By Robert K. Oermann
© 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
Honky-tonk legend Gene Watson is celebrating his 50th anniversary as a recording artist with a flurry of activity that has made him gladly busy.
“He’s extremely happy right now,” reported his manager, John Lytle, President, Lytle Management Group. “He is so dedicated to what he’s doing. This seemed like the perfect time to remind the industry what this guy has accomplished and all the great songs he’s sung. We’d been talking about re-recording his greatest hits for several years. And it occurred to us that doing that and celebrating the 50th anniversary at the same time would be a good idea.”
Two hurdles on the path toward this goal stood right at the start. One of the curiosities of the record business is that artists who record for a major label pay for their own recording sessions, yet the label owns the finished recordings. In addition, Watson’s big hits of 1975 through 1990 were recorded for several different corporations.
To address both situations, Watson re-recorded his classics for his own label on a 25-song collection called The Best of the Best.
Session players recreated the original arrangements, almost note for note. Watson’s voice has not aged. As a result, these performances sound precisely like the originals — and Watson finally “owns” his hits himself.
“I wanted these to sound as close to the originals as could be done,” he said. “I just thank the good Lord above that he’s let me keep my voice intact. In fact, I probably hit the notes better now than I could back then.”
The album’s producer, Dirk Johnson, went out of his way to hire players who had participated in the original sessions or, if they weren’t available, those who understood and loved those recordings. Their familiarity with the music made everyone’s job easier, especially since Johnson had isolated key parts on the older recordings on Avid Pro Tools, so they could be immediately cued and played back for quick reference.
He also worked to update sound quality while retaining the feel of each tune. “Everyone played through amps in the studio back then,” Johnson said. “Because more people record direct now, I’d take those parts and run them back into amps that were used in that period of time. There was an entire week where it sounded like there was one player in my room, doing the same part over and over again, but those were the new parts for this album, blowing through that amp into a mic.”
Among the more than 50 charted singles and 21 Top 10 blockbusters on the new collection are “Farewell Party” (written by Lawton Williams), “Got No Reason Now for Goin’ Home” (Johnny Russell), “Fourteen Carat Mind” (Dallas Frazier and Larry Lee), “Love in the Hot Afternoon” (Vince Matthews and Kent Westberry), “Memories to Burn” (Dave Kirby and Warren Robb), “Paper Rosie” (Dallas Harms), “Sometimes I Get Lucky and Forget” (Bobby Lee House and Ernie Rowell) and “Speak Softly (You’re Talking to My Heart)” (Jessie Mendenhall and Steve Spurgin).
In April, Watson celebrated his new album with a concert at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and performed twice on the Grand Ole Opry, where he presented each member of the show’s cast with a copy of The Best of the Best. RFD-TV dedicated an edition of “Larry’s Country Diner” to Watson. Just prior to the album’s release in February, Sirius/XM satellite radio recorded a concert and three-hour interview with him. And he performed several times live at the CMA Music Festival in early June.
“It was so great listening to him,” said Lytle. “Gene doesn’t even know how interesting his stories are or how fascinating his life has been. It’s fascinating to work with somebody who has his kind of history.”
Watson accepts his remarkable vocal talent as a matter of course. All seven Watson children sang, as did his parents. “I can remember singing before I can remember talking,” he said. “Even when I was a kid, if I heard a song twice, I knew it.”
Born in Palestine, Texas, in 1943, Gary Gene Watson was singing in holiness churches with his family at an early age. His father played blues harmonica and guitar alongside African-American field laborers. Both parents were church singers and guitarists. Watson grew up loving blues, classic gospel and the Country stars of the 1950s.
Even amid the toughest hard-luck stories of Country Music, Watson’s stood out. His family drifted from shack to shack as his itinerant father took logging and crop-picking jobs. He worked with his parents and siblings in the fields. There was no place to call “home” until his father customized an old school bus for living quarters and transportation.
“Yeah, we were poor,” the singer remembered. “Today, people live in motor homes. Ours was yellow. We traveled to Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas until one day my dad decided we were going to Phoenix, Ariz. We didn’t have any money to go to Phoenix, so we worked our way out there. We would cut spinach. We would pull radishes. We would pick potatoes. We would pick cotton. Whatever it took, we did it. That’s the only life I knew.”
