Album Review – Dale Watson’s “Starvation Box”

Dale Watson is best known as the hard-nosed and outspoken defender of all things traditional country with a prominent roots influence—or as he likes to call it, Ameripolitan. But on his latest album, Dale Watson looks to broaden the palette for both himself and his audience by taking a detour into the country blues. A rather quick and somewhat stripped-down studio effort full of loose arrangements and live recordings, Starvation Box may be light on production, but it’s heavy on soul.

“Starvation Box” was the euphemism Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s dad gave to the guitar as a cautionary tale to his son to not waste his time with trifles. Yet here we are over 70 years later still talking about the blues legend, so he must have done something right. Similarly, Dale Watson’s legacy will not be measured in the super hits he secured on the charts or the millions of dollars he accrued, but in the legacy and influence he will leave behind through his music, and his efforts at community building and preservation.

Starvation Box is a collection of short stories, character studies, and true and false tales rendered in a decidedly bluesy style for the most part, perhaps hitting the ear strangely at first, but then settling into a comfortable groove. The writing is not poetic or loquacious, but relies on simple truths and country wisdom to convey its message and moments of entertainment.

There are no drums on Starvation Box, only little bits of random percussion to keep the rhythm. There are no rippin’ steel guitar solos or spine-tingling Telecaster licks either, just some acoustic guitar pickin’ and the occasional blast from a house organ or harmonica. And of course, the center of attention is Dale Watson’s billowy voice that at its best can give you the same spine-tingling chills that Johnny Cash did, like you’re hearing a communique from the Almighty.

The Cash-esque talk-sung verses of “Whatever Happened To The Cadillac” have you listening along intently, and pumping your fists at their proclamations of how the lack of quality has corroded everything in the current tense. “Down Down Down Down” is a selection originally showcased a few years back on Watson’s Sun Sessions album with his Texas Two backing band, and also carries a Cash vibe.

Don’t expect straight 12-bar blues here, or blues entirely. Dale Watson also draws from his environs in Memphis for inspiration, including the true life story of “Billy Strawn,” who once returned the $100 bill he found in the back of Elvis Presley’s car, and for his honesty became Presley’s lifelong mechanic. In the center of the track list is the thoughtful and more conventionally-written folk country song “I Ain’t Been Living Right.”

But it’s still country blues that makes up the primary character of Starvation Box, including the title track that works like an ode to Lead Belly, a cover of Percy Mayfield’s “Like a Stranger in My Hometown,” and Dale’s tale of a bad town, “Nothingville.” The album concludes with the inspired Gospel moments of “Ain’t Nobody Everybody Loved” that will get you feeling the Holy Ghost for sure.

Dale Watson has always approached albums a little different than many artists. Instead of stringing his career between releases, they’re more like interludes in between his incessant touring and regular appearances in Austin and Memphis, his ventures in venue ownership and real estate, as well as his promotion of the Ameripolitan Awards. Often after the album is done, his appetite for promoting it is fleeting.

Starvation Box doesn’t symbolize a shift in Dale Watson’s musical approach. It’s just the latest installment that illustrates the breadth of his influences, and the latitude of his talent that needs little to no production or accompaniment to come to life.

1 3/4 Guns Up (7.8/10)

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