It is here where you have an opportunity to read ‘The Return of Gene Watson’, an article written by Don Ford, which was published in the June 1997 issue of Country Music People.
Yet, against all the odds, American radio has put him back in the charts.
Don Ford talks to the rejuvenated star in Nashville.
When the country music pundits reflect on 1997, there is no doubt they will dwell hard and long on the fact that American country radio picked up on a single release from an independent record label featuring a 53-year-old non-hat artist who had seen infinitely better days in the business.
The result was that this veteran of the country music scene made an incongruous appearance on the charts surrounded by bright young things sporting major label logos and all the appendages of New Country.
The label is Step One Records, the single is ‘Change Her Mind’, which was written by Danny ‘Bear’ Mayo (Monday 2 October 1950 – Saturday 2 October 1999), Paul Nelson and Larry Boone, and the artist – Gene Watson.
The song, a track from Watson’s second album for SOR, ‘The Good Ole Days‘ (Step One Records, 1996), entered the Billboard country singles chart on Saturday 25 January 1997 and gave Gene his first chart entry since 1993 (coincidently, on another independent label, Broadland) two years after his major label career had ceased to exist.
‘Change Her Mind’, which was written by Danny ‘Bear’ Mayo (Monday 2 October 1950 – Saturday 2 October 1999), Paul Nelson and Larry Boone, peaked in the Top 50. Many a new artist would have been more than happy with that; for Watson, a man back from the dead in musical terms, it was like a miracle.
‘The door had opened slightly for us with the first album, ‘Uncharted Mind‘ (Step One Records, 1993) says Gene, ‘but the way things are today that door can close on you and you know it might not open again. So you try and second guess the music industry – what are they gonna want to hear from Gene Watson, what is radio gonna accept?’
‘We are of the opinion that country music is in a traditional mode and I think it’s gonna swing right back around to traditional country, like I started with in 1975, and I think right there alongside that thought is ‘Change Her Mind’, which was written by Danny ‘Bear’ Mayo (Monday 2 October 1950 – Saturday 2 October 1999), Paul Nelson and Larry Boone. The DJs took a chance with it. Here’s a man, you know, over 35, don’t wear a hat, supposed to be over the hill…but this record is so good’.
‘We’ve got a young generation out there who don’t even know who this guy is because he ain’t ever been a quote, unquote, superstar – not that I ever wanted to be. So some DJs started to take a chance on it’.
‘In addition to that we have a promotion staff here at Step One who said, ‘Man, we would kill for this record’, and we started getting more and more DJs to take a chance on it. After that, the fans took over. They started ringing them radio station phones off the wall. ‘Hey, what about playin’ that new song…Who is singing that new song?…What is the name of that new song? and it just started spreading and spreading’.
‘It took 17 weeks before, boom, it took off and then the charts jumped on it. If I had been on a major label they would have dropped it after 10 weeks, put it out with the trash and said it ain’t gonna happen. After 17 weeks we started pulling in them big FM stations and we were on our way up the charts. Now we know we can get something played, now we know we can get on the charts. Hey, we’re gonna be hard to stop now’.
Gene Watson was certainly hard to stop during the decade and a half he chalked up hit after hit in the 70s and 80s on Capitol, MCA, Epic and Warner. A recording career was a logical conclusion for someone who had been working as a professional musician from his early teens.
Born and raised in Texas, Watson migrated to the music clubs of Houston, working by day, playing the clubs by night. His talent was spotted early on by record men Russ Reeder and Roy Stone who asked if Gene would be interested in going in the studios.
‘The three of us started out making records but there was some conflict between Russ and Roy and they parted. I was recording for Wide World Records and when they parted Roy agreed to give Russ Reeder his half of my contract, and Russ gave him all of Wide World and all the masters.
Russ and I went off and formed Resco, which stood for Record Service Company. When Russ Reeder retired I bought him out. The label, the publishing company and all of that, I still own it to this day, but it’s not operational’.
