All Photos: Alan Mercer
It is difficult to imagine the world of country music without the vast contribution that Gene Watson has made to it. Between his major label debut on Capitol Records in 1975 and the present day, Gene Watson has excelled with his traditional slant within country music.
Gene Watson is a singer in country music's grand tradition and has the skill to give powerful vocal performances and draw all the emotion from his selected material effortlessly. Gene has remained true to his Texas music roots for the best part of 50 years and is a standard bearer for honest, traditional country music.
Following years of honing his country music craft around Texas, Gene Watson emerged on the American country music scene in July 1975. He immediately earned himself a reputation as one of the best of the new 'real country' singers to emerge on the scene and for adhering to a traditional country sound, characterized by prominent steel guitar and swirling fiddle.
Gene Watson was born in Palestine, Texas, and began his music career in the early 1970s, performing in local clubs at night while working in a Houston auto body shop during the day. He only recorded for a few small, regional record labels until 1974, when Capitol Records picked up his album ‘Love in the Hot Afternoon’ and released it nationally. The title track was released in June 1975 and it quickly reached Number 3 on the Billboard magazine Hot Country Singles chart. Gene Watson's national success continued throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, as he recorded several Billboard top-40 hits, including "Where Love Begins," "Paper Rosie," "Should I Go Home (or Should I Go Crazy)," "Nothing Sure Looked Good on You." and "Farewell Party" which was released in 1979 and quickly became Gene's signature song and soon allowed Gene to name his band after the tragic ballad.
Since 1975, Gene Watson has been an artist who has adhered to, and remained faithful to, a 'hard' traditional country sound. Gene Watson is truly a 'Lone Star Hero', not only within the state boundary of Texas but also around the wider country music world.
Gene Watson's 'Beautiful Country' speaks for itself. It is a music of the people, for the people and ultimately by one of the people. His music is part of the very constitution of country music. It is in Gene Watson's recordings that the tradition of heartfelt, country music is preserved for all time.
Gary Gene Watson never intended becoming a professional singer within the country music genre. Apparently, he didn't go searching for music - music found him. For those of us who love traditional country music, we have a lot to be thankful to Gene Watson for.
I had the opportunity to meet up with Gene in Weatherford , Texas when he performed at The Texas Opry. We took these shots and visited before he went on stage to a sold-out audience.
AM: Gene, your newest album, ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Country’ is just fantastic. How did you come up with this idea to record these classic songs?
GW: Well the hardest part was picking the songs I recorded.
AM: I bet! There are so many good songs to choose from.
GW: The object of this recording was to go back and let people know who Gene Watson is, where he came from and why. I thought what better way than to go back and record some of my favorite songs that were recorded by my favorite artists. I used to sing these songs back in the day so I could get local bookings. I never dreamed I’d be an artist at that time. I would use these songs in all the places I would play. These songs were recorded by my heroes. Most of them aren’t even here now.
AM: Who are some of the artists you covered?
GW: I covered Marty Robbins, Ray Price, George Jones, Dottie West and Lefty Frizzell. Like I said, these people are my heroes so if people hear this CD and can’t figure out where I came from, there’s no need in me preaching to them. These are the songs that made me who I am and this is what keeps me going. This is the reason I have sustained for fifty-two years. I don’t want to change too much because something is gotta be going right.
AM: I encourage you to keep going. I’d love a new album of classic covers at least once a year.
GW: It’s so much fun. I didn’t think about it at the time, but these are the only sessions that I can ever remember doing, where I didn’t need a lyric sheet in the studio. I walked in the studio and just sang them right off the top of my head. I had never sung the Dottie West song, ‘Here Comes My Baby’ in my life. I thought Dottie West was just fantastic and when she got through, the song had been sung. All I can do now is let them hear me sing it, which is what I had in mind when I recorded it.
AM: You also covered another song a few years ago that is hard to cover and that’s Etta James version of ‘At Last.’ You made it yours!
GW: I think that comes from the love of a song. I’ve always been privileged and honored to be able to pick and choose the songs I wanted to record. I’ve always had final say. I picked that song because I love Etta’s version. People always ask me what my favorite song is and that’s impossible for me to answer. I saw something in every song I have ever recorded. I have never recorded a song that I didn’t think was capable of being a single.
AM: I like the songs you sing that have a dark humor to them. Is that part of you?
GW: I think so. A lot of people think that I am an outgoing guy and really I’m not. The older I get, the more laid back I get, but when I get on stage all that reverses. I have a great time on stage. I play off the crowd and I don’t plan a show. The band has to pay attention to what I say because that’s the only intro they are going to get to these songs. The crowd helps me more than anything in the world.
AM: So your show is completely spontaneous.
GW: Oh yes. I’ll start telling a story and the band picks up on it just like that.
AM: That keeps it very fresh for you.
GW: I have to do it that way. I’ve worked with so many artists that have a planned set and they do it night after night after night. It gets to be trying on your nerves just doing the same songs for fifty years, but if I can play it loose and do the requests off the top of my head it keeps it fresh for me and the audience. I decide when is the right time to do a certain song during each show.
AM: Do you still get a chance to work on cars?
GW: (laughing) I love cars and I’ve got too many. I love to dabble around with cars, but as far as heavy work, no I don’t have the time. I’ve dedicated the rest of my road time to the singing business and I’m trying to hang in there as long as I can. I said this a long time ago and I meant it. I hope the good Lord grants me the wisdom to hang it up when it’s the right time. When I can’t walk out there and do it the way I think it should be done then it’s time for me to pack it up and there will be plenty of time to play with cars.
AM: How do you maintain your voice?
GW: I try to get as much rest as I can. That’s one of the most important things about me maintaining. When I first started I used to drink and smoke like a freight train. I haven’t had a drink in 34 years and I haven’t smoked in 24 years. I’ve really dedicated myself to taking care of my throat. It’s all I’ve got as far as the music business goes. When I get through performing I am tired. I’m older now and been in the business so long so when I get through I like to sit back, relax and get as much sleep as I can. To me, that’s the key, when I get tired my voice is the first thing to go. The good Lord blessed me with a voice and I try to take care of it the best I can. He can take it away anytime he wants to.
AM: You also did another difficult thing by re-recording 25 of your best songs a couple years ago. I’ve heard many artists re-record songs and they didn’t turn out as good, but you changed that concept for me by doing such a phenomenal job.
GW: That was probably the hardest undertaking I ever went through. I was real meticulous about it. My producer, Dirk Johnson and I went back and got every one of the original cuts and took them to the studio. I re-recorded them all in the same key and tempo. I tried to create the same feeling. Some of the players from the originals are playing on the new recordings. If there was a thought in my mind that it wasn’t as good, I’d go back and play the original and refer back to that. I had to do that a few times because over the years you evolve and change some things. We tried to double track the originals as close as they could be. I’ll say this, I think I did a better job on some of them. It pushed me, but I wanted to do it so much. I’m like you, I don’t like covers because they are always lacking.
AM: You changed the rules because your covers are not lacking. Did it take longer than normal to get the recording finished?
GW: It was more strenuous on me because of myself. I wanted to get it just like the original. I don’t normally spend a lot of time in the studio. If a song is for me, I’ll hit it quick. If I have to work on it, I’ll throw it out.
AM: You recorded the last album live with the band didn’t you?
GW: Oh yes, all my albums are recorded live with the band. That’s the only way I’ll do it. I play off that band, even in the studio. When they hit a lick that turns me on it makes me want to sing that much better and when I sing better they play better. It’s the only way to do it.
To learn more about Gene Watson, visit his web site http://genewatsonmusic.com/