Dale Watson Shines a Light on Sun Records

He Records Original Songs in Iconic Memphis Studio

Longtime Texas musician Dale Watson always knew he wanted to make a record at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn. He just didn’t expect it to be like this.

After his tour manager called ahead to confirm a tour date in Memphis, the club owner replied that the traditional country singer wasn’t on the calendar. And to add insult to injury, the club had a dance DJ booked instead.

Rather than canceling the trip in frustration, Watson called Sun and booked the studio that night. The live and loose results are compiled in The Sun Sessions, credited to Dale Watson & the Texas Two. Watson’s own songwriting material calls to mind the pioneering efforts of Sun’s early clients, such as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley.

During a chat at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, moments prior to his slot on the Grand Ole Opry, Watson spoke about the magical vibes at Sun, the process of writing spontaneously and connecting with fans through a song about gravy.

CMT: How far down the road were you when you learned the Memphis gig was canceled?

Watson: We were still in Austin. I play every Monday night at the Continental Club in Austin, and this was supposed to be Tuesday night in Memphis. We were going to leave right after the show. We were all packed up and ready to go. And the road manager said, “You know, we don’t have a hotel on this.” Usually the contract has two rooms. So he called, and they told him. Before we even left, we decided to make this thing.

I understand you wrote some of the songs while you were driving. How did you do that?

Yeah. I didn’t have enough songs. Well, I did have enough songs [from the past] that would fit that record, but I didn’t want to record old songs that I’d already released on old records. So I wrote the rest on the way there.

My brother drives my bus normally, but I write best when I’m driving or onstage. I don’t really like to sit down and do things. I like it being more spontaneous. These days, iPhones make it so easy. I just like having one big button to record and pause. When I write, I write the melodies and the lyrics at the same time, so when I’m singing it, I know where I’m going.

Are you able to hear the vibe of Sun Studios in this record?

Oh, yeah, that’s the thing. That room, with that sound — that’s what you get. If you make coffee with an old coffee pot, it’s going to have an old coffee taste. (laughs) With an old frying pan, you’re going to get a seasoned frying pan taste. That’s what that is. At the same time, if you try to bake a turkey in a frying pan, it ain’t gonna work. So I wasn’t trying to make music that was not meant for that room. … If you’re gonna do something at Sun Studios, it doesn’t make sense to record something that’s not roots-oriented because you lose the magic of the room.

What was the spirit of the room the night you recorded it?

Oh, it was great! Everybody was so excited because the bass player was hitting that “boom-chicka-boom,” and the drummer was bopping along there. The sound reverberates in that room, and you feel like you’re hitting a vein. I think of Sun Studios as a magic place in the world. There are all these great artists, but they had to come from there. I don’t think all of it would have happened somewhere else.

How has that Sun sound influenced you? I’m sure Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley have been influences on your music.

Johnny Cash, Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis. … They were huge influences. Growing up, I always thought of them as country. My dad was a singer, and he sang their songs. But then I moved to L.A. from Texas in 1988, and I stayed there for three years. Everybody thought I was rockabilly because of the way I combed my hair and liked that type of music. But to me, that was country. It was always with me. My dad played it, and I played it.

How many times did you rehearse these songs before recording them?

We ran it through one time and recorded it the next time. I know there are flies on it, and I thought it added character. Not that these guys made mistakes, but I think they were going for performances more than perfection.

What do you enjoy most about playing these new songs and adding them to the set list?

Just the smiles on people’s faces. They hear it and you can tell it makes a connection with them. On “My Baby Makes Me Gravy,” I see people singing along by the second verse. It makes you feel good because they think they’ve heard it before, maybe by Johnny Cash or Carl Perkins. And “The Hand of Jesus” is another song like that. It seems like it strikes a chord with people, like that music did with me.

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.