This year marks the Golden Anniversary of one of our greatest living country vocalists. In 1962, Gene Watson began his professional career by recording his first single.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he chuckles, remembering himself as a 19-year-old. “I think maybe I was dreaming a little bit. Who knows what’s going through your mind back then? I was playing nightclubs here and there and decided it might be good if I could record a song.
“My first recording ever was on a little ole independent label that was started up just for this recording session, Sun Valley Records. Maybe I thought I could sell them at my shows or something. I wrote the record, ‘If It Was That Easy.’ It was not any good, but, boy, I thought that was something. I had my own record.”
He might not have known what he was doing in 1962, but he does now. Gene Watson has re-recorded his classic hits on an extraordinary, 25-song collection titled The Best of the Best. His ageless voice sounds exactly as it did when he first recorded these songs in the 1970s and 1980s. The legendary Sonny Garrish reprises the steel-guitar playing he performed during the original recording sessions, and the rest of the players recreate the original arrangements.
It is one of the curious facts of the music business that a major-label artist pays for their recording sessions, yet the label owns the recordings. In addition, Gene Watson’s classics are owned by four different corporations. In a sense, by re-recording them to sound precisely like the originals, he now finally “owns” them all himself.
“I wanted these to sound as close to the originals as could be done,” says Gene. “I had to work so hard to capture them the same way I did them originally. All of these songs are in the same keys. I just thank the good Lord above that He’s let me keep my voice intact. In fact, I can probably hit the notes better now than I could back then.
Whenever there was a question when I was re-recording these, we went back and listened to the original recording.
“I put this together on my own dime, and it’s coming out on my own label, Fourteen Carat Music. These songs have always been a part of my life and career. As long as the people will take their hard-earned money and come to my shows, this is what they’re going to hear.”
Performances such as “Fourteen Carat Mind,” “Love in the Hot Afternoon,” “Farewell Party,” “Memories to Burn,” “Got No Reason Now for Going Home,” “Speak Softly,” “Paper Rosie” and “Sometimes I Get Lucky and Forget” have forged Gene Watson’s reputation as a “Singer’s Singer.” He is the envy of his peers and the idol of such younger performers as Joe Nichols, Brad Paisley, Trace Adkins, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Lee Ann Womack and Randy Travis.
Gene, himself, views his remarkable vocal talent as a matter of course. All seven Watson children sang, as did his parents.
“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 were singers.”
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.
“I sang in church with my sister. My younger brother Jessie and me would sing at little school functions and local things. He played electric guitar, and I played acoustic guitar. When I was fifteen and he was about twelve, there was a guy who came to town in Paris, Texas who was supposed to be a big producer and talent scout and all this. He thought that Jessie and I had a lot of potential, so he put a show together at the coliseum. That was the big debut for The Watson Brothers. By the time the show was over with, he left town with the proceeds.”
Gene settled in Houston, Texas, 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.
“My cousin, Bill Watson, is a songwriter. We decided to go to Nashville and check out what it takes to get a song recorded. That would have been in like, 1966 or 1967. We thought with some of his songs and my singing, we might get someone to listen. Of course, it was to no avail.”
But 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-Ten 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 nothing 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.
“It’s unbelievable to me that it’s been 50 years,” says Gene. “For most of those years, it seemed like it took everything I could do to keep working as steady as I needed to. Now that I’m older, it seems like everything comes to me without trying. I’m working more shows than I was fifteen years ago.
“It’s quite a compliment. 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.”