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C&W's Hitkickers

Dale Watson
Armed Vengeance: Some Nashville rebels--singers like Dale Watson--are trying to take back C&W music.

The honky-tonk minstrels digging their hot spurs into Nashville to resurrect the hardcore traditions of country music may never outsell Garth Brooks, but they'll definitely kick his ass

By Christopher Weir

POSTMODERN COUNTRY MUSIC is just too nice. It romps, it weeps, gets drunk, goes to church, drives big pickups, weeps again, falls in love and generally behaves itself without kicking any shit along the way. Turn on the radio and you won't get any nail-spitting, cow-punching, guitar-slinging freethinkers. No, you'll get Vince Gill, purveyor of the silken tenor and sensitive-man lyrics.

Simply put, the Nashville country music establishment has, in the span of a single decade, effectively neutered itself. No more unrepentant sinners. No more 80-proof heartbreak. No more ear-scorching steel guitar. No more dust-throttled truck stops.

No more shitkickers.

Welcome to the audioscape of wimps, where the buffalo no longer roam. On country radio and major labels, the real men are the women. They're the ones with the edge, the attitude and the muscle. And more power to them.

But it sure doesn't do anybody any good if all the cowboys have been reduced to simpering pretty boys. Yes, Dwight Yoakam, Clint Black and a few others are still fighting the good fight. But they are losing the battle.

And so what? Well, imagine tuning the dial to a blues program and hearing a gaggle of Michael Bolton knockoffs do the grunt and groan. That's what.

Genre-cleansing is just not cool.

But despair not, would-be honky-tonkers, because several Austin-based traditionalists are refusing to bite the Nashville apple and are rescuing true cowpunk country from the brink of extinction.

Now, they're not going to outsell Garth Brooks anytime soon, even collectively. And, at least for now, that's the point.

Here, then, are four of Austin's finest tunesmiths:

Dale Watson

With a voice as resonant as the Loma Prieta earthquake and songs as honest as a three-day hangover, Dale Watson is the preeminent troubadour of supersonic honky-tonk. His first album, Cheatin' Heart Attack, is already a classic, and his new I Hate These Songs is nothing less than a masterpiece.

From roadhouse diners to broken homes, from cheap thrills to sad goodbyes, Watson roams the Western netherworld so effortlessly and evocatively that he can't help but invoke the orphaned ghosts and legends of country music. Yet with his white-hot six strings and high-octane arrangements, he also brokers a distinctly modern edge.

Watson can be found desperately clutching a toilet bowl on "Hair of the Dog," charting the outer limits of adultery with "Cheatin' Heart Attack," discovering commitment in the haunting "I Won't Say Goodbye," celebrating a highway oasis in "Truckstop in La Grange" and excoriating the antiseptic state of popular country music on "Nashville Rash."

After flirting with a more expansive sound in his second Hightone Records release, Blessed or Damned, Watson is back on rock-solid stylistic ground with I Hate These Songs. It's not merely an album--it's a musical event of the highest magnitude. Nothing this pure has hit the stores in a long, long time.

So if you're looking for the perfect soundtrack to a longneck-swilling summer night, look no further than Dale Watson, a legend in the making.

Chris Wall

Chris Wall conjures the honky-tonk paradigm with pistol-packing lyricism, virtuoso songwriting and vocals evocative of an advancing thunderstorm. Whether he's quoting Shakespeare or rhapsodizing about roadhouse whiskey, Wall is a master storyteller who, according to one song, would "rather be a fencepost in Texas than the king of Tennessee."

With the release of his third album, Cowboy Nation, Wall found himself at the helm of a certified classic, a collection of songs so graceful yet raw that they occupy their own stylistic orbit. And on his subsequent Cold Spring Records release, Any Saturday Night in Texas, Wall unleashed one of his spirited live shows at Gruene Hall.

"The End of the Rainbow Inn" finds Wall narrating the personalized history of a roadside tavern, his sentimentality riddled with bleak resignation. On "Cold Blue Highway," Wall's ethereal duet with Kelly Willis manages to infuse profound sadness with subliminal optimism. And on "Damn Good Time," Wall contemplates the highway life of no-tell motels, loaded six-guns, broken 12-packs and cops in the rear-view mirror: "I believe we're on the road to rack and ruin/But the good news is we're making damn good time."

In Wall's universe, hard knocks and good times are often one and the same. And while he may sometimes verge on the literary, he rarely strays far from the tavern-studded twilight zone of cowpoke existentialism: "Let's flop that tailgate down on this old pickup truck/And let our boot heels dangle in some fine west Texas dust/We'll tell a few stories and we'll swap a few lies/And under no circumstance try to justify our lives."

The Derailers

For sheer out-of-the-wrapper appeal, the Derailers have few challengers. From the opening measures of their first studio album, Jackpot, to the final notes of next week's Watermelon Records release, Reverb Deluxe, these three guys broker such a sleek wheels-to-the-pavement sound that one can only wonder why they're not already rippling across the radio waves.

More proof it just doesn't pay to twang in twang-phobic territory.

With an omnipresent nod to Texas swing and the Bakersfield trailer park sound popularized by Buck Owens, the band frequently flirts with switchblade rockabilly and '50s rock & roll. But make no mistake: country is the Derailers' home turf. For example, there's the loping, fiddle-saturated "I Don't Believe I'll Fall in Love," a song so pure that it sounds positively inbred. Or "Swan Song," a navigation of love gone haywire: "I punched a hole in the wall beside our bed/Misguided passion that was aiming for your head/We could patch that hole and make amends again and again/But this time we both know it has to end."

For high-rolling, high-styling, highball-shooting hellraising, crank up Reverb Deluxe and let the Derailers take the wheel.

Don Walser

Last but not least, there's Don Walser, "Pavarotti of the Plains" and a patriarch of the Austin scene. On the title track of Rolling Stone from Texas, Walser unleashes a yodel so flagrant that it bores into your skull, grips your cranium and gropes your neurons until, whether you like it or not, you're doing a frenzied two-step.

And it only gets better from there. Walser is like homemade whiskey. If you can't handle it, don't bother. But if you can, watch out. In fact, you'd be well advised to watch out anytime these Austin honky-tonkers barrel through the speakers. Because it's not long after the radios start smoking that the shit gets kicked.

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From the July 2-9, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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