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Honky-tonk veteran Dale Watson has an impressive white pompadour and arms that tell his story: flag tattoos of Alabama, where he was born, and Texas, where he lives. Musical notes circle his biceps. And he has an inked portrait of his first musical inspiration — his late father, a truck driver and sometime country singer who passed on to Dale his love of traditional country, from Hank Williams to Lefty Frizzell.
Watson's latest album, El Rancho Azul, is just as colorful. It's filled with characters — drinkers, dancers and loners at the bar — all drawn from the dance halls where he plays.
"I like writing about real people and real things and real situations," Watson says. "Some of the songs on the album were inspired by people in the crowd, you know, just yelling out something. Like 'I Lie When I Drink.' You know, one guy just yelled that when I was talking."
Here, Watson speaks with NPR's Melissa Block about capturing the spirit of honky-tonk and making lighthearted swing music in the wake of tragedy.
On his view from the stage
"Honky-tonk music is just about having fun, and the biggest kick I get is when people are all dancing to a song that you wrote and singing along to it. There's just something indescribable about that. It just makes you feel good. And Texas — it's starting to be more so where people two-step and that type of thing, and we kind of encourage that. But a lot of places in the country and the world, they just stand there and tap their feet. Which is fine, but we're turning everything into a honky-tonk as we go."
On his overdose in 2000
"I had a girlfriend that died in a tragic car accident, and that threw me for a loop. I just wanted to kill myself, you know. Luckily, though, my system is — I've never been one of those guys that could even take NyQuil. It keeps me agitated, you know? Luckily, that's the effect the pills had on me, and they found me wandering around the hotel grounds."
On recording lighthearted songs about drinking
"[The overdose] was an intentional thing of destruction. You know, when I'm singing about the drinking and the dancing around — there's nothing wrong with everything in moderation, you know. I hate it when they villainize going out and having fun. There's nothing wrong with going out and going to the honky-tonk and having a couple of beers and swinging a girl around the dance floor. And I don't believe just because I'm having a beer, I'm ruining the whole society."