In January 1975, Gene hit the charts for the very first time, albeit with a lowly rank of No.87, on his Resco cover recording of ‘Bad Water’ (written by Jackie DeShannon, Jimmy Holiday and Randy Myers, a four-year-old Raelettes track. It was his next release, however, that would bust his career wide open.
‘Love In The Hot Afternoon‘, which was written by Kent Westberry and Vincent Wesley Matthews (1940 – Saturday 22 November 2003) originally released on Resco, gained heavy airplay in the Houston area and brought the young singer to the attention of Capitol Records.
The major label licensed the single and signed Watson to a record deal – the single charted under the Capitol logo and became the title track of his Capitol debut album. Country music had a new star.
‘Love In The Hot Afternoon‘, which was written by Kent Westberry and Vincent Wesley Matthews (1940 – Saturday 22 November 2003), reached a high of No.3 and for the next five years it would be rare to see a Gene Watson release peak outside the Top Ten. The guiding hand behind it all, as manager and producer, was Russ Reeder.
‘Russ was real laidback, real loose. He never told me how or what to record. In other words, he stayed in the control room and I would get out there with the musicians’.
Watson’s pure honky tonk style became the vehicle for some incredible songs. In particular, he brought to prominence two Canadian writers, Ray Griff (Monday 22 April 1940 – Wednesday 9 March 2016) and Dallas Harms (Thursday 18 July 1935 – Saturday 12 October 2019). Griff‘s contributions to Watson’s Capitol career included ‘Her Body Couldn’t Keep You (Off My Mind)’, ‘And Then You Came Along’, ‘Don’t Look At Me (In That Tone of Voice) and, probably the best known of the Griff / Watson collaborations, ‘Where Love Begins’, the singer’s second Top Ten hit in 1975.
Among the Harms compositions recorded by Gene were ‘The Old Man & His Horn’, ‘Cowboys Don’t Get Lucky All The Time’ and the wonderful ‘Paper Rosie‘, this last titled song sealing an everlasting relationship with Watson’s then burgeoning army of British admirers.
‘Dallas probably had my biggest hits but Ray probably had more’, says Gene, ruminating on the glory days. ‘Dallas was an artist as well as a songwriter and ‘Paper Rosie’ became ‘Song of The Year’ for him up in Canada. Then I came along and cut it, and not only was it a gigantic hit for me in the States but it also became a Canadian ‘Song of The Year’ for me, too. I love him to death, fantastic man – he and his wife are such great people’.
However, Gene Watson’s Capitol era was to come to a close end of 1980. ‘I think it all came about because I hadn’t got the respect I deserved’, bemoans Watson. ‘While I was an artist with Capitol Records they didn’t spend any money on me. I was one of those guys who could go in the studio and cut a redord for half or a quarter of the price most of their artists could. It was impossible to get them to buy ads in the major trade magazines on me. They told me I didn’t need it because I sold records anyway’.
‘At that that time I was just starting out. I needed front money to buy a bus – there were other things like agreements and contracts, what royalties would be paid per single and all of that. But I didn’t take care of that side of things so I don’t know to what extent that was a problem. But I was hot and in demand, so finding another record label was the least of my worries, so I left Capitol and signed for MCA’.
Watson’s last three Capitol singles in 1980 – ‘Bedroom Ballad’ (No.18, 1980), ‘Raisin’ Cane In Texas’ (No.15, 1980) and ‘No One Will Ever Know’ (No.13, 1980) – failed to reach the Top 10, and he had to settle for Top 20 placings.
It was the second album for MCA, ‘Old Loves Never Die’ (MCA Records, 1981), that brought Gene Watson his first and, strangely, only Billboard No.1 of his career. The Dallas Frazier (Friday 27 October 1939 – Friday 14 January 2022) / Larry Lee Favorite (Saturday 6 January 1940 – Saturday 26 May 2001) song, ‘Fourteen Carat Mind‘, hit the top of the chart in 1981, triggering another Top 10 run for Watson which carried him through to the end of his MCA contract in 1984.
