With popular music coagulating into the two super genres of country and hip-hop, rock music finds itself the odd man out. An inadvertent by-product has been the emergence of rock n’ roll as bona fide roots genre. Along with that, in the last few years there’s big a big resurgence in the Memphis sound centered around the historic Sun Studios. Sun has always been influential on music, but now we are seeing a slew of new projects squarely focused on trying to recapture that Sun sound.
Chris Isaak’s newest album Beyond The Sun was recorded at the historic studio where Elvis, Johnny Cash, and so many others got their start. Justin Townes Earle has iterated that his next album with have a distinct Memphis/Sun vibe to it, and he recorded a version of his song “Ain’t Waitin'” at Sun Studios in May. But beating them both to the punch is Austin, TX’s Dale Watson with The Sun Sessions, recorded with Mike Bernal and Chris Crepps, named the “Texas Two”, an homage to Johnny Cash’s original “Tennessee Two”.
And this isn’t where the homages to Johnny Cash end. In fact in The Sun Sessions, it’s hard to determine where Johnny Cash ends, and Dale Watson begins. Dale isn’t simply trying to capture the essence of an era and adapt it to his original material, he is mimicking virtually everything about Sun-era Johnny Cash, from the tic-tac rhythm, to Cash’s singing style, to the themes and verbiage in the songs. Aside from the songs being original compositions by Dale, this is Dale Watson doing his best Johnny Cash impression circa 1955.
I’m concerned this avant-guarde approach will make this project polarizing in certain circles. It also makes it a very difficult one to grade and criticize. Am I supposed to grade it on how uncannily close Dale mimics the Johnny Cash character? Because if so, give it a 10 out of 10. Or does mimicking Johnny Cash so closely somehow make the album less authentic, or less of an original artistic expression?
It also is worth noting that Dale’s approach to album making has always been unique. He’s not going to waste time trying to cut hit singles or try to garner a mainstream following, so instead he can just have fun, and do whatever he wants. His last album Carryin’ On was unusual because it was one of the few straightforward albums he’s ever done.
In the end, I had to simply try and listen to the songs, and judge them on their merit. I can’t lie, shaking the Johnny Cash similarities was not easy at all, but boiled down, the album is solid, and very fun. I wouldn’t call it a deep or soulful or original album, though it has moments of all three, this is more of an entertaining and engaging album, full of simply-written, honest and tasteful, sweet and primitively-themed songs, that remind you that despite all the great advances of society, we still may never top the simple sweetness of those 50’s-era compositions.
Aside from the Cash similarities, many of the songs have original appeal, like the opening track “Down, Down, Down, Down, Down, Down.” The only track I felt like I could connect the dots to a specific Cash song was “Drive, Drive, Drive”, which felt a little too close to “Cry, Cry Cry”, but the remarkable thing about this album is with songs like “Johnny At The Door” and “George O’Dwyer”, there is a haunting exactitude to Cash in the simple way the lyrics work.
I’m not sure many other artists, even the ones that are big Johnny Cash fans, would be up for pulling this project off with this adeptness. It would almost take a small team of musical historians, creative writers, and musicians to evoke what Dale Watson does in a seemingly effortless manner simply from his fandom, understanding, and deep appreciation for The Man in Black.
The approach of this album is so unique, I really think it will be years before we really know the impact of it and how to judge it in the chronology of Dale’s albums and career, and the current and upcoming crop of Sun Studios-inspired projects. I could see it becoming a fey, but interesting little project that only core Dale fans know about and can only be bought as an import in the US like so many of his other albums, or it could explode into a cult classic buffered by Dale and Cash and Sun Studio fans alike. Either way Johnny Cash…I mean Dale Watson…has put an album out that both Watson and Cash fans can enjoy.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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The release of The Sun Sessions was accompanied by numerous “official videos” that can all be seen below.