Stubbornly authentic, the country outlaw remains true to his roots

Maverick Dale Watson Freely acknowledges his music isn’t for everybody—and he’s perfectly fine with that. “I don’t think we appeal to the audience that likes current country music,” he says. “That’s just not our audience. Merle Haggard was once asked how he felt about his music not being played on the radio, and he said, ‘I’m glad they don’t play my music with all that other crap.’ I used to carry that quote around in my wallet to remind me I’m not alone.”

The Texas native is hardly alone—his fierce independence has won him countless fans and critical acclaim over the course of 20 years, 24 albums and a dozen different record labels. Watson’s latest album, Call Me Insane, includes 13 original tunes that find a common bond in what Watson has coined Ameripolitan—a genre that encompasses honky-tonk, Western swing, rockabilly and outlaw influences.

“I have all four of those elements in my music,” says Watson. “There are some bands that have one or maybe two. But we’re focusing on those four because those are the most ignored these days.”

To helm the project, Watson tapped noted session veteran Lloyd Maines. “He’s the best record producer in Texas, and a joy to work with. He brings out the best in you,” says Watson. “I gave him 30 songs to choose from, and the ones he picked were totally different from what I would have selected. But I didn’t give it a second thought. I gave him carte blanche. I wanted him to be happy and excited about the record.”

The process was not only creative, but educational. “You always learn something when you’re recording, but with Lloyd I learned a lot,” he says. “I’ve produced most of my albums, but Lloyd taught me diplomacy. He never uses a harsh word, but if he doesn’t like something, he can convince you that you don’t like it. He’s a gentle giant. Musically, he taught me the importance of tuning and how to use reverb—plus, the stuff you can get away with and the stuff you can’t.”

As one of four boys growing up in a poor but musically rich family in Pasadena, Texas, Watson began writing songs at 12. A few years later he was sneaking into local honky-tonks to see his brother’s band. Watson got his first taste of performing when the band’s singer unexpectedly walked off stage mid-set, and he was instantly drafted as a substitute. At 26, Watson moved to L.A. and landed a gig in the house band for the famed Palomino Club before relocating again to Nashville to write for a publishing company. Even his first album, 1995’s Cheatin’ Heart Attack—which included the industry dig, “Nashville Rash”—couldn’t hide his disdain for commercial country music, and he later moved to Austin where he found the creative freedom he craved.

“I’ve always been inspired by my surroundings and what’s happening to me,” says Watson, 52. “Life is always throwing something new at you. That’s why real country music never got old, because it was always talking about things that were going on at the time. It’s always fresh.

“I like to quote John Lennon,” he continues. “He claimed that originality is really one’s inability to imitate their influences. I definitely draw heavily on my influences. I remember a critic once called an album of mine ‘derivative.’ Afterward, someone asked if that made me mad. I said, ‘No, I’ve derived everything I’ve ever done from my influences.’ Whether the guy meant it as a bad thing, to me it was just a fact. I stay close to the roots. My inability to re-create the type of songs that influenced me is my originality. I’m true to the limitations of my abilities.”

Lee Zimmerman

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