‘The MCA deal was a good arrangement and I achieved quite a bit of consistency with them, and it was another contract I fulfilled. I spent, like, four years with them and that was also combined with Curb, you know. Meanwhile, Jim Foglesong had left the label (then Chief honcho at MCA). Great man, I loved him. He was the man who signed me to MCA, and at the end of my contract I left, too’.
Watson was courted by both Curb and Epic at the time but he was in no great hurry to sign up. He sensed his career was at a crossroads, feeling that many of his Top 10 hits could have been number ones if only the labels concerned had backed him all the way. His career is also conspicuous by lack of recognition from his peers; for example, there are no CMA awards on the sideboard at home.
‘My peers didn’t have anything to do with it. It was political, that’s my opinion. I consider my peers to be other artists and, believe it or not, my peers had the highest regard for me. I was known to be a man of my word, a traditionalist who stood by what he believed in. I was turning out hit records and deserved a whole lot more recognition than I got, but I didn’t whine about it. I went on about my business and, in spite of whether I got accolades from the labels or trades or whatever, I still had hit records’.
‘I was one of the most consistent artists through the late Seventies and the Eighties, so whether they wanted to put it on paper or whether they wanted to put me on TV, I don’t think that was a problem with me. I thought I should have been there, all the other artists thought I should have been there, but it was controlled by politics, by record executives, by label executives, departmental people’.
‘Let me tell you what means the most to me, and I’ve always said this. Hey, you can hang that award on the wall, but what means more to me is those awards out there in those seats – they mean more to me than anything. People who have paid their hard earned cash to see Gene Watson perform, paid their hard earned cash to buy that Gene Watson CD – that’s my award right there’.
In early 1985, Gene decided his destiny lay with Epic Records, but in seven chart singles his biggest success was the No.5, ‘Memories To Burn‘, which was written by Warren D. Robb and Dave Kirby (Sunday 10 July 1938 – Saturday 17 April 2004).
‘I probably had three, three and a half years with Epic and then they got into a new artist development kinda thing which I didn’t see eye to eye with or fit into and I chose to move on. It was my decision’.
Having left Epic, Gene Watson and his Farewell Party Band (named after his 1975 hit, ‘Farewell Party’, and one of his most enduring performances) continued to work the road heavily, eventually playing some dates with a young artist called Randy Travis, newly signed to Warner Brothers. Travis, on his way to becoming one of the country superstars of the 1980s, was managed by the woman who discovered him, and whom he later married, Lib Hatcher. Their meeting rekindled interest in the Gene Watson career.
‘I had bailed out of the contract with Epic and, while working dates with Randy, Lib expressed a great interest in the course of my career’, recalls Watson. ‘We talked throughout the tour about it. Eventually, I signed a personal management/booking contract with Lib Hatcher’.
It was a partnership that led to Watson’s next record label which, just coincidentally, was the same as Randy‘s – Warner Brothers. The deal came about through a four-song demo tape he and Hatcher had independently produced; ironically, it has never surfaced publicly. The first album for Warners was called ‘Back In The Fire‘ (Warner Bros. Records, 1988) and the debut single, ‘Don’t Waste It On The Blues‘ (written by Sandy Ramos and Jerry Vandiver), shot to No.5 – Watson was back in the Top 10 after a three year absence.
Three more singles off the album charted – ‘Back In The Fire’ (No.20, 1989), ‘The Jukebox Played Along’ (No.24, 1989) and ‘The Great Divide’ (No.41, 1989) – and Gene must have felt things were swinging back his way.
He had started work on his second album for the label, ‘At Last‘ (Warner Bros. Records, 1991), when the wheels fell off the Lib Hatcher deal.
‘Things kinda deteriorated. Lib was my manager and my booking agent and, without going into intricate detail, things kinda went downhill. We sorta disagreed and that led to some pretty heavy litigation. Which, I might add, wound up almost keeping me out of the business for a year. Nowadays, when you’re out for a year, boy, I tell you, you’re easily forgotten’.
‘Fortunately, my track record had been so good, like starting in ‘75, that being without a label and being off radio for that length of time didn’t hurt me as much as it might have a newer artist’.
