Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Unbearable Swankness Of Being Unbearably Swank

So I haven't posted in awhile. I've been busy, but not busy enough to quiet the never ending voices of discontent in the old brain. It's true, I'm a man, and I cain't be satisfied, to paraphrase Dale Watson. I meant to spell it "Cain't". You just calm down, pal.

So a weekend trip to Austin, TX has informed my brain-thoughts recently. They have such a respect for country music there that the aforementioned Mr Watson (pictured) and other ridiculous talents like Junior Brown and Jesse Dayton can play five nights a week at various clubs and still expect a decent crowd each time they play. Of course, there are also thousands of other country artists struggling to eke out a meager living in Austin's busy hot spots. Popularity doesn't always equal talent, but in the case of Austin's most popular, it certainly seems like talent plus perseverance will get you a crowd anywhere you want to play on a Monday night.

Here in Boston, however, us Country type wanna bes have trouble even finding other musicians to play with. Oh, they're out there, but with day jobs, wives and girlfriends, and various stages of mental illness and depression, nobody's got time for shit. And of course, playing country covers on the shore is more lucrative financially than trying to form a tight band to play original(unproven)music.

But enough of my whining. DALE WATSON. This guy, he is amazing. He tosses out seemingly effortless country classics with every release, and he's been at it more or less non stop since the early 90s, despite a nervous breakdown, a divorce, and the death of a beloved girlfriend. Reportedly he did attempt to quit music in the mid 2000s, to move to Baltimore and drive a UPS truck. This didn't work out. High profile friends like Johnny Knoxville and Willie Nelson dragged him back to Austin (although I suppose there wasn't a whole lot of almost-persuasion needed)to keep the great man doing what he does best. Dale Watson as a singer-songwriter serves the world much better than Dale Watson as a husband, father and UPS driver ever would, one supposes.

Musically, he favors the 60s version of electrified country twang (Merle, Buck, Cash, more Merle), and lyrically, the man actually surpasses his idol Merle Haggard as a country Shakespeare writing almost-literary working class poems about whiskey, God, trucks, country music, jukeboxes, more whiskey, women and heartache. Basically, there's nothing else to write about.

If anyone ever has any doubt to whether the man lives the songs he writes, I can testify. When I saw him play, on a Monday night at the Continental on Austin's beautiful South Congress Ave., he lived up to all my expectations and more. Dale probably consumed three shots of whiskey and at least four beers within the span of the first seven songs. Still, his fingers never faltered on his battered Tomkins Telecaster copy, and if anything,his jokes got funnier. Of course, I was drinkin' too. However I can tell you that there was something both joyful and sad about the man in person. The music was miraculous. The band, which included Dale on vocals and guitar, as well as a drummer, an upright bassist, a fiddle player, a steel player, and a trumpet player (I think that's what it was), was tight and as effortlessly well rehearsed as only a band that plays five nights a week can be. This was Texas honky tonk music in all it's tears in yer beer glory.

As I've been a fan of the man's records for years, I've grown accustomed to seeing him in my head as he appears in his promo pictures and on his CD covers. There, he looks like a young Merle Haggard with just a little bit less resigned world-weariness and a little more rockabilly menace. In person however, his gray-white pompadour, grinning slouch and cuffed rockabilly jeans convey more of a Marlon Brando circa "The Wild Ones" vibe, albeit a bit more aged, drunk, and dissolute. In short, the man looks like what he is: the epitome of the honky tonk singer. Not as they've ever existed in real life, but as you picture them in your head, if you romanticize such things, and I sure do.

Another difference between country music in Boston and Austin: People actuallydance. In front of the stage, the floor was crowded with twirling Texas two steppers, as much a part of the show as the band and songs themselves. Here in Boston, even if it's a great show and people are enjoying it, you'll see a lot of folded arms and nodding heads in front of the stage, a few feet back, so as not to appear too eager.

