It is here where you have an opportunity to read ‘Gene Watson: Tailgate Party’, an article written by Walt Trott, which was published in the November 2009 issue of Country Music People.
‘Gene Watson – Tailgate Party’
Walt Trott talks to the singer hailed as one of the all-time great voices of country music, whose new album proves this ain’t no Farewell Party
When it comes to s***-kickin’ country music, count on veteran honky tonk stylist, Gene Watson, to deliver the goods.
Indeed contemporary country favourite, Trace Adkins, joined Gene in the studio to demonstrate traditional country hasn’t died, specifically on ‘We’ve Got A Pulse’, co-written by Billy Yates and Jerry Salley.
It’s a highlight on Watson’s rootsy new CD, ‘A Taste of The Truth‘ (Shanachie Records, 2009). Jerry Salley also co-wrote (with Monty Holmes) Watson’s second disc duet with Rhonda Vincent, ‘Staying Together’, also part of the talented Texan’s second album for Shanachie Records.
The Gene Watson – Rhonda Vincent ballad is the set’s first single, and was selected for a music video, which Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent wrapped the night before our interview.
‘Patience is a virtue when you’re doing videos’, a weary Gene Watson sighs. ‘All I can do for a video is sing. That’s easy with Rhonda Vincent, who’s a great singer and a good actress, and our voices seem to go well together…’
Apparently, as their first duet was on Gene’s premier Shanachie album, ‘In A Perfect World‘ (Shanachie Records, 2007), a rendition of Buck Owens’ classic, ‘Together Again’. That pairing earned them consideration for the Country Music Association (CMA) ‘Best Music Event’ category in 2008.
Incidentally, from that first Shanachie CD, Gene’s duet with Connie Smith – ‘A Good Place To Turn Around’ (written by J. Matthews, Rebecca Lynn Howard and Jon Mabe) – became a Top Five on the Gospel Radio Active chart, while his vocal collaboration with Vince Gill – ‘Let Me Be The First To Go’ – was No.1 on the HotDisc European chart.
‘Staying Together’, which was written by Buck Owens (Monday 12 August 1929 – Saturday 25 March 2006)(), was Gene Watson’s pick and, since it’s a duet, he immediately thought about Rhonda Vincent: ‘It has such a lot of feeling to it’.
During our chat at John Lytle Management on Music Row, Gene points out that other backing voices heard on the new set belong to Alison Krauss, John Wesley Ryles, Liana Maness and Dirk Johnson, the album’s producer.
Gene Watson and Dirk Johnson in studio on Wednesday 6 May 2009
‘I chose Dirk Johnson for this project because I’ve worked a lot with him and he’s played piano on a number of my records. I listened to his work and liked it. But there again, what he was doing was producing me. He says his secret for a good Gene Watson album is don’t get away from the Gene Watson style, if that makes any sense…I need some lateral movement, so I can do what I feel needs to be done. I’m gonna have to have my input; I couldn’t operate without that. I feel that each song I record is like one of my kids, special, and there has to be something about each that I love or I wouldn’t record it’.
Aithough he doesn’t do so to take writer credit (and doesn’t), Gene Watson wants approval from songwriters to make alterations he feels are necessary musically.
‘I always said if I had a talent other than singing, it’s pickin’ the right material. I’m pretty critical about my songs. I may listen for days and not hear a song I like, and then you just never know, I listen to three songs in a row and like all of them’, continues Gene Watson. ‘A lot of the writers know what to pitch to me because they kinda know what I really like. I’m pretty fortunate, too, having great writers pitch their songs to me. Every time I’ve ever recorded one of their songs, they never hesitate to say, ‘If you don’t like something, change it!’ ‘I’ve rewritten a lot of songs in the studio to make them fit me’.
Gene Watson has a way of getting into a song that’ll make the hair stand up on your arms, particularly when he reaches notes like the finale for ‘Farewell Party’, which was written by Lawton Williams (Monday 24 July 1922 – Thursday 26 July 2007).
