The instrumentation was sparse, the level of musicianship high. It was played in small clubs and smoky honky-tonks for people to drink and dance to, the soundtrack of their lives and times, both good and bad.
The genre has mutated and morphed over the years, and today the term "country music" seems to get slapped on any act that affects a twang and sings about trucks and silos and swimming holes and such.
Fortunately, there are musicians like Dale Watson around who take a hard line about what country is and most definitely is not, and have no problem putting their music where their mouth is. Watson and his band the Lone Stars did just that at Off Broadway on Thursday night, putting on an extended performance, sans opening act, that could serve as a primer to all pop-country posers on how a real country band puts on a show.
Watson took the stage looking every inch the dapper country music star, from his silver pompadour to his leather-cuffed black duster. From the moment he strapped on his custom Tompkins guitar, Watson had the crowd's full attention. Without fanfare he started the show with "Down Down Down Down Down," from the "Sun Sessions" record he made last year with the Texas Two (actually Lone Stars drummer Mike Bernal and bassist Chris Crepps). Watson and the Lone Stars also previewed several new songs from the band's upcoming release, which Watson described as a "drinking record."
Not long into the set, Watson declared the show an all-request event, and began serving up fan favorites like "Hair of the Dog" and "Dragonfly" called out by the crowd, along with a couple of "mandatory Merle" songs, "Mama Tried" and "Silver Wings."
Watson's tales of Saturday night debauchery and Sunday morning penance, peopled with waitresses and truckers, lovers and liars, came alive through his mellifluous baritone, which just seemed to gain more gravitas with every shot of tequila audience members sent his way.
One element that keeps much of Watson's music rooted in country instead of veering into rockabilly territory is the pedal steel of Don Pawlak, and his talents were on display in spades. He provided everything from plaintive wails to rapid-fire runs and lent an almost orchestral depth to the groove put down by the tight rhythm section.
The band took a brief break at one point in the show, and instead of retreating backstage, Watson spent the time shaking hands and posing for photos. Truth be told, his legendary connection with his fans was on display all night. Audience members frequently wandered, and in some cases lurched, up to the stage during the evening to make requests or just say "hey," and Watson bantered with all of them like old friends.
After two full sets and a spirited encore that included an improvised song about Watson's youngest daughter's impending move to St. Louis and another Haggard fave, "Think I'll Just Stay Here And Drink," Watson finally took off his guitar and leaned it against his amp for the last time that night.
As the lights came up and I shuffled out into the night, he was still talking at the edge of the stage with his fans. Take that, Rascal Flatts.