Dale Watson is incapable of hiding his roots. He’s so damn country, he started his own genre called Ameripolitan just to get away from what country music has become. There is nobody less likely skid off the tracks and abandon their country principles on this big sphere of rock hurdling through space than Dale Watson. But don’t take that to mean he’s unwilling to dabble on the periphery of twang. In fact throughout his career, his reverence to the sounds of Memphis, Tennessee—from Johnny Cash to Elvis Presley and the rockabilly Gods of Sun Studios—has inferred his sound just as strongly as Merle Haggard.
Whether it’s his singing style, his high arching silver pompadour, or even down to specific songs and albums Dale’s recorded over the years like his Dalevis project from 2012, Dale Watson has always had the soul of Memphis coursing through his blood and music. Dale even has a dedicated rockabilly category as part of his annual Ameripolitan Awards.
Now a part-time resident of Memphis, it makes sense that the sound of the city would make the basis of Dale’s latest record, Call Me Lucky. Living right down the road from Graceland, and not too far away from Sun Studios, the styles, the modes, the singing, and the lyrical phrasing that are all indicative of Memphis in the mid 50’s is what makes up the chemistry of Call Me Lucky, though the steel guitar and twang of traditional country—or Ameripolitan—are still present. The title track of the album is about scoring big by standing in between two beautiful women. Similarly, Dale takes the best of Memphis rockabilly and soul, and mixes it with the honky tonk twang of his other home of Austin, TX, and tries to make Call Me Lucky the best of both worlds.
From the modulating chord changes of “The Dumb Song” with its Luther Perkins boom chicka boom guitar style, to the brass and swing beat of “Tupelo, Mississippi & a 57 Fairlane” (Elvis was born in Tupelo, if you didn’t know), to even the style of a song about a farmer trucker from West Texas named “David Buxkemper,” this record employs all the nostalgic signifyers to the vintage Memphis sound to awaken nostalgic yearning in the listener.
Yet there’s also some interesting textures to make Call Me Lucky unique to itself. World famous harmonica player Mickey Raphael of Willie Nelson’s Family Band is all over this record, and instead of blowing blues harp in the Memphis way, he sticks to his own thing, which is a sound all to itself, and immediately recognizable. This keeps a little touch of Texas in Call Me Lucky, as does the song “Restless,” which bucks the Memphis thing altogether, and instead sounds eerily similar to Waylon Jennings, all the way down to the Ralph Mooney-style steel guitar licks.
Call Me Lucky is all about the presentation, from the Daddy-O rockabilly vibes, to the honky tonk textures, with the lyrics working to fit the style as opposed to vice versa. This is what’s cool about Call Me Lucky, and also what holds it back. The writing feels a bit uninspired at times, leaning on tropes and being more interpretive of an era as opposed to original expressions set to vintage music. The writing also has its moments, like in the final song “Mama’s Smile,” but overall the songwriting of Call Me Lucky leaves something to be desired. Conversely, Watson’s smooth, classic American drawl, warble, and delivery have never been as buttery. He really sings the hell out of this record, even if the results might sound schtick-y to some.
Dale Watson has always taken a pretty loose approach to album making, not pouring years into projects, but writing a gaggle of songs and cutting them in the studio in a matter of days. Many of his records are traditional country with no shtick, while others like his Truckin’ Sessions series are all about building fun songs based around a specific style or theme. Call Me Lucky is the latter. And though it feels a little light on substance, it prevails as a fun listen.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7/10)
– – – – – – – – – – –