Despite recalling the worst situation of his long career, Watson is quick to diffuse any chance of a misunderstanding.
‘This is not saying anything bad about Lib. As far as I’m concerned it’s over and done with. Lib has her life and I’ve got mine. I don’t hold any animosity toward Lib and I would hug her neck today just as I always would. But that was business and it’s over with’.
Back then Watson was in big trouble. The long-running legal wrangle with Lib Hatcher prevented him signing any other manager/booking contract, and Warner Brothers, aware of the situation, dropped him following the release of ‘At Last‘ (Warner Bros. Records, 1991).
The person Watson turned to for help was veteran man-about-Nashville Jack McFadden (Sunday 9 January 1927 – Tuesday 16 June 1998).
McFadden is a former shoe salesman from the West Coast who became the only manager Buck Owens (Monday 12 August 1929 – Saturday 25 March 2006) ever had – their partnership celebrated 30 years back in 1993.
Establishing his Nashville roots in 1983, McFadden emerged with a formidable reputation as a talent manager, working with such as Merle Haggard (Tuesday 6 April 1937 – Wednesday 6 April 2016), Freddie Hart (Tuesday 21 December 1926 – Saturday 27 October 2018), Susan Raye, the late Keith Whitley (Thursday 1 July 1954 – Tuesday 9 May 1989) and Lorrie Morgan – he is also the man who brought Billy Ray Cyrus to the world.
‘I went to talk to Jack. He was aware of my situation and he agreed to manage and book me without a contract’.
It was an unusual situation to say the least, and one that begged a huge question of trust.
‘In modern times, you know, the trust is only there when the money’s there. I’m from the old school, and if I shake hands with a man and give him my word…Don’t get me wrong, I feel there should be legalities and contracts but if I tell a man I’ll do something and we shake hands on it, we’ve got a done deal. And Jack McFadden (Sunday 9 January 1927 – Tuesday 16 June 1998) was the same sort of guy’.
McFadden hawked Watson’s talent around the major labels in Nashville without success. No one was willing to take a chance on an artist with a law suit hanging over his head. Finally, they agreed an independent recording project with Canadian Gary Buck (Thursday 21 March 1940 – Tuesday 14 October 2003), thus rekindling Watson’s north-of-the-border connections that had worked so well with Ray Griff (Monday 22 April 1940 – Wednesday 9 March 2016) and Dallas Harms (Thursday 18 July 1935 – Saturday 12 October 2019).
‘There were several provisions in there’, states Watson. ‘We would be able to shop the album around but if we couldn’t get a major label to take it, Gary Buck (Thursday 21 March 1940 – Tuesday 14 October 2003) had the right to release it on Mercury/PolyGram in Canada’.
The album, recorded in Nashville and titled ‘In Other Words‘ (Canada: Mercury/Polygram Records / United States: Broadland International Records, 1993), featured some of the best session pickers in town, but initially gained only the proposed Canadian release. Later issued in the U.S. on indie Broadland International, a 1993 single from the album, ‘One & One & One (Is One Too Many)’ (written by Buddy Cannon and John Northrup), gave Gene his last Billboard chart appearance prior to his 1997 success, stopping a little way outside the Top 50.
‘I think if we had had the distribution, the promotion and everything…’ ponders Gene. ‘We did a video on ‘One & One & One’. It was a great song and we had a lot of airplay on it. The title track, ‘In Other Words’ (written by Tim Menzies and Tony Haselden), was one of the prettiest songs on there. ‘The Old Porch Swing’, which was written by Joe Allen and Charlie Williams (Friday 20 December 1929 – Thursday 15 October 1992) also had a video on it, and I think it is one of the prettiest songs I’ve ever recorded. But we just didn’t have the wherewithal to create a hit out of the album’.
The country music market place Gene was battling with was much changed from his heady days. Garth Brooks’ star had been firmly established in the firmament, Nashville’s major record labels were, in the main, flying New Country flags of convenience, and Watson’s then mentor, Jack McFadden (Sunday 9 January 1927 – Tuesday 16 June 1998), had just unleashed the most controversial artist to hit the scene in years, Billy Ray Cyrus.
