First published in 2005
Local honky-tonk hero Dale Watson is the portrait of tranquility as he sits on a porch and tells the camera that he went crazy in 2002. He talks about hearing voices until finally committing himself to the Austin State Hospital. He describes torturous dealings with what he thinks was Satan, about losing the ability to distinguish between what was really happening and what was just in his mind. Hollywood director Zalman King (“9 1/2 Weeks,” “Red Shoe Diaries”) had come to Austin in 2003 to find an actor to play the lead in a Faustian flick about a country singer battling demons and ended up finding the real thing. Instead of making the intended “Austin Angel,” a Burnt Orange production that is on the back burner until next year, King made “Crazy Again,” an unflinching documentary about Watson that will premiere at South By Southwest in March.
I had similarly come looking for something else when I contacted Watson, a beloved presence on the local club scene the past 12 years. My focus would be his last shows in town, including Sunday’s traditional Christmas night fete, before he quits the music business temporarily to move to Baltimore to be closer to his daughters. Instead, I found a chilling tale about a man who says he went completely insane from grief and nursed himself back to mental health with the help of the Good Book, counseling and a cast of angels. This was a Dale Watson I didn’t know.
Everyone knew Watson had a hard time after his girlfriend Terri Herbert, “the love of my life,” got in a car, angry after a tiff with Watson, and died in a car accident in September 2000. Word was that a guilt-ridden Watson tried to take his own life three months later, holed up in the Town Lake Holiday Inn with two bottles of whiskey and a fist full of pills. But after his road manager, Donnie Knutson, found Watson and the singer spent a week at St. David’s Pavilion, Watson seemed to get back on course, dealing with his sorrow by recording the album “Every Song I Write Is For You” as an homage to Herbert.
But that’s actually when things really started to get weird, he says. In the documentary, which tempers the episodes recalling insanity with musical moments that show Watson in complete control, the singer chronicles a downward spiral of delusion that culminated in what he says was a psychotic episode in Rome.
Desperately missing Herbert, Watson went to psychics to contact her and bought a Ouija board. One night while he was talking to her, she answered, he says. “It was the most peaceful, blissful time of my life,” Watson tells me from the basement office of the Continental Club about an hour before the start of his regular Monday night gig. “I had created a world in my mind where we were still together, and it was magical.”
The voice of Jesus was also soon keeping him company in the fall of 2002. One night a fan in Glasgow, Scotland, ran into Watson’s Lone Stars and said she’d just seen Watson preaching in a train station, but the bandmates just laughed and said it must be someone else. Then, a few minutes later they watched Watson duck down the street clutching a Bible.
When the rest of the band went back to Texas after the European jaunt, Watson says the Jesus voice told him to go to the Vatican, to deliver parables Jesus had dictated to Watson to the pope. But after three days of futility, waiting to be whisked inside as a messenger of the Lord, Watson says he questioned the mission. “The Jesus voice told me that I wasn’t going crazy, I was just losing my faith,” Watson says.
At the end of the third day, however, the calming voice of Jesus suddenly revealed to Watson with a demonic laugh that it had actually been the devil all along. Satan got into Watson’s head and wouldn’t let up on the onslaught of obscenities and cruel epithets. “I went straight to the Rome airport,” Watson says, “and tried to get on the next plane to the States, but there were none left that night.” Back at the hotel, Watson writhed in mental anguish all night, as the devil taunted him.
When he finally got back to Austin, Watson admitted himself to the Austin State Hospital, where he was given Risperdal and Ambien, which calmed him and allowed him to sleep for the first time in five days. When he awoke, Satan was still in his ear, though over the next few days the voices faded and by the fourth day in the hospital, Watson told doctors Satan was no longer in him.
During a psychological evaluation for multiphasic personality invention on Oct. 8, 2002, the doctor recommended “long-term individual therapy to address past issues with which he had not dealt.” Watson had not fully come to terms with Herbert’s death. “I went crazy from grief,” he says.