While in Austin I also got to see an artist that I have seen a couple times in Boston, the inimitable Junior Brown. Here's another guy who's been on the alt-country scene forever and a day. Every time I've seen him, he's been confoundingly brilliant, but here in Austin in front of a hometown crowd, he was positively transcendent. The addition of his wife on acoustic rhythm guitar and harmony vocals (ala Johnny and June or Merle/Buck and Bonnie)gave the show some cute down home feeling that was absent from the Boston shows I've seen him play.

His ability to whip out pretty much any country classic one would require on cue certainly hasn't faded since I saw him last. His knack for blending virtuso playing with punk rock abandon all the while channeling the ghosts of Chet Atkins and Jimi Hendrix hasn't let up much either. His earnest, Ernest Tubb like baritone still carries the show, while his violent outbursts of guitar and steel guitar still amaze and delight. But this was Austin not Boston and there was something special about this night for me, even if it was just another evening in a honky tonk and a paycheck for him.

There's no one like Junior Brown in Country music, rockabilly or rock and roll. the fact that this man isn't a household name is a sign of the shameful times we live in where video games have come to mean more to people than music. Skinny jean hipster indie rock could never, ever carry the emotional weight that this 50 something man effortlessly carries on his black suited shoulder. This cat has more heart felt energy per song than a room full of Brooklyn based indie rockers could muster in their entire careers.

Anyway, vacations end, and I returned to the grind of work and of Boston itself. What a segue.Anyhoo, this is where I sought comfort.

It's been out awhile, but being prohibitively priced, I didn't get around to grabbing a copy till recently. I also kinda figured that being the rockabilly nerd that I am, I'd heard most of these songs. Not so. Even the songs I have heard time and time again gained quite a bit from the addition of the 50s JD exploitation movie ads that are peppered throughout the track listing, and the company of all the other amazing rockabilly obscurities.

Throwing this stuff in my iPod was something like getting sprayed with cold water on a sweltering day. All the weepy, fatalistic country music I had been listening to was washed away in favor of the razor sharp guitars and echo-laden good time lyrics of 50s rockabilly. By injecting the blues and RnB into the earthy working class twang of country music, all of the famous and unsung artists that grace this 4 CD compilation changed popular music, social reality, race relations, and the very fabric of the world we live in. They did this just by greasing their hair, turning up loud, and playing chords they learned on the wrong side of the honky tonk tracks.

It's some of the most fun, funny and life affirming music ever etched onto wax. Songs like the effervescent "Love Bug Crawl" by Jimmy Edwards and "Suzi Q" by Dale Hawkins cannot possibly fail to make your worldview a bit brighter, at least for three minutes while the song plays.

Some of these artists went on to worldwide fame (Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl, Orbison) and some went back to the farms and factories, having had their fun. Doesn't matter. Every song on here is a winner, and whether the performer ended up in the main house or the poor house, what was left behind is what matters. The songs. The energy. The melding of black and white music, the melding of cultures and the rejection of musical and cultural divisions.

And never mind all that, even. The music rocked.

Sometimes I wonder why I, and so many others, reject the "new", "now" sounds that assault our lives on a daily basis in favor of the old forgotten relics of the past. Sure, it's just personal taste, but it's more than that. Early American morality was restrictive and stifling. Every aspect of human nature that wasn't so next to Godliness was rejected as outright evil, back in the day. Rock and roll and the melding of culture changed that. And that was good.

Now, however, 60 years on, the idea of right and wrong has mutated into pretty much an "anything goes" philosophy. Morality's rules have given way to an all out acceptance of almost anything. Maybe we've gone too far. Maybe having morals and standards isn't so bad, as long as we understand that not everything, not everyone, can be seen in such a black and white light. Maybe the great relaxation of strict morality that came with the advent of rock and roll was a good thing, but the great giving up of any kind of idea of right and wrong that has happened in the last forty years isn't so great. Maybe somewhere in between is where we want to be. Maybe I'm drunk.

Anyway that's my frickin' Blog. God I miss fanzines. Anyway, check out Dale Watson and Junior Brown on Youtube and via their records. Anyone in the Boston area that wants to play some house rockin' country music, let me know. I'm still out there in the wilderness lookin' for a toilet. Thank You and good afternoon.