The National Folk Festival is all about tradition.
So is Dale Watson, particularly when it comes to country music.
“Real country to me is different from what other people might think,” said Watson, front man for Dale Watson and His LoneStars. “Real stories, very personal stories … real country is more rootsy than what you hear today.
“Everything is so light these days, it doesn’t evoke any kind of real emotion. Part of it is because it takes two or three guys to write a song in Nashville, so it can’t be real personal.”
Born in Alabama, Watson grew up in a musical family. His uncle Jim played guitar with Merle Travis and his father, Don, was a truck-driving singer-guitarist. Shortly after recording his first song at age 14, Watson and his family moved to Pasadena, Texas, just outside Houston, and he soon began working the local honky-tonk club circuit.
His music eventually took him on the road, to Los Angeles in 1988 in search of the Bakersfield sound popularized by Buck Owens and now in vogue through Dwight Yoakam. Later he moved to Nashville, where “new country” was emerging as the dominant genre.
Neither stint was fulfilling, and by 1994 he had returned to Texas, and back to his musical roots.
“It wasn’t a difficult decision,” said Watson, now based in Austin. “You sort of fall into it naturally. Some people come to a different decision. Take Faith Hill; I don’t think you could imagine her singing Loretta Lynn, but that’s her.”
As for Watson, his return to the Lone Star State reinforced the direction of his musical future, if there was to be one. He originally wasn’t sure and enrolled in community college to learn motorcycle repair until a European label called wanting him to record an album. He also struck a deal with a U.S. label.
His debut album, “Cheatin’ Heart Attack” (1995), established him in the front ranks of the Austin honky-tonk set. The similarly acclaimed “Blessed Or Damned” (1996) and “I Hate These Songs” (1997) followed. Yet most of his success was in Europe, where he frequently tours.
“Here they call me ‘too country,'” said Watson. “But country has done nothing short of lose its identity. Its roots are firmly planted in midair. In Europe, radio isn’t shoving something down [people’s] throats.
“In America, I play rock ‘n’ roll rooms to the dyed-hair and pierced-nose crowd instead of country rooms for the boot-scootin’ crowd. My audience makes up its own mind and
doesn’t want to be told what to like.”
Not that Watson’s music has been without change over the years.
In fact, it took a dramatic turn on Sept. 15, 2000, when his fiancee, Terri Herbert, died in an automobile accident.
What followed was the most desperate time of his life, despondency treated with a dangerous combination of alcohol and pills. He spent a few months in a Texas state hospital before being released and beginning a new form of therapy – writing music about that relationship. By July 2001 he had changed his mind and released those songs in a most personal album dedicated to Herbert, “Every Song I Write Is For You.” Proceeds from that album went to the Terri Herbert Foundation, which awards college scholarships to high school students from single-parent homes. Watson has regrouped from the loss of his fiancee, though she will never be far from his heart. “I absolutely went through some crazy times after she died,” he said. “It was probably just five months ago when I could say I finally got over the hump, when I could write again without it always being about her. For three years I couldn’t write a song and it not be about her.”