Country music and grief go hand in hand. Hank Williams set the standard, but soak up some of Roy Acuff's hardscrabble hillbilly laments, or Johnny Cash's ruminations, and you'll soon feel the weight of their burdens. Even Ray Price's smooth, urbane love songs are often steeped in melancholy. Simply said, loss, loneliness, and anguish are at the core of the greater country music catalog, the seeds of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down," and countless others.
Dale Watson's Every Song I Write Is for You follows this pattern. It's an album of deeply personal and intense love songs, written for a woman who is gone forever. Through its songs, it's easy to trace all the steps of Watson's grief: anger ("I'd Deal With the Devil"), denial ("One More for Her"), guilt ("If I Knew Then What I Know Now"), and acceptance ("Angel in My Dreams"). There are no truckin' songs or honky-tonkers on Every Song. It's purely about someone trying to come to grips with a horrific tragedy, and it's painful to hear Watson's soul exposed in such a way.
The events leading up to this tragedy began in April 2000, at which point the local honky-tonk ace's life had come to a crossroads. For starters, his marriage of nine years was coming to an end, made even more painful because the couple's two young daughters were involved.
"It happened for all the usual reasons," says Watson. "Being a working musician, gone for two months at a time, not home very much, and things just sort of deteriorated."
Things were also in transition professionally. Watson's relationship with HighTone Records had soured, leaving him in search of a new label. It was about this time that Watson met Terri Lynn Herbert, a young lawyer with the Travis County Attorney General's office. He was hardly thinking in terms of new relationships, but then that's often how couples couple.
"She was a real firecracker," Watson recalls. "She'd always come to shows at Ginny's or the Broken Spoke and see bands, come out to support them. And she'd always pay the cover charge rather than expect to get in on the guest list. That just wasn't her.
"She could talk to anybody," he continues. "Didn't matter if it was somebody she knew, someone she'd never met before, or the nastiest old drunk sitting at the bar. She could just open up and carry on a conversation without any kind of judgments at all."
Herbert's legal specialization was in the Victims' Services branch of the AG's office, but she had also been exploring entertainment law, lending her services to a group of lawyers doing pro bono services for musicians. In the recent past, she had helped negotiate a record deal for Seth Walker and helped Matt Powell find his way out of a bad one.
She and Watson hit it off at a birthday party for Powell, and things were rolling immediately. It was only a month or so after the singer's separation from his wife, but things progressed quickly. Herbert met Watson in Spain for a series of gigs, and soon the two were talking about marriage. Their plans were cut short last September 15.
That evening, Herbert was on her way to meet Watson at a gig in Houston when she lost control of her car and was killed. She hadn't even made it to I-10; the accident occurred on Highway 71.
"The DPS said she fell asleep at the wheel, but that wasn't Terri," reflects Watson. "She wasn't wearing her seat belt at the time, which also wasn't like her. I think she was fishing around the floorboard for her cell phone or a CD or something when she left the road, then overcorrected when she saw what was going on and rolled the car. She was banged up pretty badly and was dead at the scene."
Through a series of crossed signals and unfortunate timing, Watson didn't receive the news from Herbert's mother until hours afterward. Though devastated, he continued to play his scheduled gigs. In a horrible irony, his first gig after his fiancée's death was at a wedding.
"That wedding gig was pretty rough," notes Watson. "Everyone wanted to know if I felt up to it, and I suppose I could've just canceled it and everyone would have understood. Still, that just didn't seem like the right thing to do."
As the reality of Herbert's death sank in, Watson went into that blackest of emotional states, haunted every moment since first getting the news. It was as though time was standing still, and every day was September 15. To make matters worse, the two had squabbled that day, burdening Watson with guilt as well as grief. He was unable to sleep, and took to sleeping pills and alcohol to numb the pain.
"I want to apologize for that period," he says now. "I may have said or done some things to people then that I wouldn't have ever done otherwise, but I was really just out of my head for a long time there."
At the same time, the songs for Every Song I Write were coming together whether he wanted them or not; for the most part, they were proving good therapy for what had happened. Indeed, "You're the Best Part of Me" was written and performed at the wedding following Herbert's death. No amount of songwriting, pills, or alcohol was filling the gap left by his fiancée, though, and on December 28, Watson checked into an Austin hotel with the intention of ending his pain for good.
