It is here where you have an opportunity to read ‘Gene Watson: Real Country Music Singer’, an article written by Duncan Warwick, which was published in the March 2016 issue of Country Music People.
‘With more than 50 years in the business, Gene Watson is known as ‘The Singer’s Singer’ and has always stayed true to traditional country music. He talks to Duncan Warwick’
With a career spanning more than 50 years, Gene Watson has earned his place among the greats.
Often referred to as ‘The Singer’s Singer’ and with tracks such as ‘Paper Rosie‘, ‘Farewell Party‘, ‘Should I Come Home (Or Should I Go Crazy)‘, ‘Nothing Sure Looked Good On You‘, and ‘Love In The Hot Afternoon‘ among some of the all-time great country records truly worthy of the term ‘classic’, it might come as a surprise to hear that Watson only topped the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart on one occasion. That was in January 1982, six years after his chart debut, and speaking to the legendary singer recently one gets the feeling it still irks him somewhat.
‘To look at the press is kind of misleading because all they want to mention is the number one song, ‘Fourteen Carat Mind‘, in Billboard. I only had one number one song in Billboard but back then there were several publications like R&R, Record World, The Gavin Report, Cashbox…I’ve had several number ones. Overall throughout the years I’ve had six or seven number ones but only one listed in Billboard so that’s kind of deflating’.
However, Watson’s recorded catalogue can stand against that of any country singer you can name. He has always been unapologetically country, ‘I’ve stayed pretty loyal to what made me what I am’, he says, and his latest record – his 33rd studio album – is defiantly titled ‘Real. Country. Music‘ (Fourteen Carat Music, 2016).
Listen to a Gene Watson record, any Gene Watson record, and one is left with the impression that this guy lives and breathes pure country but Watson dismisses the notion.
‘Well, you know, really and truly it’s a misconception because sometimes I do listen to other things and I’m sure that there’s other kinds of music that are good, and I’m not knocking anybody else for the type of music they do or whatever genre they go to as long as it’s good. I started out in traditional country music and that’s what I know. I feel like that’s what I do best and it’s certainly what I love the most. I want to give my fans exactly what they come and pay their hard earned money to see. So it’s real easy for me to stick with what works for me, which is traditional country music’.
The title of Watson’s latest release tells any potential listener exactly what they should expect and Watson acknowledges the importance of the title.
‘Well I get the feeling, and I’ve been told by several others, that Nashville is trying their best to make the turn more towards traditional country music. Most people that buy a Gene Watson CD, they know before they ever listen to it that they’re gonna get country music. This title, I think, it’s a little bit to a different generation, people that might just now be starting to turn toward traditional country music. I didn’t want there to be any doubt in their minds about what they’d be getting in this CD and it seems to be working pretty good. We’ve had a lot of people critique it and they just really love what we’ve done’.
One of Watson’s greatest strengths over the years has been his ability to pick a song, and for ‘Real. Country. Music‘ (Fourteen Carat Music, 2016) he has picked some crackers.
There are a couple from the pen of Larry Gatlin. One is a Gospel-flavoured rendition of ‘Help Me’, which was recorded by Elvis Presley (Tuesday 8 January 1935 – Tuesday 16 August 1977), and the other – ‘Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall’ – a slice of stone country that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Gene Watson album in 1976.
Other notable names supplying the songs include Bill Anderson, Nat Stuckey (Sunday 17 December 1933 – Wednesday 24 August 1988) and Curly Putman (Thursday 20 November 1930 – Sunday 30 October 2016), and Watson affirms, ‘It is because I control what I record and I still have the freedom to pick and choose and I feel like that’s always been…If I had a talent it was the talent to pick a song’.
But it goes deeper than that. Watson recognises the qualities that make a truly great country song better than most. ‘I really try to pick songs that people can relate to’, says the singer born in Palestine, Texas. ‘If I can tell your life story or something that’s happened to you then I’ll have your attention and I try to record songs the people can relate to and at the same time I want a song that’s got the feeling in it, the emotion, all of the heartfelt things that might help anyone out there. Sometimes it’s pretty hard to find that material but that’s what we strive for’.
‘I’ll be honest with you, it’s harder and harder to find those traditional heartfelt songs, you know. These songs, you can tell each one of them, they were written from the heart. These guys had a great song in mind when they put pen to these songs and I felt like I had some songs that were written by some of the best in the business’.
Billie Jo Spears
(Friday 14 January 1938 – Wednesday 14 December 2011)
The standout song however, is the album’s opener, ‘Enough For You’, an obscure Kris Kristofferson song. Watson recalled how it came to his attention.
