On The String: Dale Watson, Feeling Lucky, Puts Down New Roots In Memphis
In “Rock Billy Boogie,” a classic 1957 record by the Rock and Roll trio, Johnny Burnette name-checks a Memphis honky tonk.
Well, I know a little spot on the edge of town/Where you can really dig 'em up and set 'em down/It's a little place called, The Hideaway/You do the rockabilly till the break of day...
That little spot has gone by the name Hernando’s Hideaway for so many decades that nobody reliably remembers when it opened. But it re-opens this summer, with hard country singer/songwriter Dale Watson as the new proprietor.
“I never ever intended to be a bar owner,” he told WMOT in a feature interview for The String. But Watson has deep and growing ties to Memphis, and last year a friend gave him a tour of Hernando’s with its owner. “I said you ever think about selling this thing? He said, ‘Yep.’ And he gave me such an amazing offer, I just couldn’t turn it down.”
Memphis music historian Robert Gordon says Hernando’s has a history as a tough and sketchy road house, but one whose legacy includes Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Gordon personally remembers seeing rockabilly cult figure Charlie Feathers and bar regular Jerry Lee Lewis perform there in the 1990s. “It was a place you could always go to get a beer - or a fist fight. Or hear good music,” he said.
Rehabbing Hernando’s is part of a new chapter in a long career, as Dale Watson transitions from Austin to Memphis. He bought a house that includes an Elvis-inspired Air B&B. He opened a small recording studio and moved his signature Ameripolitan Music Awards and festival to a city close to his heart.
“For the past 30 years when I have a new band member we’d take them over to see Graceland and Sun Records and Beale Street and Stax Records. Because it’s a very important as far as my music. I wanted them to know that too,” Watson says.
In the interview, he says he sees a city doing a better job than Austin or Nashville at building something new and vibrant while preserving the architecture and sacred spaces of its past. The Ameripolitan concept, a platform he conceived and oversees, is becoming a vehicle to shape and serve a national community of roots minded fans and musicians. “I’m finding a lot of joy in being able to help new bands, new artists,” he says. “We really try to connect all these people together to keep this music going.”
Besides all this, Watson talks about being so prolific. His latest album Call Me Lucky on Red House Records is number 32, though he’s only 56 years old. He says he’s taken ribbing from his friend Ray Benson (Asleep At The Wheel) about making too many albums.
“I get bored with myself really quick. I don’t do the same set ever,” he says of his vast 300-plus song catalog. “A lot of songs are born on stage or born while driving. You get to a certain point where you have all these songs, you want to get in the studio and do them. I’ve had a lot songs just disappear and die - forgot all about them - because we never got in the studio.”