His earliest public performance came when he was 12 years old. It was a duet with one of his sisters in a Pentecostal church. His Country career began when he formed a duo with his brother Jessie, when he was 15 and Jessie was 12.
Watson dropped out of school in the ninth grade to help support his family. He learned to do auto body repair — so by day he worked on cars and at night he worked in bars. To this day, he relaxes by repairing cars at his “Toy Shop” garage at home in Houston, Texas. Through local gigs Watson built a strong area following, leading to his first single release in 1962.
“My first recording ever was on a little old independent label, Sun Valley Records,” he said. “Maybe I thought I could sell them at my shows or something. It was ‘If It Was That Easy’ and ‘If You Can’t Come, Just Call.’ It was not any good, but, boy, I thought that was something. I had my own record.
“But doing music professionally was never a goal of mine,” Watson noted. “I always wanted to work on cars. I always say I never did go looking for music. Music found me. I played music for enjoyment. I liked the ice-cold beer and the passing of the hat and the $15 a night. I didn’t expect that much to come out of it.”
That changed after The Wilburn Brothers came to town one night in 1964 and heard Watson at one of his nightclub shows. “They said they’d like for me to go with them and do a couple of shows,” he said. “So I came up to Nashville and traveled to North Carolina with them. They got me on the Grand Ole Opry, and I got a standing ovation and an encore singing ‘It Is No Secret What God Can Do’ and the Hank Williams song, ‘I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You.’ After that, they carried me down to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, and I got onstage and broadcast on ‘The Midnite Jamboree.’ That was my first experience with the big time. I was 21.”
Still, Watson wasn’t quite ready to move up to Music City. Back home in Houston, his singing attracted local financial backers for several recordings. Singles for little labels such as Resco and Wide World, and a self-titled album for Stoneway Records in 1972, gradually built his reputation. Watson first made the national charts with his Resco hit “Bad Water” in 1975. Its follow-up was the sultry, provocative “Love in the Hot Afternoon.” Capitol Records picked it up for national distribution, launching Watson as a hitmaker.
“It all happened so fast that I really didn’t have anything planned,” he admitted. “It’s really been a step-by-step process with me. I’m talking from the ground level up. I had no knowledge of what I was doing.”
After five years and 13 hits with Capitol, Watson spent three years at MCA Records. Following a dozen hits with that company, he stopped briefly at Curb Records before signing with the Epic label in 1985. His next stop was Warner Bros. Records, where he landed in the 1990s.
By this time, an entire generation of Country vocalists was enthralled with this “singer’s singer.” Clint Black, Tracy Byrd, Tracy Lawrence, Doug Stone and George Strait all proclaimed themselves fans. Tim Mensy once wrote to him, “Gene, thanks for teaching us how to sing.”
Watson became notable for preferring to record live with the studio musicians. He often sings a song perfectly on the first take. When he performs on the Opry, other stars gather in the wings to watch his artistry in action.
He is also known as a “man of the people.” Humility and personal dignity are his hallmarks: Gene Watson is exactly the same person whether in the spotlight or at home. Despite the acclaim, admiration and widespread respect, he remains a plain-spoken soul.
Since 1993, Watson has been recording prolifically for independent labels. He issued new CDs in 1993 (Uncharted Mind), 1996 (The Good Ole Days) and 1997 (Jesus Is All I Need and A Way to Survive).
Diagnosed with cancer, Watson underwent surgery and endured successful chemotherapy in 2000 and 2001. Remarkably, he kept singing through it all, issuing new collections in 2001 (From the Heart), 2005 (Then Now), 2007 (In a Perfect World, featuring guest vocalists Mark Chesnutt, Vince Gill, Joe Nichols, Connie Smith, Rhonda Vincent and Lee Ann Womack) and 2009 (A Taste of the Truth). In 2011, he and Vincent collaborated on the all-duet collection Your Money and My Good Looks.
“Gene is a timeless artist,” observed Rowan. “He sings from a deep well, a spiritual place. Most of the icons of our business are no longer at the top of their game, musically. But he is.”
“All I can say is I try to do my job to the best of my ability,” Watson summed up. “I think a whole lot of my success has to do with honesty and truthfulness. I don’t blow no smoke. I tell it like it is.”
On the Web: www.GeneWatsonMusic.com
On Twitter: @GeneWatsonMusic