El Rancho Azul
Red House Records
4 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Whether singing honky-tonk originals, neo-western swing, Memphis-Sun injected, early-rock-influenced hillbilly music, drinking songs, dreaming ones, or rig driving anthems, Dale Watson sings Country; like Dallas Wayne, Billy Don Burns, and a thousand others going back to Tony Booth, Bobby Austin, Dick Curless, and further, country runs through his veins and colours his life.
Fresh from a recent Sun Records focus (The Sun Sessions and the recently unveiled and equally enjoyable Dalevis) and taking a stab at Blake Shelton’s lack of vision (“Old Fart, A Song for Blake”, available on iTunes), Dale Watson hasn’t changed a lot from the first time we heard him sing “Cheatin’ Heart Attack” two decades ago.
Had Watson scored even a minor chart hit along the way, things might be different; forced to do things fairly independently, Watson has chosen to stay close to his roots (and their principles) over the course of some twenty albums. He never caught the Nashville rash, and wasn’t afraid to call ‘em out if he thought something was less than justified (“Country My Ass.”)
El Rancho Azul is comprised of 14 Watson originals, according to the record label “the honkiest tonkiest album” of his career. Measuring such would be difficult, but Red House won’t get an argument from me.
Never one to mince words, Watson has consistently demonstrated that he can build a solid song around a clever turn of phrase, occasionally elevating his songs to greatness. “Where Do You Want It” and “Thanks To Tequila” are built around memorable catch phrases, and while enjoyable don’t reach the comparable standard of Watson’s best songs. “Cowboy Boots,” an ode to dancin’ women, also falls into this category.
“I Drink to Remember” fares better; the lyrics unfold like a Capitol Haggard cut—I believe there is even a subtle vocal nod to Merle within the chorus at 0:51—and the pedal steel of Don Pawlak combines with Watson’s guitar for a unadulterated ’60s California country sound. “We’re Gonna Get Married” and “Daughter’s Wedding Song” are thematically independent of each other in their approach to nuptials, but each successfully accomplishes its intent. The first is filled with good-natured frivolousness, while the second conveys matters from the father’s point of view; complete with recitation, this is another song that could have appeared on Pride In What I Am or Hag.
I’m not sure what Watson’s motivation was in writing, recording, and then sequencing two songs that are so similar (and yet, different) as “Quick Quick Slow Slow” (about a couple’s hesitant first dance) and “Slow Quick Quick” (about a different couple’s only slightly less hesitant first dance), but they work, as single tracks and one-after-the-other. Not afraid of redundancy (on his 1995 debut, Watson recorded “Wine Wine Wine” which was outdone on last year’s The Sun Sessions by “Down Down Down Down Down), here we have “Drink Drink Drink” which is about about what you figure.
Through it all, Watson and his Lonestars—which include, in addition to Pawlak, Chris Crepps on upright bass and Danny Levin on fiddle and piano—sound like they are quite simply having a time playing these songs. A true original, Watson appears not to give a rip about being original. Some will criticize his music for being a throwback, even derivative perhaps.
This week I’ve listened to six or eight Watson discs. El Rancho Azul stands with his best. Either you like it or you don’t; if you like country music, I can’t understand not liking it.