by: Thomas D. Mooney
Gene Watson has been a country music force for the better part of 50 years. Armed with one of the warmest and richest voices country music has ever seen, Watson has been gently breaking and mending hearts for decades.
His latest album, 2016’s Real.Country.Music., is much the same as can be expected from Watson. With over 30 studio albums under his belt, it’d be natural to see a dip in productivity, but in Watson, we see an artist who still has all charm, grace, and shades of sorrow as he’s ever had. Throughout the fourteen-track album, Watson’s sincerity shines. Often called a singer’s singer, Watson paints each individual track as vivid as he possibly can. Like the album’s title hints, Watson’s still delivering real country music in 2016.
We caught up with the country legend earlier this week to talk about his lengthy and storied singing career. Watson will be performing at The Cactus Theater this Friday evening in Lubbock.
New Slang: You’re about 50 years into your music career these days. Do you still get that good nervousness before a show? Is that something that leaves?
Gene Watson: I don’t really get nervous before. The most you’ll see from me is that anticipation. I can’t stand waiting back behind stage. That’s still there.
NS: The first part of your career was spent down in the Houston during the ’60s. You weren’t signed on to a major label yet. What were those early days like when you were still working a full-time job and playing music at night?
GW: That kind of showed my love for the music. I had an 8 to 5 job doing paint and body work, but I loved music. I had a pretty good band with me. We played the local night clubs in the vicinity during the weekends. We didn’t make much money, but it was for the love of the music. We had a great following back then.
NS: I’m guessing it’s safe to say had you not ever signed a major label deal, you still would have played.
GW: Yeah. Probably so. Being an entertainer or a recording artist, that was never one of my goals in life. I just loved music. I can remember singing as far back as talking.
NS: How’d you sound back then? Did you really change your sound much when you signed with Capital?
GW: Back then, when we were doing the clubs and everything, we really worked off requests. People would request songs from like Jones and Haggard. Every time we did one of their songs, I’d try my best to do it exactly the way they did. It was brought to my attention one night, a guy told me, “I don’t know if you know it or not, but you have Merle Haggard down.” I got to thinking about it. You know, there’s already a Merle Haggard, a George Jones, and a Willie Nelson. Honestly, I threw all that out the window and started singing the songs the way I felt them. Right, wrong, or indifferent, that’s the way I would sing them. Believe it or not, that was the beginning of the Gene Watson style.
NS: One of the things about you that’s carried over throughout the years has been your voice. There’s been little to no change since you started out. It’s not faded out or changed. Why do you think that is?
GW: I think the reason for that is because I’m myself with my natural voice. I also really concentrate when I’m singing. Every word, every phrase, I want the diction to be as good as I can get it. I don’t strain very much. Every once in a while I will–like the ending of “Farewell Party.” As a rule though, I’m singing what feels good to me so it’s never really much of a problem.
NS: You mentioned “Farewell Party,” A lot of your most successful songs are these heartbreaking ballads. How do you relate to songs of yours that are now 40 years old?
GW: You know, it’s not so much how I relate to them, but it’s how other people relate to them. I try my best to tell people’s life story in song. If I can get their attention that way, they’re going to listen. I try to pick songs that other people are going to relate to.
NS: I’m sure there’s been songs you were on the fence with before you actually recorded them. Is there any in particular that come to mind that you changed your mind on after seeing it have an impact on others?
GW: Yeah. “Paper Rosie” was one of those–and it ended up being a number one song. The first time I recorded it–well, first of all, I wasn’t really knocked out by the song at all. I guess I didn’t hear it, which is understandable since I don’t hear it in all of them. I didn’t care for it that much though. I recorded it and didn’t feel like I did the song justice. I wasn’t satisfied. The head of the country division in Nashville for Capital Records, Frank Jones, he’s the one who brought it to me from Canada. He loved it and wanted me to go back in and redo it. So I did. That second time, we added a flute and a couple of horns. They’re real subtle, but they’re in there. I kind of through my original thoughts out the window and really tried to discover the song. When we left the studio, I knew it was a great song. I didn’t know it was going to be a hit, but I knew it was a great song. I was satisfied with it.
NS: You catalog of music is pretty extensive. Over 30 studio albums. That’s a lot of songs recorded, but it’s even more that were pitched to you and weren’t recorded. At one point did you start searching for the songs yourself rather than waiting to see what was brought to you?
GW: One thing about my career that I’m so proud of is that I’ve always had the freedom to pick and choose the songs that I recorded. Nobody picked them for me. People helped me look for them, locate them, and find them, but I always had the last say. You never know where you’re going to find that next hit. Therefore, you have to go through them all. I never did trust anyone to critique the songs but me. I’d be the one who knew what I was looking for and whether it was mine or not.
NS: How do you know when a song is your song?
GW: It’s got to be a story I can live. Recording a song is like an actor playing a role. I have to feel that part and have to do a good job of acting that part. Otherwise, that song just isn’t for me.
NS: Going back to a lot of your successful hits being heart-wrenching ballads, did you ever feel typecast?
GW: I was kind of typecast in a way. People kind of expected that kind of music from me–the waltzes, the ballads, the sad songs. When they bought a Gene Watson product, that’s kind of what they were expecting. That’s not to say we didn’t have some up-tempo songs on there though. “Fourteen Carat Mind” was one number song on Billboard. I did record some of those, but my most consistent records were ballads and waltzes–sad songs and stories.
NS: Do you think that’s essentially what’s missing from modern country radio? There’s a lack of relatable and emotional sad songs and story songs?
GW: Absolutely. There’s no way in the world these new artists can feel what they’re singing. How the hell you going to feel a little mud on the tires? I’m not saying all of them are that way. I’m speaking in general. To me, a song has to have substance. Whether it’s sad, happy, fast, or slow, it still needs substance for it to really mean anything.
NS: Yeah. I’ve read a few of your recent interviews. I think you’ve done a good job of expressing that you’re not wanting these new folks to fall, but you’re more so disappointed in the song choices and the direction country music has been headed.
GW: Yeah. I don’t want anybody to fail. I’m wanting them to succeed. But that doesn’t mean I have to like the music that they’re fabricating. I say that because it’s just a fact. You don’t have to be a good singer or have a good song. They’re looking for a marketing tool. They can record a perfect record now. You can go in with your computers and make it a perfect record.
NS: When do you think that shift started happening?
GW: I don’t know. I ‘d like to think it’s going to come back our way. There’s a lot of great talent out there. There are people that can be respected and doing well. It’s just that so many new artists, they couldn’t make it in the type of music that I do. I’m hoping everything turns back towards traditional country music though. I don’t know how long that’ll be though. It’s strayed away on several occasions before, but it’s always came back.
NS: You released a new album earlier this year. You mentioned how the recording process has changed over time earlier. Are you still approaching the album making process the same as you always have or do you feel like you’ve applied some of the newer recording techniques into your newest albums?
GW: My latest CD I think is some of the greatest work I’ve ever done. The one before that, My Heroes Have Always Been Country, for that, I went back and picked out songs that I’d been singing years ago that had been recorded by some of my heroes. A good song is everlasting. A good song is a good song is a good song whether it’s yesterday, today, or tomorrow.