Despite Watson's efforts to cover his tracks, his road manager Donnie Knutson sensed something was up, and tracked the singer down. He found Watson semiconscious from a combination of sleeping pills and vodka, and had him rushed to the Brackenridge emergency room. Several days later, the singer was transferred to the St. David's Pavilion counseling center, and between the hospital and the SIMS Foundation, Watson was deemed a likely candidate for a neurological therapy known as EMDR.
Within a few weeks of his EMDR therapy (see sidebar), Watson started letting go of the guilt associated with Herbert's death -- those nagging doubts that maybe he could have done something differently to prevent her death. The songs on Every Song trace the progress of Watson's recovery, like a before-and-after perspective on the EMDR sessions. His songwriting morphs from grief and loss to an appreciation of the time they had together and the ways his life was enriched by knowing her.
To start, Watson put out a 10-song version of Every Song I Write Is for You, with proceeds from the sales going to the Terri Herbert Foundation, a scholarship fund for children of single moms (Herbert's own situation). Soon, hoping for a wider audience and more donations to the foundation, Watson started shopping the album to various labels, on the condition that whoever put it out would also release his upcoming Live in London and Christmastime in Texas discs.
Eventually, the package deal was picked up by Nashville's Audium Records, home of Loretta Lynn, the Kentucky Headhunters, Daryle Singletary, and Danni Leigh. Watson's pleased that, given the nature of the Every Song I Write, Audium is willing to take a chance on the release. Chances are they were swayed in part by the incredible response Watson's homemade version of the album generated. E-mails to Watson's Web site from people touched by the new songs were plentiful and heartfelt. From one Dallas fan:
"You make me wish I'd known Terri Lynn Herbert, and pray that I can find one of my own. I don't know you and you don't know me from Adam, but hell, I sure do wish you the best as you fight this battle, and I've added you to the list of people I pray for when I'm driving through Texas thunderstruck by the vast expanse of sky and clouds and pure sunshine.
"When I'm out in Texas, away from the cities and the SUVs, and the yuppies, stopping for cold Lone Stars and sitting under live oaks or camping on the Brazos or paying homage in Goliad, I know there's a God and I know the prayers get to him quicker out in the heart of this state I love. I hope you find some of that same peace and reassurance.
"It's small consolation, I'm sure, but what you do truly matters to folks on my side of the mic. Thanks for making country music the way it's supposed to be made and allowing us such an intimate view of what moves you."
"Hello Dale, I've just listened to Every Song I Write Is for You and thought I should thank you for putting this disk [sic] out. Thanks for sharing your loss with the world instead of falling into a bottle some where. I'm a married man and can't imagine losing my soul mate. I'm a writer too and can appreciate your sharing this work of art on that level also. My wife and I had a little fight last night and I regret how I handled it. What if that was our last time on earth together? So sorry for your loss Dale and I hope you're doin' all right. I've learned something from you here. Thanks."
Dale Watson sits in the dining area of his sparsely furnished condo, sipping coffee while a Johnny Bush 8-track plays softly in the background. The gray in his hair has thickened over the past couple of years, and the weary look in his eyes has deepened. His physique looks more wiry than before, and a couple of his tattoos are beginning to fade.
He recalls how he took a flight last month and stopped dead when he saw a woman a couple rows in front of him. From behind, her hair looked so much like Herbert's that it gave him a bad start. This is the kind of thing that still happens constantly in his life.
"I was taking a shuttle bus from the airport," recounts Watson, "and started talking to the driver. Somehow we started talking about what happens after someone dies, what there is beyond this life and where we all go. She said, 'Well, I think when you die, that's it. Your life is just over and your soul doesn't exist anymore.'
"I thought, 'Well, then you've never lost anyone close to you yet. Just wait, and when that happens, you'll think differently.'"
Nobody comes out on the other side of an experience like Watson's the same person. The loss of someone close is something everyone faces sooner or later, each with their own way of coping. Like Dale Watson, we must all find a way to pick ourselves up and carry on. Country music is there for you when the time comes.
Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.