As with many painful, as well as joyful, times of his life, Watson memorialized 2002 with a song. “Well they say I went crazy, by crazy I mean mentally insane/ Had a world where I still had you, and I wish I was crazy again,” he sings on “I Wish I Was Crazy Again,” a suitable choice to inspire the title of the documentary. The song will be on Watson’s next album, tentatively titled “Heeah!!” It hits stores in March on the Palo Duro label.
Watson says he had originally intended the album to be his swan song in the music biz. After 25 years of hard-core roadhousing, the 43-year-old Watson was ready to chuck the dream for what he calls “priority number one.” He wanted to see his daughters, ages 13 and 7, grow up, and they lived with their mom in Baltimore.
“I hadn’t planned to make an announcement,” Watson says, “I was just gonna do it.” But after he told his band of his plans, and when one of Watson’s closest friends was listed as a reference on a job application for a UPS driver in Baltimore, the word got out in a hurry.
Couldn’t Watson just start up a new band in Baltimore and come to Austin every couple months on tour? Why did he have to give up music to be with his kids?
“There’s only one way that I know how to be a musician,” he says, “and that’s being in it all the way. Even when I’m not on the road, I’m playing around town five nights a week.” Watson, who’s made a career out of bashing Nashville, writing and performing the classic style of country that used to get played on the radio, doesn’t have an ease-up button.
But he does have tons of dyed-in-the-wool supporters, who couldn’t believe this true soul of country music would pack up his coin-covered guitar for good.
“We held an intervention for Dale,” says publicist Pam Blanton. “A career intervention.” Director King flew in from Los Angeles; noted music publisher Chris Kozler arrived from New York. In all it was six friends telling Watson that he was one of the last pure honky-tonk singers, and that it would be a true shame if he stopped playing music.
The intense meeting, in the courtyard of the Hotel San Jose, went on for nearly three hours, each person taking the time to tell Dale what his music meant to them, and to all his other fans. “The thing that really got me was when George O’Dwyer (who owns the 501 Post production studio in town) said that I had a rare gift that was not mine to throw away,” says Watson. “They kept saying that I was put on this Earth to make music, and I got to thinking that if these friends — I call them my angels — believe in me that much then maybe I should think about (the move) a little more.”
Watson settled on a compromise: six months in Baltimore, then a re-assessment. He’d fulfill his commitments, including playing a wedding in Austin in February and doing SXSW in March, but his new full-time job would be as a UPS driver. Meanwhile, his angels are in talks with Continental Airlines about trading Watson’s services in fundraising events for the airline-supported mental illness awareness campaign in exchange for free air travel.
“There’s got to be a way for Dale to be a great daddy and a great musician,” says Blanton.
Watson says he misses Austin already, even though he still has three shows left at the Continental Club this week, including Sunday’s show. “Austin takes a lot of its musicians for granted,” Watson says, “but a lot of musicians take Austin for granted. This is a special city. There’s no place like it in the world.”
Watson says his spirit has been buoyed by all the people who’ve been coming out to his shows recently, who come up to him afterward and tell him he’s the real deal, that his music has touched them. Such an outpouring of affection doesn’t make his decision harder, he says. It makes it easier, knowing that he can always come back to an accepting audience.
“Carlyne Majer (ex-manager) used to say ‘Fair? The Fair’s in Dallas,’ ” Watson says. “The music business isn’t fair. There are so many obstacles that you really do have to make music your life if you’re going to succeed. I want to see what else there is in life for a while. Maybe I’ll be miserable not playing music. Maybe I’ll find true peace in Baltimore. I’m OK either way it turns out.”
Don’t worry, folks. Dale Watson will be back. He’ll reunite with the Lone Stars and play the best music of his life. His Austin angels were right: He was put here to play music from the heart. I know how this flick ends.
Besides, Dale looks lousy in brown.