Album Review – “Live in London…England!” by Dale Watson & His Lonestars

Steadfast traditionalist Dale Watson is a very solid artist who is capable of creating some excellent music. However, his intense prolificness – he’s released an album almost every year since his 1995 debut – has resulted in a discography that, while never bad, can be a bit scattershot in quality. My favorite release of his is the 2000 live album Live in London… England. Serving as something of a de facto greatest hits set, it contains most of his best songs up to that point as well as several highly worthwhile tracks that can’t be found everywhere else, including some expertly-chosen covers. Dale and his band (The Lone Stars) are in top form and put on a show easily worth the price of admission.

One of the most interesting things about Watson’s vocals and overall sound is that he draws inspiration equally from pure honky-tonk singers like Faron Young, rockabilly singers like Sun-era Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, outlaws like Waylon Jennings, and tender balladeers such as Ray Price, creating a sound that’s hard to pigeonhole, which is not something that can be said for all traditionalists. None of these influences are ever far from the surface on any of his recordings, but the end result always feels natural and not like an awkward hodgepodge. Dale is a true original that doesn’t sound like he is trying to recreate anyone, which is of course a fool’s errand.

 Dale is perhaps best known for his self-proclaimed “Ameripolitan” designation (his logic is if Rascal Flatts are country, then he must not be), as well as his anti-Nashville anthems that are the rallying cry of traditionalists everywhere. Indeed, “A Real Country Song,””Nashville Rash,” and (who could forget) the fan favorite “Country My Ass” are all present and accounted for on this live set, and if I’m not mistaken, this is the only album where the latter song is commercially available. Personally, I suspect my conception of “country music” might be a little more flexible than Dale’s, but it’s hard to disagree with any of the sentiment expressed here.

While these songs that call out mainstream country’s abandonment of tradition are as hilarious and on-point as ever, they definitely should not overshadow the 98% of Dale’s catalog that has nothing whatsoever to do with criticizing anything (unless it’s himself in a song about regret). Far from being a one-trick pony, Dale can write a country stunner that would make his heroes proud. “Heart of Stone” is a perfect lost love song for a lonely Saturday night, “You Are My Friend” is a touching ode to the power of friendship that somehow avoids being mawkish, and “How to Break Your Own Heart” is a great two-stepper. However, my favorite song on the album is likely “I Hate These Songs”, the narrator of which dislikes having to listen to his favorite sad songs because it means he’s going through a rough time and needs the catharsis. It’s a damn fine stone country ballad that sounds like ’70s George Jones. As a bonus it references the titles of numerous great country songs and doubles as a great history lesson.

As I write this review, the country music world is reeling from the death of one of its greatest artists, Merle Haggard. One of the best tracks on this album, “Legends (What If)” is a touching tribute that asks what will happen when the legends of country music who built the genre inevitably pass away, a question that becomes more relevant seemingly with each passing year. Written around the time of Tammy Wynette’s death, the song name-drops several country stars, but does so out of reverence and sincerity. “What’ll happen when there’s no more Man in Black? No more “Branded Man”? No more Possum?” are some of the questions Dale asks, paraphrasing. While these questions were hypothetical at the time, sadly they are no longer hypothetical.

Dale is a passionate scholar of country music as evidenced by his choices of covers. He tackles Jimmie Rodgers’ “In the Jailhouse Now” (which Webb Pierce had a megahit with in 1954), Merle Haggard’s “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” (easily one of his best, which is saying something), Johnny Cash’s “I Got Stripes” (a damned fine prison tune), the criminally underrated Wynn Stewart’s working man anthem “Another Day, Another Dollar”, and the barroom classic “Bright Lights and Blonde Haired Woman”, taken from Ray Price’s essential Night Life album. Dale’s performances do the originals justice.

If I had to register one complaint, a few of the tracks fall a bit on the average side, such as “No Fussin’, No Cussin'”, “Ain’t That Livin'”, and “Lee’s Liquor Lounge”. These songs aren’t unlistenable by any means and are enjoyable enough in the moment, but aren’t nearly as memorable lyrically as some of the other tracks on the album. However, they certainly don’t mar the overall experience in any way, so I might be nitpicking a bit here.

Live in London… England is a thoroughly enjoyable live album. It’s a great representation of Dale Watson and a perfect starting point for anyone who is unfamiliar with him. It can be reasonably argued that there a few relatively weak moments and that the album could benefit from some paring down, but it’s a far above-average release that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone who loves traditional country.

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