Gene Watson ('79)

First published in Country Music People in June 1979

A big welcome awaits Gene from the British Country Market 

One of the most welcome developments in country music of recent years has been the appearance of artists who do not feel bound to prove themselves by writing their own material. Three major singers to have emerged in this guise that immediately spring to mind for the care with which they choose their material, the individuality which they bring to it, and the success of their achievements are Ronnie Milsap, Moe Bandy and Gene Watson.

Watson is no newcomer to country music; for more than 10 years he had been a good, though neglected figure in the Texas country scene when he signed a contract with Capitol in 1975 and watched Love In The Hot Afternoon climb high on the country charts. Since then every single has made the grade, with several like Where Love Begins, Paper Rosie and The Old Man And His Horn having reached the coveted top spot.

The contract with Capitol didn’t mark Gene Watson’s recording debut. He had released quite a few singles for Wide World and Resco, local Texas labels, since 1969. Some of the recordings made for these two labels, recorded either in Houston or Nashville, have subsequently turned up on his Capitol albums. Bad Water, Through The Eyes Of Love and If I’m A Fool For Leaving are just three examples.

The quality of these recordings, in terms of musicianship, singing and production, are the equal of the later Capitol records, and it’s quite mystifying why it took so long for Gene Watson to establish himself on the American country scene. His choice of material from the very beginning could never be faulted.

Gene’s initial release for Wide World coupled I’ll Run Right Back To You and Autumn In June, two pleasant country ballads lifted by the excellent vocal work and some good production by none other than Jack Clement. His next release featured a rare Waylon Jennings’ song, John’s Back In Town, which was recorded in Houston. The slightly humorous tale of the wife of a singer’s illicit love affair is handled competently by Watson, but it is the softer Florence Jean on the other side which demonstrates more fully the singer’s developing vocal phrasing.

Several singles were released for the label, and a most unusual choice was The Birds And The Bees, the old pop song released in 1972. This shows the similar problems experienced by ‘unknown’ American country singers and Britain’s country bands. Gene’s initial recordings were made for the benefit of those people who had seen him on stage, and it is highly likely that this song was a popular stage number at the time. He adapts the song to his smooth country styling well, but again it is the other side, in this case Jimmy Day’s My Eyes Are Jealous which takes the honours. With some fine fiddle work giving way to a blue-sounding steel guitar, Gene makes this song into one of his best performances.

The popularity of Gene Watson around the Houston area was growing steadily, thanks to radio stations KENR, KIKK and KNUS, for regularly playing his records, and Watson’s own personal appearances. This led to the release of his first album on Wide World Records in the early months of 1973. Included were several of his single releases, yet the album sounds more than just a collection of odd singles. From the soft, sad ballads that Gene has since become famed for, to gentle toe-tappers, the singer had his craft firmly under control.

There are few songs on the album that could be termed country standards. I was familiar with This Song Is Just For You and Brook Benton’s It’s Just A Matter Of Time, but it was Gene Watson’s ability to take a little-known, superbly-written country ballad and make it sound special that lifts this album. This he does superbly with Little Jimmy Dickens’ If I’m A Fool For Leaving, the opening track on the first side. Above a simple, but effective steel guitar, he sings the song with great feeling and affection.
Eddie Noack’s When My Daddy Danced is a great little throwaway track which evokes memories of an old country dance with plenty of fine fiddling, whilst David Ingles’ Two Right People is in typical Gene Watson style; slow, sad and instantly memorable. If ever you see this first album around don’t hesitate, snap it up immediately, it’s a fine ‘straight country’ album.

The album failed to win Gene Watson anything more than a loyal local Texas following, and the next couple of years saw him release some more fine singles, this time for the Resco label, which like Wide World, was based in Houston. A distinctive version of Jack Clement’s Through The Eyes Of Love, Mel Tillis’ well-known Burning Memories and a gospel-flavoured rendition of Jackie DeShannon’s Bad Water, paved the way for Love In The Hot Afternoon, the song that brought him to the attention of Capitol Records and eventually national recognition.

It was a descriptive ballad that painted a picture of a southern town and two lovers, beautifully produced with Buddy Spicher’s fiddle work heightening the drama and Watson’s so casual, almost lazy vocal style creating the perfect atmosphere. Capitol signed Gene and re-released the single and saw it climb high on the country charts. For the follow-up Gene turned to the songwriting talents of Ray Griff, a writer who was to provide the Texas balladeer with many more songs in the next few years.

Where Love Begins was another sensual love song with simple, uncluttered piano work leading to some fine steel work from Lloyd Green as the singer almost talks his way to the first chorus, and it was this chorus that ensured the single’s great success. A trio of hits was established with You Could Know As Much About A Stranger, a song about the futility of marriage after the partners have grown apart rather than closer together. It’s a theme that you will find in many songs that Watson has recorded and one that everyday people easily relate with.

This led to the release of his first Capitol album, LOVE IN THE HOT AFTERNOON, towards the end of 1975. Included were the three singles already mentioned, plus Through The Eyes Of Love and Bad Water, which were previously released on the Resco label. This was a handy collection of songs highlighted by Vince Matthews’ This Is My Year For Mexico and the mid-tempo Dallas Frazier song, This Just Ain’t No Good Day For Leaving. It worked in every department and gave a healthy shove to a career that was already rattling along.

