Dale Watson didn’t want to come up with a new tag for the music he champions and plays. He didn’t have a choice.
A hardcore Texas honky tonker, Watson watched as real country music was pushed to the margins in Nashville as the Music City labels pumped out contemporary country that’s influenced as much by hip-hop and ‘70s mainstream rock as it is by Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Faron Young.
“We were cast out,” Watson said in an interview from Austin. “It was occupied country music. They took over the name, they took over the house. We were left out in the field. We were too country for country and not rock enough for rock ‘n’ roll. We didn’t have a home.”
So Watson created a place for honky tonk, western swing, rockabilly and outlaw country.
“If anybody wants to know where what used to be called country music is, it’s in a home called Ameripolitan, right on the corner of original street and roots boulevard,” he said.
Three years ago, Watson established the Ameripolitan Music Awards to recognize the best performers and clubs, while honoring the “founders of the sound” like Billy Joe Shaver and guitarist James Burton.
The Zoo Bar twice has been nominated for best Ameripolitan venue, losing out to Austin’s the Broken Spoke and the Continental Club. There’s always next year for the Lincoln roots music institution, where Watson and the Lone Stars will return Tuesday.
“I don’t get up there very often,” he said. “I’m glad we’re doing it, finally, in the summer.”
Opening the 6 p.m. show will be the Bottle Tops and Lloyd McCarter & the Honky Tonk Revival. McCarter's on the artists list on the Ameripolitan website, along with the likes of Asleep at the Wheel, Bill Kirchen and Rosie Flores.
Watson’s touring behind his new Red House/Ameripolitan Records release, “Call Me Insane,” a fine collection of real country songs, two of which pay homage to Luckenbach, Texas, the little town immortalized by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings (“Everybody’s Somebody in Luckenbach, Texas”) and country legend George Jones. (“Jonesin’ For Jones”).
“If you’ve ever been to Luckenbach, get the T-shirt," Watson said. "It’s just a blink of a town that’s so much fun. You’ve got a common ground there. George Jones was a common ground. That’s what country music used to be. It was a common ground for blue collars. It was blue collar music. Now it’s teenyboppers.”
The mainstream country audience isn’t entirely teenagers. But Watson said the music found on country radio is, at its core, little different than pop.
“The majority of stuff coming out of Nashville is a product,” Watson said. “It’s not something that is natural. It’s product to make money for a corporation. They’re looking at a demographic they think will buy records. That’s what it sounds like. It’s manufactured music.”
In contrast, the music on “Call Me Insane,” is entirely natural and deeply rooted in country tradition.
“I’m real comfortable with myself, the music, the direction I'm going in,” he said. “I really don’t have to think about the song I’m writing or worry about where it fits or where it comes from. I’ve felt more comfortable with the last three releases.”
That comfort makes “Call Me Insane” one of the prolific Watson’s 29 discs, a 14-song album filled with sawdust floor shuffles, two steppers, rave ups and steel guitar weepers. The words fit the sound, be it the mournful “Burden of the Cross” and “Crocodile Tears,” love songs like “I Owe It All to You” and “Forever Valentine” or cleverly renaming the Willie/Waylon hit to “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to Be Babies.”
That combination like the rest of Watson’s music and much of what falls under the Ameripolitan label appeals to those who grew up on the authentic sound. But does it connect with those who came of musical age in the last decade when country wasn’t country any longer?
“Yesterday, I was doing a record signing here and I had a young man, 19 years old, come up and say thanks for doing what you’re doing,” Watson said. “It surprised the heck out of me. As long as you’re doing something that’s true to yourself and comes from a real place, I think it’s for any age. When I was a kid, I loved George Jones’ ‘White Lightning.’ It made me smile when I heard it and I didn’t know what it was about.”