‘Well, the first time I ever heard the song was in either 1979 or 1980 and it was being sung by Billie Jo Spears (Friday 14 January 1938 – Wednesday 14 December 2011) who was one of my favourites. I knew the minute I heard that song that at one time or another I was going to record that song. I loved it that much. Naturally when we started this project and I got the chance, well, I jumped on it. It’s such a great song and I’m happy with the way it turned out. I hope all the fans like it as much as I do’.
‘I carried that song around since 1980 and a good song is a good song. It may be a few years before I record it but if I ever come across it I’ll have it the next time you see me and that’s the way I love country music’.
Billie Jo Spears (Friday 14 January 1938 – Wednesday 14 December 2011) recorded ‘Enough For You’ (written by Kris Kristofferson) and included the track on ‘Billie Jo’ (United Artists Records, 1975).
‘There was a lot of people that never had heard of it and didn’t even know that it was a Kristofferson written song. See, Billie Jo recorded it and it was big on one of her albums and I had trouble understanding the lyrics in one place because I only had it on an eight track tape. It seemed like right in the middle of some of the critical lyrics it would switch tracks and I couldn’t ever get them. So I went to Billie Jo and I asked her what some of the lyrics were and she had forgotten, she couldn’t even remember from when she had recorded the song and it wound up being a pretty obscure song’.
‘She was a fantastic singer and I loved her to death. In fact, I had the opportunity to record a couple of songs…duet, with Billie Jo and unfortunately they never were released but she was a great person to work with. She was so great, so unique and she had such a unique sound. I really appreciated BJ’.
Another notable song on the new album is ‘She Never Got Me Over You’, which some readers may remember Mark Chesnutt including on his ‘Rollin’ With The Flow’ (Lofton Creek Records, 2008) album a few years ago. With Keith Whitley (Thursday 1 July 1954 – Tuesday 9 May 1989), Hank Cochran (Friday 2 August 1935 – Thursday 15 July 2010) and Dean Dillon on the writing credits, and whom Watson calls ‘pretty heavy writers’, it’s something of a surprise that it was the Chesnutt version that brought it to Watson’s attention.
‘I heard my buddy Mark Chesnutt do it and I thought, ‘Well, I’m not sure this my song’ but we went in the studio with recording it on the list. Really it’s not that easy a song to sing because of the way it jumps at the end of the chords but we finally brought it off. I thought it turned out pretty good’.
Dirk Johnson and Gene Watson at Sony Tree Recording Studio in Nashville on Thursday 6 August 2015
Also key to the sound of the new album are the arrangements, and of particular note, the piano, played by producer Dirk Johnson, which frequently brings the sound of hardcore 70s country to mind.
‘He (Johnson) was the backbone of the whole thing and really I’ve been working with Dirk longer than…In fact Dirk played on a lot of my recording sessions back before he started producing me so it was kind of easy for us to fall into a click. There was a technique used on this particular CD that I haven’t used in a lot of years and I mean we went back…I took a page out of the 70s and added the ‘oohs’ and the ‘aahs’, and different kind of vocal backgrounds on it and tried to create some of that analogue warmth that was in so many records I put out back in the 70s’.
For several years now Gene Watson has been releasing his records on his own label named after his biggest hit – Fourteen Carat Music – including the re-recording of some of his best-known work for his ‘Best of The Best: 25 Greatest Hits‘ (Fourteen Carat Music, 2012).
On his 2009 album ‘Taste of The Truth‘ (Shanachie Records, 2009) he included one of the greatest songs of the last 20 years which further attests to his ability to pick a song – ‘Still They Call Me Love’.
‘That song was written by Harley Allen (Monday 23 January 1956 – Wednesday 30 March 2011)’ Watson recalls.
‘It’s such a soft feeling song…my late brother that passed away a couple of years ago, that was one of his favourite songs of all time’.
‘To find songs that are fitting to the artist, they take a lot of work and it is hard to find the right songs for a certain artist. Just because a song would appeal to me and maybe fit my style don’t mean it would anyone else. There have been some songs that I’ve turned down that other people went ahead and had hits with and people said, ‘I bet you wish you’d have recorded that?’ No I don’t because…just because it was a hit by them don’t mean it would have been by me’.
Overnight success for Gene Watson took more than a decade. Working professionally from the age of 13, Watson cut his teeth playing Texas clubs for many years and was cutting independent records for Tonka in 1965.
‘I started out playing back in the 60s, I’m talking about the major nightclubs and everything which at the time I didn’t realise it, but I was on my way to the professional side of it. We recorded small independent label stuff and I didn’t know whether it would ever amount to anything or not, but I recorded my first record back in ’62, mainly to book jobs in different venues and all that, and we played a lot of venues. I had a great band back then and that was the reason that a couple of guys heard me and asked me if I’d like to go to Nashville to do some recordings, so that’s actually how this got started. It’s just kept on going ever since and you might say I’ve got a good foundation; I’ve been in it a long time’.