‘As you mentioned, I really get into the emotional songs’, continues Gene Watson, who admittedly has found himself tearing up in the studio upon becoming so emotionally involved in a song. ‘Oh yeah, man, exactly, I really pay attention, to the point where when I’m singing, I can even feel goose pimples. That’s when I know I’ve got it right where I want it. I’ve done that many times. It’s sorta like a movie, you gotta get in there and live that song every step of the way, and believe every word you’re singin’. That’s when you know it’s the right song and it really pays off’.
Gene Watson in Brady, Texas in early 2009
photo credit: Duncan Warwick, Editor, Country Music People
Gene Watson, 66, pauses, then adds, ‘The great Red Sovine (Wednesday 17 July 1918 – Friday 4 April 1980) told me one time’, ‘Gene, let me tell you something. If a song is funny, don’t be afraid to laugh, and if it’s sad, don’t be afraid to cry’. ‘He’d done both and I’ve done both’.
Trace Adkins and Gene Watson
The Grand Ole Opry, Nashville
Wednesday 23 August 2023
The native Texan notes that it was a special treat recording with Trace Adkins on ‘We’ve Got A Pulse’ (written by Billy Yates and Jerry Salley). ‘Believe it or not, Trace and I have been friends a long time. I knew him before he had a contract. So I call him up and say, ‘I have this song I like, but I really need somebody who can get the attention of the younger set, to let the overall public know what it’s all about, and who better than you?’
‘It was a favour and he said, ‘Man, I’d be honoured to do it’. ‘So he came over to the studio, listened, and just gave us all the time we needed. But we also had a ball doin’ it. I think the world of Trace anyway. And he’s got such a good heart’.
The song’s in the vein of ‘Murder On Music Row’ (written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell), a duet popularised by Alan Jackson and George Strait (No.38 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart in 2000), which laments the loss of a traditional country sound. Trace and Gene’s take is an in-your-face insistence there’s still a lot of life in hardcore, hell-raisin’ country music a la ‘We’ve Got A Pulse’.
Another notable guesting on Gene Watson’s latest CD is Alison Krauss: ‘She sang background vocals for us, you know vocal harmony for me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be there when she was, as we were workin’ the road. I wish I could have, as she’s so special, such a great artist’.
We talked about three other cuts, first the title track, ‘A Taste of The Truth’.
‘That song’s written by Rebecca Lynn Howard and it’s so real. It’s a song about the grass is always greener on the other side, until you get there and find out it’s not. When I heard that song, I was like Wow! There go the goose bumps again. The words that she used just amazed me, I mean the way that she put it together. It’s just a great song and I didn’t have to change nothin’ in it. I was impressed that she could write so well for a man to sing it’.
Then there’s ‘Three Minutes At A Time’ co-authored by Keith Stegall and Tim Menzies, a true honky tonk tune. ‘I tried two or three times to record that for albums before this and, for whatever reason, it didn’t make the cut. But I always loved the song. This time we needed a 3/4 time song and I just decided this was the right time to record it. I’ve had a lot of compliments on that song and appreciate you saying you like it, too’.
Gene Watson points out being by Keith Stegall and Tim Menzies says a lot in itself: ‘I often said Tim Menzies can sell me a bad song. He’s such a great singer himself and sings a song so well on a demo, I get lost in his performance, until the song doesn’t matter, but he’s a great writer, too, as is Keith Stegall‘.
Why, more than three decades after it was first recorded by Merle Haggard (Tuesday 6 April 1937 – Wednesday 6 April 2016) on his No.1 LP, ‘It’s All In The Movies’ (Capitol Records, 1976), did Gene decide to revive ‘I Know A Ending (When It Comes)’?
‘That’s one written by Hank Cochran (Friday 2 August 1935 – Thursday 15 July 2010), who’s a fantastic writer, and I’m a Merle Haggard nut anyway. I don’t think he ever recorded a song that I didn’t listen to and usually learn, so this was no excaption. I’m the kind of guy who believes a good song is a good song, whether it came out yesterday or twenty or thirty years ago. If it’s a good song then, it’s a good song today. I tought, too, this song is so old that half the people hearing it won’t remember it and sure enough, they didn’t. A lot of DJs think it’s new. My piano player, Jim Black, who used to be a DJ, didn’t remember it. I thought that interesting’.
Gene Watson in 2009
Of the ten songs recorded for the new CD, did he find one that was more challenging to sing in the studio?