‘When Billy Ray released ‘Achy Breaky Heart’, Jack’s whole focus was turned on him, naturally, because that’s where the money was. But it seemed like everywhere I turned I was going down a blind alley. One day I was so frustrated – this was something like three years ago – I didn’t have any management, I didn’t have anything to look forward to, I was down, so frustrated, give out and tired. I had twenty years of hits behind me and I thought, well, maybe it’s time to quit’.
Although his legal battle with Lib Hatcher had been settled, it left the Watson name with a stigma.
‘It left me in trouble career-wise, you know. The last thing that people knew about me was that I was in litigation, struggling with an independent label, trying to get something going, and it hadn’t been terrific, hadn’t been a great thing. My age was going against me; it had been 1988 since I’d had a (major) hit. I had been under that lawsuit for a full year, then I had been with Jack McFadden (Sunday 9 January 1927 – Tuesday 16 June 1998), all things which didn’t culminate into something I could get my teeth into’.
‘Career-wise I was down and out. I felt like country music had turned its back on me. Here I am clawing, digging, struggling and trying everything I know how. I’ve been devoted to country music for the last twenty years and country music has turned its back on me, you know’.
‘It took a while to come to terms with this, that there is a new generation out there. In the midst of all my turmoil, all these young guns were happening, you know what I mean, the hot young country…the hat acts’.
While talking to friends in the business about his decision to quit, one name was thrown at him, old friend and booking agent Allen W. Whitcomb (Tuesday 11 November 1947 – Tuesday 24 October 2006).
‘I came up to Nashville and talked to Allen and told him, ‘Hey, you know my situation. There’s absolutely no reason financially for you to help me. I don’t have anything going for me and all I’m doing is seeing if you would like to manage me’.
‘We talked, and talked some more, shook hands and to this day don’t have a contract. We are two of the best friends that’s ever been and, as a result of us getting together, I came over to Step One and talked to Ray Pennington (Friday 22 December 1933 – Wednesday 7 October 2020) (chief executive/producer at the label)’.
‘Ray knew what the deal was with me. There’s not too many secrets in Nashville. He knew where I was coming from. There was no money on the table, there were no positives, only negatives, and we cut a deal’.
As Watson has pointed out, the first Step One album, ‘Uncharted Mind‘ (Step One Records, 1993), opened doors. One of the cuts, ‘Snake In The House’ (written by T.W. Hale and Royal Wade Kimes), came from writer Wade Kimes (now recording as Royal Wade Kimes, one of the new guns on Asylum).
‘I didn’t know the writer but I picked up the demo and thought, ‘Hey, this might be different’, and told Ray, ‘This might catch on’.
‘It was our first single for Step One. I think Ray and I have this fantastic working relationship. I go into the studio wearing less hats now than I ever have. In the past I worried about getting the material, getting the musicians ready, working my own arrangements. I was co-producer on so much of my stuff. Now all I do is go in there and sing, Ray does the rest. He gives me his input and I give him mine. We both appreciate each other’s ability and talent’.
On his second album project, ‘The Good Ole Days‘ (Step One Records, 1996), Watson has reworked some of his previous hits, ‘Love In The Hot Afternoon’, ‘Speak Softly You’re Talking To My Heart’ and ‘I Don’t Need A Thing At All’.
‘Not a difficult choice’, says Gene. ‘This is a sort of series, if you will, to interject some of the old things as we go along. We’re gonna get some of the old, some of the new, some of the different, and we’ve even got a gospel album coming out, and Ray allowed me to bring in two of my sisters to do sibling harmony on the project’.
‘It’s just great and I’m tickled to death about everything. We found this song, ‘Change Her Mind’, and, boom, here we are, we’re back on the charts!’
This article, ‘The Return of Gene Watson’, which was written by Don Ford, and published in the June 1997 issue of Country Music People, was republished within Gene Watson’s Fan Site with the prior permission of Country Music People.
Country Music People