Dale Watson’s El Rancho Azul enlivens the heart pulsating within roadhouse honky-tonk music. The legendary Austin-based singer-songwriter’s new collection backs healthy bravado with equal measures warmth and wit and swiftly chases every measure with a buoyant two-step beat.
“I recorded the record before I came up with the title,” Watson says. “El Rancho Azul is a real ranch outside of Dallas. Some friends own it, and we play up there, and it just has the same vibe as the record does.”
The 50-year-old spoke to CMT Edge about the new album, recording at legendary Pedernales and Sun studios and his upcoming hometown appearances at South by Southwest in Austin.
CMT Edge: Does El Rancho Azul have a common lyrical theme?
Watson: Well, there are a lot of drinking songs. (laughs)
Right. So how much truth is in songs like “I Lie When I Drink” and “I Drink to Remember”?
Well, actually, that “Lie When I Drink” song came from a guy in the audience at the Continental Club. We play the Continental every Monday night in Austin. Some guy just hollered out when I was talking, “You lie when you drink!” I said, “That’s a good idea for a song title.” So I just kind of wrote it onstage there. There isn’t any story behind that other than I thought that was a good title.
How essential is drinking to country music?
(laughs) Well, essential? I wouldn’t call it essential, but if you’re gonna write a drinking song, I think it’s essential that you drink. (laughs)
How does this album represent your evolution as a songwriter?
I could probably accuse myself of writing the same songs over and over, but I think these are the better songs that I’ve written in this vein. These are the best honky-tonk songs I’ve written in a long time. This is probably the best example of that.
Where do you do your best writing?
I write best onstage. Yeah, I get more inspiration from the crowd and the vibe wherever we’re at. Making up songs onstage is definitely the best place to write.
Are you able to write a whole song onstage, or do you finish them later?
I do the whole thing onstage. I usually get my iPhone out and push record and go back through it later and try to remember what I said.
What’d you do before you had the iPhone?
I just had to remember it. I’d probably do the song twice in a night, so I’d remember the melody.
Tell the story behind writing “Daughter’s Wedding Song.”
There’s always a father-daughter dance in the weddings I’ve played. I’ve been doing “The Farmer’s Daughter” by Merle Haggard usually, but that song talks about the mom dying. It’s not as cheery as I’d like. So I thought I should write one. My daughters aren’t married or anything, but when I was writing it, I was certainly thinking about them.
Describe recording the new album at Pedernales Studio.
Willie [Nelson]’s studio, yeah. This is probably the sixth or seventh album I’ve recorded there, maybe more. Recording at Willie’s is always relaxing, to say the least. It’s the closest thing I have to a home recording studio because I’ve been there so much. It’s really comfortable, plus they’re always upgrading this and that.
Willie comes in there quite a bit. One of the days while we were recording the new album, he came in. He still writes and records a lot, and he likes to see what’s going on in his studio. Getting to hang out with him is a little fringe benefit.
How does working at Sun Studio compare?
Oh, they’re light years apart. Being in Sun Studio is … aw, man … like recording in the Grand Ole Opry or something. There’s an unmistakable sound. Not a lot of studios have their own sound, especially nowadays. Being in Sun Studio, you get a sound, but I don’t think you get that if you’re playing a different type of music. The kind of music I play lends itself to that sound. You know, the band U2 recorded there, but you couldn’t really tell the difference. They could’ve done it anywhere in the world.
At the same time that El Rancho Azul comes out in the States, Dalevis: Sun Sessions 2 will be out in Europe. What impact has Sun had on country music today?
I just think that it’s everywhere. The sound is timeless. That’s where its impact is. It’s giving you a timeless sound and letting people know that roots is still alive and well. It’s still something that people can hear and draw a straight line to the roots.
Oh, man, they’re the real singers. They’re definitely influences of mine. Whenever I write a song that’s got a Johnny Cash or Elvis vibe, I definitely hear that in my head when I’m writing the song. When I’m singing it, I’m sure I lean that way, as well.
Your website says you play “explicit hardcore country music.” Explain.
(laughs) Well, what it is, is songs about living, dying, loving, taxes and war and hate and electrocution. It’s just about life, really. Explicit doesn’t mean there’s cussing in it, just that it’s not candy-coated stuff that you hear in a lot of modern country music. It still deals with life, the bad side as well as the good side.
You mentioned the Continental. How essential are your residencies there and at the Broken Spoke and Ginny’s Little Longhorn as a working musician?
Oh, they’re very essential. When we’re home, I’m able to get the guys paid. I’m pretty lucky where I have mailbox money coming in from songs and some from commercials and acting, but my guys depend on me to keep them working.
Will that keep you in Austin for a while?
Oh, yeah, I’m staying in Austin. Austin’s home to me. I like it there. I travel enough where sometimes I feel like I don’t live there, but it’s home. That’s where I’m staying.
Are you playing South by Southwest this year?
Oh, yeah. I’ll be all over. As a matter of fact, I’ll be doing a live record at (Ginny’s Little Longhorn’s) Chicken Shit Bingo. I’ll probably do a Chicken Shit Bingo tour of honky-tonks with my Chicken Shit Bingo band. (laughs) I know you can’t say that on CMT, but we are definitely doing a live record at South by Southwest that Sunday. It’s 4 in the afternoon to 8. Please swing by.