With the release of his second Capitol album, BECAUSE YOU BELIEVED IN ME a year later, Gene’s legions of fans just kept growing. That album contained two more hits, the title song and Her Body Couldn’t Keep You Off My Mind. This latter song was a gutsy Ray Griff number rendered convincingly by Watson who reached a new level of excellence and sensitivity. Laid back production, a steady background beat and a dash of steel added to an exceptional record.

Ray Griff contributed three more songs to the album, the soft and reflective How Good A Bad Woman Feels, the upbeat Hey Louella and my favourite track And Then You Came Along. Added to these you have Larry Gatlin’s Bitter They Are The Harder They Feel, Roger Miller’s Sorry Willie and Hank Cochran’s I Fell Apart. This track had Gene sounding very close to the early style of Merle Haggard, a trap he rarely falls into nowadays. An album that was pleasantly varied, but by no means earth-shattering.

It took another major hit with a song that everyone was talking about before Gene Watson gained a British release, and then we had to wait months before EMI finally released the album, PAPER ROSIE to enthusiastic acclaim from both critics and fans. The title song, written by Canadian singer-writer Dallas Harms, was a memory evoking story song of the type that Watson had become a master. Simple backing with atmospheric steel way back in the mix and the voice up-front as the tale unfolds and leads to a catchy chorus that hooks you as the song builds up smooth and effectively.

In no way was this a one-song album though. A trademark of Gene’s relatively short career has been his care in the choice of material. This album is full of classic songs, most of them unknown until this singer brought them to life. The strength and indeed the justification of an interpretative performer is two-fold; firstly can he impress upon or draw out a new range of meanings and possibilities from any given song, secondly does he have a personality as an artist that runs through and transcends the chosen material.

On both counts Gene Watson succeeds supremely well, redefining the songs he selects, as he proves with distinctive readings of Marty Robbins’ You Gave Me A Mountain, Ray Griff’s If The Shoe Fits Wear It and Porter Wagoner’s Tennessee Sunshine. Then he takes a new song, Desperation, and stamps it indelibly as his very own. In addition to the songs mentioned, I could not pass by the lyrical and lilting interpretation of Ray Griff’s Don’t Look At Me, enlightened by the harmonica of Charlie McCoy, his gently moody version of Dolly Parton’s Most Of All Why or the sensitive I’d Settle For Just Crossing Her Mind.

Everytime I listened to that album one word came to mind—beautiful! Obviously I was not the only person to be captivated that way, as the next album was titled GENE WATSON’S BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY. Whether it was gratitude or simply that the songs were good, this set opened with two more Dallas Harms’ compositions, The Old Man And His Horn and Cowboys Don’t Get Lucky All The Time. Both went on to become big hits for Gene and further established the young Canadian songwriter on the Nashville scene.

The latter was an up-tempo number which had a spectacularly good arrangement including some extremely fine guitar and a powerful steel guitar solo. Again Watson chose some of the best slow country ballads he could with Joe Allen’s I Don’t Need A Thing At All and Dick Oberbey’s I’d Love To Live With You Again standing out. As usual producer Russ Reeder keeps the background simple and effective, allowing the songs to build into powerful units that merge into a strong album.

Amazingly, EMI decided against releasing this album in Britain, even though its predecessor, PAPER ROSIE had sold well. Whilst they chose to ignore the talent and potential of Gene Watson, Capitol put out a BEST OF in the States, and in one album you have some of the finest ‘country’ performances of recent years.

To bring us up to date with Gene Watson’s recordings, we come to REFLECTIONS, released at the end of last year Stateside and due for a British release this month to coincide with Gene’s tour. From the very beginning you know this is going to be a good album, it might even be the definitive Gene Watson album.

One Sided Conversation, a stunning Joe Allen song opens the album with possibly the best vocal work I’ve heard from Gene. Released as a single, it didn’t match the success of Gene’s previous efforts, but is one of my favourite tracks. This is followed by the jaunty Take Off Them Shoes, before the singer slips back into some more fine ballads like Farewell Party and For The Memories.

Unlike so many singers who had made it big in Nashville, Gene Watson has resisted all efforts to make him sweeten his records. Throughout this album there is steel guitar from Lloyd Green, the fiddle work of Buddy Spicher and Tommy Williams, excellent lead work either by Dale Sellars, the late Jimmy Colvard or Harold Bradley, and then there’s the unobtrusive keyboard work of ‘Pig’ Robbins.

Gene Watson’s art seems to reside in a unique voice that can ooze sadness in song or exude an antique yearning quality. It would be easy to swamp the songs with strings to gain an imitation of nostalgia and sadness, but that trap is avoided, and instead we have the cleanest and best uncluttered country sound currently being recorded in Nashville.

He is not a familiar name to British country fans, but slowly the word is spreading that a major ‘country’ talent is emerging from Nashville. This tour should help considerably in establishing the name Gene Watson in Britain. I’ve been listening to his records for the past eight years, and I’m convinced that he is the best interpretative singer to have emerged in country music since Merle Haggard. If his concert appearances are half as good as his recordings, then British country fans are in for a real treat.