Everything evolves. When I began hosting a country music show almost ten years ago at KBCS, my playlists were heavy in the hard honky tonk and western swing sounds of the 1940s and 50s, the 1960s – era Bakersfield sound, the 1970s Outlaw movement, and the alt-country sounds of the 1990s. That original incarnation was a hard, rough and tumble show with hot steel guitars, twin fiddles, and plenty of two-steps. All cool stuff. Absent were the countrypolitan sounds of the ’60s and ’70s, the new traditionalist sounds of the ’80s, and the big hat groups of the ’90s.
Over the years the show has broadened in range. I learned to embrace the lush Nashville Sound filled with strings and backup singers with some help from Ray Price, Charlie Rich, and George Jones. Time has weathered the ’80s well for me, too. Keith Whitley, Randy Travis, John Anderson, and Rosanne Cash can all make me stop and listen. I’ve even found a place in my heart for some of those big hat guys, too.
So the question is: what are we rebelling against? So often the answer comes back from traditionalist “whadya got.” Dale Watson has long been a leading man in the anti-Nashville establishment. He has practically made a career on it. When I heard he was recording his new album in the furnace itself, I was surprised. Early accounts told about how slick the production was and that the Lonestars were left behind, and professional session workers were being used. All of this is true. Yes, true, but not the whole story.
“Carryin’ On” is Watson’s best album since 2004’s “Dreamland.” There have been seven albums in those years, all with good moments, but none had the leave-it-on-the-turntable feel that this one has. The title cut starts things off with a wistfulness reminiscent of John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind.” “Hey Brown Bottle” is utterly fantastic honky tonk. You will hear this one at every live show for years to come. The statements are dialed down a bit, with the most obvious being the final song, “Hello, I’m An Old Country Song,” but even here Watson has penned a fine song that could have sat comfortable on Jones’ “The Grand Tour” or “I Am What I Am.”
A word needs to be said about those Nashville session musicians. I’ve been known to purchase albums even when I’m not overly familiar with the singer on the strength of the sidemen alone. To see Lloyd Green, Pig Robbins, and Pete Wade on an album would do it. Add in Dennis Crouch and Glenn Duncan, and there would be no question. Let’s be honest with each other. All I would really need to see is steel guitar master Lloyd Green.
Leave it to Watson to go to Nashville and make an album from 1966. I see myself in there a bit, I suppose, with the evolution. The truth here remains that its not what something is about, rather how it is about. This is a man writing some of the best songs out there, playing with titans, who has moved beyond the need to say anything, defend anything, and do anything other than make fine, fine music.