A natural-born honky tonk genius who's had the poor fortune of being born in the wrong decade, Dale Watson is the closest thing to Merle Haggard country music has produced since the late '70s, and his rough-hewn cry-in-your-beer style is as sincere as the day is long. For his seventh studio album, Watson has teamed up with another Texan with a fondness for country & western's noble past, Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, and though Dreamland sounds a bit more polished than Watson's best work, Benson certainly understands Watson's approach, and they make a pretty good team for these sessions. If there's a flaw in Dreamland, it's not so much Benson's work as that of engineer Chris Burns, who gives the proceedings a slick, digital sheen that doesn't quite mesh with the material. Also, Watson has moved the emphasis from his harder-edged material to songs with a less flinty approach. But Watson himself has rarely sung with greater strength and confidence, he's written some terrific songs (favorites include "Pretty Girls," "Honky Tonkers Don't Cry," and "I Wish You'd Come Around"), and Benson has rounded up a great set of pickers to back him up, including Redd Volkaert, Ralph Mooney, and Cindy Cashdollar. If the result isn't hardcore honky tonk, it's still honky tonk through and through, and it's an album that'll sound great in a beer hall as you knock back cold ones on a Friday night. I'd advise Benson to hire Ray Kennedy to man the boards for their next session with Dale Watson, but otherwise Dreamland is a step in the right direction.
by Mark Deming