Gene Watson at Blue Gate Performing Arts Center
One of the most masterful voices in Country Music today, GENE WATSON still sings in the same key as 30 years ago and continues to prove why he is rightly referred to as “The Singer’s Singer”. His powerful voice and multi-octave range allow him to sing some of the most challenging songs with an ease that comes from pure, natural talent as well as many years performing onstage.
On his most recent album release, My HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN COUNTRY, the 70-year-old Watson decided to pay homage to his own musical heroes and to songs that influenced him as a performer. The 11 tracks include songs made popular by such legends as Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell, Willie Nelson, George Jones and more. Watson expounds on a few of his choices here:
“The Party’s Over” by Willie Nelson was a song Gene heard and loved long before he even had his own major record deal.
Watson reflects “I played the largest clubs all around the Houston area as a young man and all the while, I was still working days as a specialist in auto bodywork. But at night I fed my music habit and I loved this Willie Nelson song. It fit so well as the closing number that I ended nearly every night on stage singing this song.”
“It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad”) by one of the biggest legends in country music, Merle Haggard, has always been in Gene Watson’s staple of songs.
Watson notes, “When I first started out on Capitol Records, my first release (“Love In The Hot Afternoon”) hit #3 on the charts and I was out touring with one song. So I had to cover hits by others just to fill out my allotted time on stage and I knew every song Merle Haggard ever released. I’m as much a fan now as I ever was of Haggard’s phrasing and his ability to craft a song that’s simple and poignant at the same time. He’s just one of the very best that ever will be in Country Music.”
When Gene Watson was contemplating songs for this project, one of the first he picked was “Here Comes My Baby Back Again” by the late Dottie West.
Watson stated “I was a big fan of Dottie West both as a person and as an artist. She was on Capitol Records with me and we shared a birthday which was always a fun thing for us. Capitol Records threw us a joint birthday party one year. I always admired her songwriting as well as her superb voice. I actually thought I might be the first male to record this song but soon learned that both Faron Young and Dean Martin had earlier recordings. It’s just a timeless song and I hope my fans will enjoy my version of it.”
“Long Black Veil”
“This of course was made famous by one of my biggest heroes, the late Lefty Frizzell,” says Watson. “Frizzell just nailed this song and I’ve loved it forever. I actually recorded it for a project Lefty’s brother, David Frizzell” put together several years back. On this one, my producer, Dirk Johnson, and I decided we wanted to really emphasize the haunting nature of the music and I think Dirk just did a spectacular job. I think it may be the darkest version out there but it’s true to the lyrics and I think my fans are going to appreciate this extra twist. ”
Today, Gene Watson has endured the ups and downs of the music business to become a country music icon himself. After releasing his very first single in 1962, Watson is still touring at home and abroad and remains defiantly country. His fans appreciate that he holds fast to the timeless sounds of classic country, what some fans now call “real country”.
Reflecting back on his early life, singing with his seven siblings and parents in Paris, Texas, Watson noted, “I can remember singing as far back as I can remember talking. Singing was something that was not out of the ordinary for me. It wasn’t unique. My whole family sang.”
Even in a musical genre noted for its hard-luck stories, Gene Watson’s stands out. The family drifted from shack to shack as his itinerant father took logging and crop-picking jobs. “Home” eventually became a converted school bus. Gene dropped out of school in the ninth grade to work alongside his parents in the fields.
Gene settled in Houston, TX, where he developed a strong local following and staged his disc debut. In 1964, the Grand Ole Opry duo, The Wilburn Brothers, took Gene on the road briefly. Then it was back to the Texas honky-tonks and a string of local singles throughout the ’60s.
In 1974, one of Gene Watson’s small-label singles caught the ear of Capitol Records. He was an auto-body repairman and the featured performer at Houston’s Dynasty nightclub when the label picked up the steamy, sexual waltz “Love in the Hot Afternoon” for national distribution. It became the first of Gene Watson’s two-dozen top-10 hits in early 1975.
“Seems like my career just kind of happened accidentally,” says Gene. “It was purely unintentional. Music was just a sideline. I was going to be playing and singing no matter what line of work I was going to do. I never did really have any high expectations out of the music business. Even today, I never know what to expect from one day to the next.
“But there is one thing: As far as I know, I do have an impeccable reputation in the music business, and I wouldn’t take anything for that. If anything in the world means ‘success’ to me, that right there does.”
Gene took no songwriting credit when he re-wrote the lyrics of 1979’s “Pick the Wildwood Flower” to make it an autobiographical song. Songwriter Lawton Williams was so grateful for Gene’s bravura performance of “Farewell Party” that he gave the singer his 1980 BMI Award for it.
Gene Watson quit drinking in 1980 and quit smoking in 1990. He underwent surgery and survived colon cancer in 2000-01. Through it all, he continued to record one critically applauded collection after another. He was inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame in 2002 and into the inaugural class of the Houston, Texas Music Hall of Fame in 2013.
Asked why he is still in such high demand after all these years, Watson reflected “I think a lot of it is because there’s not too much of what I do around anymore. I think there is still such a hunger out there for traditional country music. So I’d like to stay out there as long as I’m able to do the job and do it well.
“Every time I step out on that stage and see that audience, it’s a new beginning. Even though I’ve sung these songs millions of times, I look at each one like it’s brand new to me. Every night, I try to deliver that song the best that I can.
“Being called a ‘Singer’s Singer’ humbles me. It’s flattering, but what I do is just what I do. The good Lord just gave me the voice.”