorded the song that I had gotten the idea for it from these Roy D. Mercer tapes that I used to listen to years ago. He was this comedian who used to do prank calls. This one guy that he bothered so much said to him, “You swore you’d leave me alone, so why don’t you haul off and do it.” Somehow that bubbled up. One Monday night at the Continental Club I wanted to write a song and that just came to me. 

Talk about your background. What first made you want to pick up the guitar and write tunes?

I’ve always been that guy who was pretty much a loner. I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. I just played my guitar. I would go out and play football and baseball but my main thing was playing guitar. You just end up writing songs. My dad wrote songs, so I think it came from that.

I wrote my first song about this girl who lived across the street who I had a crush on. It’s been a theme ever since.

What was Pasadena like back then?

There were honky-tonks everywhere. I got to hear live bands almost every night. In high school, I didn’t hang out with kids my age. Back then, I didn’t drink. I was only 15 or 16 years old and I was driving to honky-tonks. Probably the biggest influence was this guy who was just a honky-tonker who had great banter and his rapport with the audience was really great. That’s taught me a lot. We’re talking pre-Urban Cowboy. Then when Urban Cowboy hit there was a live band on every corner.

What was L.A. like?

I went and visited Rosie Flores there, and she took me to all these places where they were doing original music. That’s what enticed me. In Pasadena, there was a rule that you only did Top 40 songs and no originals. I took my own in there anyway but it was frowned upon. I went to L.A. I wasn’t great at songwriting or playing my guitar or singing but it’s submersion learning out there. I met John Jorgenson, who produced my first album. He was with the Desert Rose Band. There was so much talent out there, and I got into that Palomino house band. That was like going to college right there. Phil and Dave Alvin were around. That was the thing about L.A. back then—we would have Jerry Lee Lewis sit in and Phil from the Blasters. There were some people who didn’t even have record deals yet who would come and sit in. People like Jim Lauderdale and Lucinda Williams would sit in. Dwight had already hit. That’s why L.A. was happening.

What will the live show be like?

I never go by a set list. I’m doing songs from the new album but I’m never a slave to that. I would go to Johnny Paycheck and George Jones shows, and they would only want to do their newest songs and they’d only do a medley of the hits. They never seemed to include the songs I wanted to hear. I encourage my audience to come out and yell if they have a certain song they want to hear. At the end of the day, it’s just a honky-tonk party.

PHOTO: Compass Records


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.