‘Yes, the one with Trace. It was harder for me to get into, because it’s completely different stylistically from what I usually sing.
I thought to myself, ‘Boy I’m gonna have to do some work to get into this’. ‘I mean I knew what I had to do, but wasn’t sure the best way to approach it, until Trace just kinda brought it all together for us. There’s the part that he put in there, ‘This ain’t no farewell party’, which he added in the studio. That’s not in the song as written. Trace did that himself; then, after singing it, he says, ‘Sing it, Gene’, and they left that in, too’.
Trace was alluding to Gene’s 1979 classic, ‘Farewell Party’, which was written by Lawton Williams (Monday 24 July 1922 – Thursday 26 July 2007). Gene Watson, who has charted some 50 singles and another 20 albums along the way, scored his sexy breakthrough single, ‘Love In The Hot Afternoon’, in 1975, a strong Top Five. Quick follow-up hits were ‘Where Love Begins’, ‘You Could Know As Much About A Stranger’ and the three-hankie weeper, ‘Paper Rosie’.
Gene Watson performing in Brady, Texas in early 2009
photo credit: Duncan Warwick, Editor, Country Music People
Living as he does in Texas, wouldn’t it be easier just to lay his tracks in a Lone Star State studio?
‘To me, Nashville’s the place to record. Don’t get me wrong, Texas has all the technology that they got here and there are good players there. But there’s not the players I want, for instance (pianist) Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins (Tuesday 18 January 1938 – Sunday 30 January 2022) used to be a deal breaker for me. If I couldn’t get him, I didn’t record’ (he’s now taking it easy).
‘For this album we went back and got some musicians who played on many of my old hits, like (steel guitarist) Sonny Garrish, and you can’t get these guys in Texas. All the guys up here know me and how to make a country record. If you go in there without a producer and say, ‘Guys, we’re gonna do this’, and leve ’em along, you’ll come off with a pretty damn good production, because they’re just so great at what they do. I just enjoy the Nashville sound’.
Whatever the assignment in the studio, Gene Watson wants only the best backing him. One voice he appreciates immensely is that of John Wesley Ryles. ‘I have always admired John Wesley Ryles to the fullest’, notes the squinty-eyed Gene Watson. ‘I think he’s one of the unsung heroes here. Lord, look at the people that’s got records out that he’s doing harmonies on. When he sings with me, I’ve been told, even by family, that it sounds like I’m doing harmonies with myself. I can’t say enough good about him’.
Of course, he’s the same artist credited with Top 10 singles, ‘Kay’ and ‘Once In A Lifetime Thing’. Gene Watson reflected on John Wesley Ryles‘ previous pursuit of a singing career: ‘I talked to John Wesley Ryles about that several times. I mean that song he had out, ‘Kay’ (in 1968), was a great, great record. I just felt bad he couldn’t get his career going onward…He was doing a good job’.
Gene Watson charted his own Billboard No.1, ‘Fourteen Carat Mind’, in 1982. Other Gene Watson standards include ‘Should I Come Home (Or Should I Go Crazy)’, ‘Nothing Sure Looked Good On You’, ‘You’re Out Doing What I’m Here Doing Without’ and ‘Got No Reason Now For Going Home’.
Musicians-in-the-know are aware that, if you want to play in Gene Watson’s Farewell Party Band, you have to be as proficient on stage as his instrumentalists are in the studio.
‘That’s true. I want the musicians in my band to be able to duplicate what I do on the record. Not overplay and certainly not underplay, but let’s do it like the record.
I suppose a lot of musicians might think they don’t want to copy what someone else plays in the studio, but that’s the way it’s gotta be. You know, when you’re out there in front of that audience and you’re doing one of your songs that they like, well, I want to do it so it sounds as close to my record as we can get it. That’s been one of the compliments I’ve had throughout the years and I cherish that…no playing studio tracks or lip-synching and all that stuff that goes on nowadays, not for me’.
