Label: Hyena Records
The story behind the album is already old news to the fans of underground country music. And it’s quite the tale. Lone Star troubadour Dale Watson is invited to a Tennessee cabin by his Hollywood friend Johnny Knoxville to record a new album. Oh, and the cabin? It was previously owned by the Man in Black, the one and only Johnny Cash. How could Watson say no to the prospect of recording in the home of one of his biggest heroes? Well… he couldn’t, and the product of this story will be released on April 24th. On this day, From the Cradle to the Grave, his first release on Hyena Records, will be delivered to fans that have eagerly awaited this album for months. And guess what folks? As usual, Dale Watson does not disappoint.
When Watson agreed to do the album, he stated that he did not want to record an entire album of songs that sounded like Johnny Cash. Still, he could not deny his presence during the recording sessions, and his presence is also very much a part of the album. Tales of love, death, and murder make up the majority of the record, resulting in perhaps Watson’s darkest album to date. Often, Cash’s signature sound is there too. That familiar shuffle is especially present on the title track, which ends with some of the best lyrics of his career. “All we really are are the memories that we’ve made and leave behind from the cradle to the grave.” How’s that for philosophical wisdom? It’s also present on “Justice for All,” the album’s first single. In this highly emotional story of a father filled with rage towards the man who killed his child, Watson states that even though he knows “an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind, that’d he gun the bastard down if he had the chance.” Cash would be proud, and he’d be a fan of the tale of a murderous lover’s date with Alabama’s electric chair, “Yellow Mama,” as well. Finally, the album ends with probably the greatest tribute song ever written for the Man in Black. “Runaway Train,” with its speeding locomotive musical pace, describes Cash perfectly. All four songs are standouts, and in a perfect world, all would be country radio hits. Forty years ago, they would have been.
However, Cash’s sound is not the only one present on From the Cradle to the Grave. Watson and his always-outstanding band, The Lone Stars, also deliver to us hints of Waylon Jennings. “It’s Not Over Now,” a song about a man who simply cannot put his past love behind him, sounds very much like one of ‘ol Waymore’s blues. Watson also teamed with Chuck Mead (of BR549 fame) and Chris Scruggs to write “You Always Get What You Always Got.” A musical “you get what you deserve” message, it makes one wish that Mead and Watson would work together more often. BR549’s sound is ALL over this one, and folks, it’s a sound that fits Watson very well. Without a doubt, it’s an album highlight.
Despite these influences, the most recognizable sound on From the Cradle to the Grave is that of Watson himself. He and his band have created a sound over the past few years that is unique, combining the influence of Cash, Jennings, and Haggard with strong fiddle and steel guitar. A great example of this is “Time Without You,” a deceptively upbeat lament from a man who lost his love to the Lord. Again, a standout song. Another example is “Why Oh Why Live a Lie,” which finds him frustrated, trying to figure out why an ex-lover can’t be true to him, or even herself. Watson also shows his diversity with this fiddle and steel fused sound with “Tomorrow Never Comes.” In a musical sense, and perhaps a lyrical sense as well, this bluesy number is the album’s darkest track. With fiddle and steel playing eerie roles, and an outstanding guitar effect that resembles a bell’s toll, the song states that despite what false prophets say, no one knows when this world will end. No, this is no “album of Johnny Cash songs.” It’s a Dale Watson record, and a damn good one.
So no faults at all? Well, okay, so there is one minor flaw that keeps this record from being perfect. Even though it’s a great little upbeat country number, “Hollywood Hillbilly,” a tribute to Johnny Knoxville, just does not fit with the rest of the songs here. Yes, it was Knoxville who made this album possible, but the song itself would be much more at home on a previous Watson album, People I’ve Known, Places I’ve Been. In fact, it would be one of the best tracks on that record. It even would have fit on Whiskey or God, a hodgepodge album of Watson live show favorites. On the extremely dark From the Cradle to the Grave though, it just does not blend in well.
Still, this is extremely minor. One might even call it nitpicky, especially since this is Watson’s finest record in years. Recently, he stated that because of its mainstream demise, he was abandoning the “country” label in favor of a more fitting genre-moniker, “Ameripolitan,” a term he devised himself. Honestly, it does not matter what he wants to call his sound, because with or without a label, it’s incredible. Who cares what happens to mainstream country? As long as we have artists like Dale Watson releasing memorable albums like From the Cradle to the Grave, real music fans will be just fine. Somewhere, the Man in Black is smiling… and probably singing along.
To purchase this album, please visit Hyena Records' online store
To see the video for "Justice for All," click here