Watson admits that when he finally made his Billboard debut in January 1975, even though it peaked at No.87 it was quite a relief and ‘unexpected too’, as well as bringing him to attention of the Nashville record companies.
‘In 1974 we recorded a song called ‘Bad Water’ and it was on an independent label but somehow or other it sneaked into the national charts and it just overwhelmed me. I couldn’t believe that we’d even got a mention in the national charts. Well that got Capitol Records’ attention and then when we came with ‘Love In The Hot Afternoon‘ in late 1974 they went ahead and signed me to a long-term recording contract and re-released ‘Love In The Hot Afternoon‘ on the Capitol label. It turned out to be the number four song for the entire year of 1975. We’ve been trying to repeat ever since’.
Gene Watson on the the set of American television show, ‘Hee Haw’, in 1979
Following spells with Capitol, MCA, Epic, and Warners, Watson found himself with Step One Records, an independent in the rare position of being able to crack the charts, towards end of the 90s and Watson reflects, ‘I don’t know how it works. Nashville has a funny way of doing things and it’s really not funny to a lot of people’
‘I signed a contract with Step One Records back in the day and at that time it was independent and we did get in the chart with Step One Records, but it’s sort of a Nashville click to get on a major recording label and I’m not sure it’s the best way to go, although it’s got its advantages from an independent’.
‘My last four albums now have been released on my own independent label and I love it because I know where I’m distributing them, I know where they’re going, I everything about it because I’m the one that handles it. I appreciate that naturally we’re not as big as one of the major labels but we still manage to get to the places we want to go and I’m thankful for that’.
Moe Bandy with Gene Watson, on their RFD-TV show, ‘The Gene & Moe Show, in 2015
Of course, like everything else radio moves on, and it’s now nearly 20 years since Gene Watson bothered the Hot Country Singles chart, but he tours extensively and regularly releases new product of a quality to equal his major label recordings. Like all independent artists Watson is frustrated by how hard it is to get played on the evermore corporately controlled radio and shrugs, ‘Who knows who picks and chooses what thiey play, you know, I certainly can’t figure it out, but I know there’s a lot of consultants that they deal with and a consultant may tell them, ‘You need to play this. You don’t need to play that’. ‘I hate that but unfortunately that’s what we have to deal with over here’.
‘I have a theory, and of course nobody pays attention to me, that if a radio station wants to give their listeners what they want why don’t they give them a record to try? For instance, when they get my new CD in there why wouldn’t they open up the phone lines and play it and say, ‘Let me hear what you think about it’. ‘If they don’t like it well then don’t play it but if they do like it play it for your listening audience because they control your ratings’.
However, Watson considers traditional country to be in decent shape, even now. ‘If you pay attention to the fans it’s as strong as it ever was because we have our fans that drive hundreds of miles to come and see our shows, and we still stand and sign autographs, shake hands with them, talk to them, take pictures with them and my popularity right now seems to be greater than it’s been in the last 15 or 20 years’.
As for the current crop of young artists burning up the charts Watson says, ‘All of the new artists…Let me put it this way I want everybody to succeed at whatever they’re doing and there’s some of them that are better than others. I think there’s way too much manufacturing going on in the recording studio for people that really are not talented that much, but anybody that deserves a break in country music, well, I hope they get it. I hate to see someone jump on the awards and win all these awards when all of their songs were manufactured in the studio. If you’ve got the talent, if you’ve got the people behind you then I want you to succeed, I want you to do well’.
However, with his 50-plus career in country music Watson has seen many changes come and go, all the while resolutely staying true to traditional country music. The title of his new release says it all, ‘Real. Country. Music‘ (Fourteen Carat Music, 2016).
‘I’ve had to go through the country crossover as they called it – all the hat acts. We’ve had the urban cowboy fad, we’ve had the rhinestone cowboy fad, we had the outlaws, you know. I’ve been through all of that and what I do is still working and we still sell out just about everywhere we play’.
Gene Watson’s ‘Real. Country. Music‘ (Fourteen Carat Music, 2016) is available now on Fourteen Carat Music, and Gene Watson’s ‘Barrooms & Bedrooms: The Capitol & MCA Years‘ (HumpHead Records, 2016) is available on HumpHead Records.
This article, ‘Gene Watson: Real Country Music Singer’, which was written by Duncan Warwick, and was published in the March 2016 issue of Country Music People, was republished within Gene Watson’s Fan Site with the prior permission of Country Music People.
Country Music People