Actually, Gene Watson called his bandsmen into the studio back in the early 1980s, for a pair of albums, ‘Sometimes I Get Lucky‘ (MCA Records, 1983) and ‘Little By Little‘ (MCA Records, 1984), both of which fared well chartwise – ‘Sometimes I Get Lucky‘ (MCA Records, 1983) reached No.16 on the Billboard Top Country Albums Chart in 1983, while ‘Little By Little‘ (MCA Records, 1984) reached No.34 on the Billboard Top Country Albums Chart in 1984.
Gene Watson has been performing since he was thirteen, initially kickin’ off with his first group, Gene Watson & The Other Four. He played Fort Worth’s Cowtown Hoedown. In 1965, Gene Watson recorded for Tonka Records, an indie label, and led the house band at the Dynasty Club in Houston.
Meanwhile, he worked as an auto paint and body repairman on his day job right up until after he landed his Capitol contract.
Off stage, Gene Watson’s also been a reliable family man. Next year marks fifty years ago that he married teen-aged sweetheart, Mattie Louise, mother of their two grown children, Terri Lynn Watson Wear (Sunday 11 March 1962 – Tuesday 2 February 2021) and Gary Wayne, and they’re now grandparents.
‘I’ve got a granddaughter who’s going to college now and she’s in her twenties; and a granddaughter by marriage who’s in middle school. I’ve been blessed’.
Management had him slated to make an Opry appearance the night of our interview, but one aspect of his guesting didn’t make him very exuberant.
‘They have me singing Willie Nelson’s ‘On The Road Again’ as part of their ‘Classic Country’ portion of the show’, he confides. ‘I never have done it before and don’t care much for doin’ it. That’s not me. I think about it and I can’t make that a Gene Watson song. But that’s what they’re doin’ these days at the Opry and I’ll do it’.
Does he ever tire of guest shots, making appearances and doing media interviews?
‘Oh no, this is fun. But, of course, it’s a job; everything’s not meant to be hunky-dory. To build a good house, you’ve gotta have a solid foundation, and that’s what this is all about. I think it’s the least I can do, make appearances (on shows like Crook & Chase, WSM’s Bill Cody broadcast) and talk to guys like yourself. You’ve all helped me build the foundation and I feel the least I can do is get back with you all. That’s part of it.
If my record company and my management company are gonna work this hard for me, then I need to do something, too. That’s a small task. Hey, I do interviews from my car and over-the-phone chats all kinds of ways. I don’t mind it when time permits. Especially with someone like you, who knows about me and what’s going on’.
In 2001, Gene Watson found himself battling cancer and, despite an exhaustive treatment regimen, he continued to nurture his career. Today, he’s looking fitter than at our last chat two years ago.
‘I’m doing real good, though I am trying all kinds of things to get some of this weight off. But I’ve had all my checkups and exams and they tell me I’m fine’.
One wonders how he maintained that terrific tenor throughout his ordeal?
‘The key to it, I think, is staying as healthy as you can. A lot of singers don’t act like they care what they sound like now. It’s what they used to sound like that’s gonna carry ’em through with their fans. Well, it don’t work that way with me. I want my voice to sound as strong as I can possibly make it. I have to feel like I’m doing the job, some when I smile, it’s for real’.
Gene Watson feels he has an obligation to fans to do his best.
‘I still try to sign autographs and show the fans as much appreciaion as I can. I’m truthful with them. That is, I listen to what they have to say and pay attention to their feedback, so I’ll know what they want. I’m not exactly going into the studio blindfold when I record. That’s why it’s always country’.
A pick-up man, Gene Watson shares with us that he had just purchased a new Chevy truck that has only 31 miles on it, so he’s anxious to get back to Texas and drive up the mileage. He also assures us he’s still a vintage vehicle collector.
‘Yes, I’m still got my ’83 Monte Carlo SS and the GMC pick-up with a Pontiac engine’, he laughs. ‘Yeah, they’re sitting over in my shop, and I crank ’em up every once in a while. That’s another of my loves, cars’.
What’s the best truck out there?
‘Chevrolet’s always been the best for me. You know I’m an independent dealer myself. I was driving a Nissan Titan before…but I’ve always been a Chevy dealer’.
This article, ‘Gene Watson: Tailgate Party’, which was written by Walt Trott, and was published in the November 2009 issue of Country Music People, was republished within Gene Watson’s Fan Site with the prior permission of Country Music People.
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