Mainstream country artists pay a whole lot of lip-service to Johnny Cash and his legacy (witness “Johnny Cash,” the pointless new single from Jason Aldean, or the dead-eyed audience response to the articulate tribute that Kris Kristofferson gave Cash in the middle of the vile, hateful spectacle that was the recent CMT Music Awards) but they rarely display even the most basic understanding of why he’s such a legend both within and beyond the country genre. Far more reverent is acclaimed singer-songwriter Dale Watson, who recorded his latest album, From The Cradle To The Grave, in a small cabin in Hendersonville, Tennessee once owned by Cash (and now owned by Watson’s friend Johnny Knoxville). Writing and recording the album’s 10 songs in that cabin, Watson says that it was not his intent to write “anything even remotely reminiscent to Johnny Cash,” but the end result is an album that recalls both the tone and spirit of Cash’s work in the best possible ways.
Given its title, it’s no surprise that the album is steeped in death, but it’s a credit to Watson’s skill as a lyricist that his stories are alive with real wit and insight. Opener and first single “Justice For All,” for instance, finds Watson singing from the perspective of a father seeking revenge on the man who murdered his child. It’s a striking song that wrestles with complex questions about the nature of both vengeance and forgiveness, with a protagonist fully aware of the only possible outcome of his actions (“When on a journey of revenge/Be sure to dig two graves”) but intent on carrying through on those actions anyway. Later, “Yellow Mama” gives voice to a man sentenced to be executed in Alabama’s brightly-painted electric chair, and even a straightforward love-gone-bad song like “Time Without You” drops a line like, “I curse my healthy heart for keepin’ the blood runnin’ through my veins/I open my eyes each morning and I regret to greet the day.”
What keeps these songs from being grim simply for the sake of being grim is the weight behind them—the philosophical questions behind “Justice For All,” or the Watson’s poignant observations on the title track, written in response to a cousin’s suicide. From The Cradle To The Grave is an album of remarkable depth and complexity (that is, with the exception of the atonal “Hollywood Hillbilly,” a shout-out to Johnny Knoxville), tackling issues of spiritual and intellectual resonance. And, with only one of its 10 songs exceeding three minutes, it’s also an incredibly dense record (Watson puts more into a single line than most Music Row acts put into a whole career’s worth of albums), making it just that much more forceful a gut-punch. It’s in that regard that Watson is able to draw comparisons to Cash, even as he crafts a sound that’s definitively his own.