Giants of West Tennessee: Dale Watson

Recently a family emergency prompted a visit to my hometown of Gibson, TN. It has a population of around 300, with no school, newspaper, public library or sit-down restaurant. It’s a notorious and unapologetic speed trap. And judging from the condition of a lot of the houses around town, it’s fully embraced Tennessee’s status as number one in the nation for meth labs. But surprisingly, two artistic types emerged from this town: yours truly, and noted roots-country musician Dale Watson

I grew up in Gibson, but Dale was only there for a year, when we were both fifteen. Born in Birmingham, AL, he’s since been claimed by both Texas and Bakersfield, CA. Still, I consider the year he lived in Gibson to be just as formative, even if at the time he was more into Hendrix than Haggard. His father and older brother continued to live there after he left, and he’s written at least one song specifically about a long-lost Gibson institution:

(The location of the former Jack’s Truck Stop in Gibson.)

At the time we met, I was at the height of my Star Wars obsession, and wanted to be the next George Lucas. I was determined to use my Super 8 movie camera to make THE definitive movie about Bigfoot using stop-motion animation for the monster. Dale was the only friend I had who understood this, and his older brother even starred in the one scene I managed to complete (alas, like Orson Welles’ cut of The Magnificent Ambersons, my film has been irretrievably lost).

(The site of Dale’s former house; Jack’s Truck Stop is just down the hill through the cedar trees behind it.)

One high point of our friendship was the summer night he and I walked from Gibson to the nearby town of Humboldt along Highway 79. There’s a quirk to this trip: the sign in Humboldt says Gibson is four miles away, while the sign in Gibson says Humboldt is six miles away. Either way, we walked about five miles, talking about whatever it is teenage boys talk about (use your imagination), until a local older teenager known as “Bird” (a.k.a. “Big Bird,” because she was very tall; oh, we were witty) saw us just as we reached Humboldt and offered us a ride back in her car.

The fallout from this was predictable. Dozens of people passed us, of course, and my mother was mortified that her son was seen walking along the highway at night like some common…well, highway-walker, I guess. Propriety had much more importance back then than it does now. I don’t know if Dale got in trouble, but I somehow doubt it: I suspect his father understood just how maddening Gibson could be to boys not old enough to drive, but certainly old enough to understand that they lived in a town that considered them weird and therefore hated.

Dale and I lost touch over the years, and while I’ve followed his music and exchanged some e-mails with him, we’ve only spoken once. He’s had a tragic life that I won’t get into here, but he’s also produced a body of work that at times astounds me with its depth and honesty. While I was home this past weekend I was forced to endure part of the Academy of Country Music awards show, and realized how pandering and shallow today’s mainstream “country” music is compared to what Dale does. I wish Dale the best, and hope someday to have a chance to sit down and seriously catch up on things. In the meantime, I can wholeheartedly recommend his music.

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