One recent Sunday afternoon, Dale Watson, the Austin country singer and guitarist with a signature white pompadour, zipped along winding wooded roads near Dripping Springs in his 2012 Mini Cooper.
It was a surprising ride for a musician who favors motorcycles and pickups and plies the throwback sounds of early Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. In July, Watson will release Volume 3 of “The Truckin’ Sessions,” part of a series that he originally promoted with a truck-stop tour. The Mini, he said, is his date car. “The ladies like air-conditioning.”
Watson was headed to the ranch of James White — the owner of the Broken Spoke, the storied Austin dance hall — to perform for White’s 75th birthday party. Watson, 51, has played the Spoke for decades, in the tradition of country troubadours before him like Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb. Watson has become a sort of heir to White, buying old venues in an effort to preserve this strain of endangered country music. In October, Watson acquired Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, an aging Austin honky-tonk where he has played chicken bingo (players bet on where a bird will leave its mark) on Sundays for 14 years, and early this year he bought The Big T Ice House, in St. Hedwig.
Watson also coined a term, “Ameripolitan,” to distinguish the music that he wishes to preserve in these venues from the commercial pop country produced by Jason Aldean, Big & Rich, and Taylor Swift and to better describe his own work. “Country,” he felt was misleading. “If people go, ‘Oh, I love Kenny Chesney,’ they’re going to be disappointed,” Watson said. Ameripolitan, which others refer to as “real” country, encompasses four subsets: honky-tonk, outlaw, rockabilly and western swing (or acts like Hank Williams Sr., Waylon Jennings, Carl Perkins, and Bob Wills). Ameripolitan is not to be confused with Countrypolitan, the baroque country born of 1960s Nashville. Indeed, Watson deliberately avoided the word “country.”
Would you call an alternative sweetener “non-sugar,” he asked. No, because “You’d still think of sugar,” he said. “If I use ‘country,’ everybody will automatically think of today’s country music, which is not what we do.”
Watson began seriously pushing his Ameripolitan rebranding effort more than a year ago, after pointed remarks by Blake Shelton, a hit contemporary country singer and a host of NBC’s “The Voice.” “Country music has to evolve in order to survive,” Shelton said in an appearance on Great American Country TV in January last year. “Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music. And I don’t care how many of these old farts around Nashville are going, ‘My God, that ain’t country!’ ”
Many musicians who Watson would categorize as Ameripolitan were incensed. “This guy sounds like in his own mind that his head is so large no hat ever made will fit him,” Ray Price, the recently deceased crooner extraordinaire, wrote on Facebook.
Watson was offended for another reason — he thought Shelton’s comment had a grain of truth. “What he said is the way Nashville thinks about this type of music,” Watson said.
Ten minutes after hearing of Shelton’s barb, Watson, who was touring Belgium at the time, wrote “Old Fart (A Song for Blake).” A video of Watson and his band, The Lone Stars, playing the song against a backdrop of the famous photograph of Johnny Cash giving the finger was uploaded to YouTube on Jan. 25, 2013.
In February, Watson hosted the inaugural Ameripolitan Music Awards, in Austin. Price won an award for lifetime achievement and legend Johnny Bush won one of two “Founder of the Sound” awards.
Ray Benson, frontman for the Asleep at the Wheel, believes Watson’s efforts echo the formation of the Academy of Country Music, in the ’60s. “Nashville at the time was ignoring Western music and California country music, so Gene Autry and Buck Owens, among others, formed the A.C.M. to award music Nashville was ignoring,” Benson wrote in an email. “Same thing’s happening today with Nashville turning its back on all the musics that are represented in Ameripolitan.”
But in Austin, Ameripolitan is enjoying a larger platform. On May 7 at the Long Center, several musicians — including Rosie Flores, the rockabilly singer and guitarist; Rick McCrae, the George Strait guitarist; and Jason Roberts, the former Asleep at the Wheel fiddler — will perform in the Ameripolitan Revue.
Of course, Ameripolitan musicians are always playing at the Little Longhorn Saloon, the club Watson recently purchased from its longtime owner, Ginny Kalmbach, who now works for him. When Watson moved the pool table that held the board for chicken bingo, it fell apart and dozens of rats emerged. Despite early losses on the Little Longhorn, Watson bought The Big T Ice House, which he renamed The Big T Roadhouse. “Big T is what Ginny’s was 30 years ago,” he said, before arriving at White’s ranch.
A stagecoach directed Watson’s Mini to the 1850s cabin where White’s party was taking place. A cardboard cutout of White stood beside the back door along with a sign that read, “If you’re not George Strait or God, wipe your feet!” Minutes later, Watson was onstage with his band, spreading Ameripolitan cheer.