If there’s one guy you can count on in country music, it is Dale Watson. No, he’s not going to lick his proverbial finger and stick it in the air to find out what to say or what to play. He’s going to be himself no matter how much money it makes him, or how many enemies he garners. Suave, slick, super-cool and confident. Maybe even a little bit arrogant. But he can afford to be, because the ghosts of country music have his back.
Take when Blake Shelton decided to make some disparaging comments about the “old farts and jackasses” that populate Dale’s side of the country music world. Dale and his Lone Stars were mere ticks away from having to embark on a 20-day European tour, and Dale figures out how to squeeze out an anti-Blake song and post a video for it before his boarding time at ATX. No Mr. TSA officer, that ain’t a six shooter setting off the metal detector, those are Dale’s big steel cajones hanging down in his Texas tweeds.
You know what you’re going to get with a Dale Watson album–good old-fashioned honest-to-goodness honky tonk country music. He never veers off the path too far. There was his last album, the Cash-esque Sun Sessions, and the long-rumored Dale/Elvis concept album Dalevis that apparently is finally going to see the light in February. But a Dale Watson album usually holds few surprises. You aren’t going to see him in hipster glasses chasing the uke and Theremin craze to expose a lot of “vulnerability” in his music. Dale Watson is all about keeping the honky tonk traditions alive, and that is what he channels in El Ranco Azul.
Bred for dancing, El Rancho Azul is taken straight out of the honky tonks Dale Watson plays 8 nights a week while home in Austin. Drinking and heartache are the prevailing themes, and maybe not just because this is a country album, but because Dale just recently went through a breakup and a divorce himself. “I Lie When I Drink” and “I Drink to Remember” reinforce the idea that these eternal country themes will never wear thin, while Dale’s supple country drawl delivered with breadth, emotion and control breathe new life into old, familiar narratives.
Maybe Dale is being sarcastic, but one of the fun songs on the album is “We’re Gonna Get Married,” chased by one of the album’s standouts, the tearful and touching “Daughter’s Wedding Song.” Then it’s on to two songs whose purpose for dancing is thinly veiled, “Quick Quick Slow Slow,” and “Slow Quick Quick” meant for two-stepping and waltzing respectively. Then it’s on to more drinking songs, then a few more drinking songs, and another drinking song to close the album out. But the direction never feels stale because of Dale’s country gold voice, and the little bits of character Dale adds to each one of his compositions.
Another El Rancho Azul offering worth note is “Where Do You Want It?” A story song about the time Billy Joe Shaver shot a man at the Papa Joe’s Bar in Waco, TX, it originally was given to Whitey Morgan & The 78’s. Since it has become one of Whitey’s signatures, the Dale version may come across a little strange to an ear used to the other, but nonetheless it is a cool edition to this song’s legacy from its original writer.
My concern about Dale has always been that he writes so many songs and releases so many albums, not one song or one album stands out as a signature. At the same time, it’s hard to find a bad Dale Watson album or song. You certainly won’t find one here with El Rancho Azul, only the genuine, real deal country music that Music Row has forgotten, and all of Blake Shelton’s “old farts and jackasses” crave.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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