Tucsonans have their pick of Southern pickers on Tuesday, Sept. 29, when veteran honkabilly cat Dale Watson brings his hardscrabble chops to Club Congress, and at the Fox Tucson Theatre, whiz kid Kenny Wayne Shepard raises the question, "Are we waiting for the return of Stevie Ray Vaughan?"
Shepard is a businessman. You pay your money and you get a guitar lesson. Fireworks seem to fly from his histrionic stunts. His playing is otherworldly brilliant and he makes it look so easy, it's likely thousands of kids have bought guitars based on false hopes he's raised.
But with Shepherd you also get a legit lesson in the blues history of rock music. His repertoire is heavy with credits to Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, but also Keith Richards. His 2010 tour lifted up living blues legends in each town he visited.
Shepherd picked up his first guitar at age 7 and started right in teaching himself riffs from his dad's collection of blues classics. He signed a record deal at 16, and soon after, he recorded his first platinum-selling record, Ledbetter Heights, named for Huddy Ledbetter, aka Lead Belly. His father, a music promoter, introduced him to Stevie Ray Vaughan at a concert when Shepherd was around 17. It was then, Shepherd has said, that he began playing in earnest.
In the 20 years since, he's acquired three more platinum records and a dozen other awards. Each of his ten releases was number one on the blues charts. A victim of his own talent, the kid never had a chance.
By contrast, Watson's tale is all hard, unyielding ground. It's a story of modest success based on 40 years of relentless commitment to rockabilly. It's a niche with hardcore fans of the hipster persuasion. They come, they go and Watson's silver pompadour and hillbilly swagger abide.
Watson refers to his sound as "explicitly hardcore country music." Rough and sometimes raunchy, the music is Bakersfield's last stand. His quicksilver country baritone finds depths rarely heard since Faron Young. His songs are made for two-stepping between sometimes NSFW lyrics in your local dive bar.
Watson's stage banter alone is worth the price of admission, and occasionally revolves around anecdotes that arise from his own dive bar, The Little Longhorn Saloon in Austin, TX. As if to keep it weird, the joint claims to be the home of "Chicken Shit Bingo."
Watson's no Shepherd, but he's climbed substantially in popularity the last decade or so, making the rounds of late-night network TV shows and NPR, and even getting a tune on The Bachelorette. He's succeeded, mostly by touring his ass off. Along the way, he's composed an apparently sincerely tendered guide for touring musicians, "Road Warriors' Guide to Roommate Etiquette: Common Sense That's Not So Common."
It's fun to imagine Watson and Shepherd sharing a room after their Tucson shows. No doubt there'd be some shedding, but who would dominate the vanity space?