JingleBilly Benefit for St. Jud
Featuring Jason D. Williams, the Rumblejetts, Sleepy LaBeef, Dale Watson & His Lone Stars, plus special guests. Sunday, 6 p.m. at the Hi-Tone Café, 1913 Poplar. Tickets: $20. For more information, go to hitonememphis.com, or call 901-278-8663.
If you ask singer/guitarist Dale Watson if he's planning on taking a break from the road for the holidays, he laughs. "Man, I've been on a 30-year tour, with no stopping," he says.
The 50-year-old country music traditionalist has been doing a seemingly endless series of one-night stands — an average of 300 shows a year — playing in honky-tonks from Alaska to Maine. "Well, I call 'em honky-tonks, 'cause it don't matter whether they're punk-rock rooms or blues rooms, once we get in there, we turn 'em into honky-tonks," he says. "Just by the nature of the music we play, and the dancing and the beer slingin', that's what they become."
This week, Watson will help transform Midtown's Hi-Tone Café, playing as part of the JingleBilly benefit for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. The pre-Christmas concert event will also feature boogie-woogie piano pounder Jason D. Williams, roots music legend Sleepy LaBeef, and rockabilly outfit the Rumblejetts, among others.
For the Alabama-born, Texas-bred Watson, Memphis has become something of a second home of late, as he's been working regularly at the historic Sun Studios.
Watson's most recent release was 2011's The Sun Sessions, a set of original tunes inspired by the first- generation stars of Sam Phillips' label. "Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins — that was a big foundation of what I loved and what I grew up with," he says.
His first experience at Sun actually came in the late-'90s when he cut a Christmas album there. "I did it in the summer of '99, and it was hotter than hell. Didn't have air-conditioner there at the time," says Watson, laughing. "But the music of Sun has always been there for me in my background. Once I got to a point where I could do whatever kind of record I wanted to do, I thought, 'Let's go to Sun.' "
Arriving at the studio last year, with his bassist Chris Crepps, drummer Mike Bernal and a batch of Sun-styled songs, Watson says he felt he tapped into the spirit and sound of the place. "I kept it simple, with an upright bass, a snare and me. When you do that type of music there, there's just something magical about that room. And it is the room. I don't care if you use new mics, old mics, digital tape — whatever, it doesn't matter. The sound is there in between the ceiling and those four walls."
Watson has since returned to Sun to cut a sequel, called Delvis: The Sun Sessions II — an album of tunes inspired by Elvis Presley. He also recently recorded an EP of "goodbye songs" there, a project pairing him with Nashville chanteuse Sara Gayle Meech. Meantime, Watson also completed a more traditional country record titled El Rancho Azul at Willie Nelson's studio in Austin.
With three albums ready for release, 2012 has proved to be one of Watson's most prolific years as a songwriter.
"I am newly divorced again, so maybe that's why," he says. "Seems like once you go through some tough times, it always jump-starts your songwriting. That's what heartbreak does."
Watson says his inspiration also comes from watching the audiences at his concerts each night. "The crowd is what inspires me to write," he says. "And because we're doing 300 shows a year, I tend to write a lot."
With a busy 2013 on tap — Watson will make the first of several annual trips to Europe in February — he doesn't see a point where he'll end his decades-long run on tour.
"As long as we can keep going down the road and crowds keep supporting us, I guess I'll keep doing it."