Friday, February 03, 2012

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: Some Texas Honky Tonk Sounds

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
Feb. 3, 2012

Texas country singer Dale Watson’s latest album, The Sun Sessions, has a funny backstory. Watson had been booked at a bar in Memphis, Tennessee. Or at least he thought he had a gig there. Somewhere between Austin and Memphis he learned there was a misunderstanding. “No, we have a DJ on Tuesdays, and we don’t have you booked,” someone at the club told him.

“After feeling awful that a music town with such a history would rather have a dance DJ than live music, I thought, ‘What the hell. I got lemons. Let’s make lemonade,’” Watson writes in the CD liner notes.

Dale Watson at Broken Spoke 3-23-11
Dale Watson last year at the Broken Spoke
So he called Sun Studio — the funky little magic factory in Memphis that gave birth to rockabilly and launched the careers of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash — and asked to book some time. He was in luck. And so were fans of Watson’s music.

Watson almost always plays country music in a basic, understated way — steel, fiddle, guitar, bass, drums, and not much else.

But for this album, he strips it down even more. In honor of Cash’s Tennessee Two, Watson calls the backup band on this record The Texas Two. They are stand-up bassist Chris Crepps and a drummer, Mike Bernal, who just hits the snare. Watson only plays his acoustic guitar. Together they celebrate the signature sound of Sun.

To Watson’s credit, even though this is something of a “tribute” album, he didn’t play the hits of the ascended masters that we’ve all heard a zillion times before. He wrote all these tunes — six of them on the bus to Memphis after he booked his session time at Sun. Watson’s baritone sounds more like Cash’s voice than the voices of the other Sun titans, so this album might be viewed as more of an alternative-reality tribute to the Man in Black.

The album starts out with a jittery little tune called “Down Down Down Down Down.” With Crepps’ urgent bass doing most of the work, Watson spins a tale of a man about to sink. “Well I had my first taste of whiskey/I had my first taste of love/Both got me high and twisted up inside/Only one way to go after up.”

No, this isn’t the beginning of some gigantic bummer. It has fun and good times, too.

For instance, “My Baby Makes Me Gravy” is a happy song of good country cookin’ and sex. “Drive Drive Drive” sounds a lot like Cash’s “Cry Cry Cry,” and “Gothenburg Train” has the feel of a classic train song.

Big Daddy
Big Daddy
Watson also does several character sketches. “George O’Dwyer” is the story of a hell-raising buddy of Watson’s who owned a recording studio in Austin. “Jonny at the Door” is a salute to a barroom bouncer, and “Big Daddy” is about a shoeshine man in Austin. (I got my shoes shined by Big Daddy when I was at the Broken Spoke for a Watson show last year.)

My favorite song on The Sun Sessions is “Elbow Grease, Spackle and Pine Sol.” The narrator is served his divorce papers, and he’s in his empty house, apologizing to his ex about holes in the wall and stains on the carpet.

At first a listener might think he’s regretting being a sloppy and possibly violent husband. But — in one of those wonderful twists you find in country-music classics like Leon Ashley’s “Laura (What’s He Got That I Ain’t Got)” and Willie Nelson’s “I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye” — you realize the narrator is holding a gun, and he’s apologizing for the mess he’s about to leave his former Mrs. to clean up.

One amazing thing about this album is that none of the 14 songs here reaches the three-minute mark. Nearly half of them are under two minutes. Watson knows that brevity sometimes packs a harder punch.

Also recommended:
RB & Two Hoots at Threadgill's last year
*  Come and Take It by Rick Broussard’s Two Hoots and a Holler. I know Matt Brooks, the guitar player for this band, through an online music-discussion board that I used to belong to starting back in the 1990s. I had never met him face to face, but for years he had been trying to get me to see his band when I went to Austin.

Somehow I never was able to arrange that — until last August, when I was at the Live Music Capital of the World and Matt’s band was playing a gig at Threadgill’s World Headquarters.

I was impressed. Broussard is a fine singer and songwriter, and the Hoots are a mighty tight country-rock band. They ought to be by now. Broussard started the group back in 1984. Members have changed and shuffled through the years, but Broussard has been at it long enough to know what he wants from his players. (And, showing what a small world it is, I learned that the fiddle player, Sean Orr, used to play with Joe West’s band when the pride of Lone Butte lived in Austin.)

Many of the songs they played the night I saw them are on this album. Among them are the Mexican-flavored opening cut, “I Cried and Cried the Day Doug Sahm Died.” It’s Broussard’s heartfelt tribute to a fellow San Antonio native.

There are some excellent honky-tonkers here, such as “Me Not Calling” and “Every Bit as Proud.” Maybe you haven’t heard of them, but Rick and the boys are big in Norway — at least the town of Halden, to which they pay a rocking tribute in “Halden (Is a Hell Raisin’ Town).” In an obscure historical reference to a Swedish monarch who was killed in battle there in 1718, Broussard sings, “Those people never go to bed/They shot King Karl in the head.”

With the help of fiddler Amy Farris, Broussard delivers a bluegrass sound on “Over My Head in Blue.” It’s a shift from the song that precedes it, “Love Me Truly,” a honky-tonk tune with echoes of British Invasion-era rock. But it works.

This group also plays one of the best Bob Dylan covers recorded in recent years. I didn’t think there was much else anyone could do with the song “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” but Broussard and the band rip through it with abandon, like a fun cross between The Pogues and Jason & The Scorchers.

I’m hoping Two Hoots and a Holler are playing next time I’m in Austin.

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