On his most recent album release, Real.Country.Music., the 72 year- old Watson once again proves he’s the master of classic country music. He remains defiantly country in the face of today’s more pop oriented offerings and is proud his legions of fans rely on him to keep traditional country music alive and well. With that in mind, Gene delved back into history to pull out some overlooked gems in other artist’s catalogs as well as a few of his own songs that are fan favorites but are no longer available. As Gene noted, “Today’s songwriters are not really writing the kind of songs fans of serious classic country are wanting. Traditional country is about life, heartaches, loves and family. I’ve got to relate to the words as something that either happened to me or happened to someone I know. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around a song that’s simply about riding a tractor or just drinking beer with friends. I want more out of a song. So I went back to some classic songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, Larry Gatlin, Bill Anderson, Keith Whitley, Dean Dillon, Hank Cochran and Dave Kirby – just to name a few of the greats.”
Gene Watson, has endured the ups and downs of the music business to become a country music legend himself. After releasing his very first single in 1962, Watson is still touring constantly in the USA and abroad and remains proud to be known as an icon for “real country”.
Reflecting back on his early life, singing with his seven siblings and parents in Paris, Texas, Watson noted, “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 sang.”
Even in a musical genre noted for its hard-luck stories, Gene Watson’s stands out. The family drifted from job to job as his itinerant father took logging and crop-picking jobs. “Home” eventually became a converted school bus which his father retrofitted himself and he made the stove that was strapped to the outside of the bus. Gene recalls his first real home was one they moved into when he was around 10 – one that his Dad purchased for $900 and spent many years paying off – but Gene also recalls they had to first remove the hay stored in the home before they moved in. As difficult as this may seem to some, Gene is quick to point out that while they didn’t have money for Christmas gifts and extravagant birthday presents, he never felt poor because no one around him had anything more. He said his childhood was extremely happy and for that he’s grateful to his loving parents and close-knit siblings.
Gene’s love for all things about cars and trucks developed early on as did his love for music. He said “I dreamed more about cars than music. I used to draw pictures of cars when I was at school. When I was about 11 or 12, I got a job picking up scrap metal at a car junkyard and I just thought it was wonderful. I’d get off the school bus at this place and work til late, finding hubcaps and car bumpers. I always thought my life’s work would revolve around cars somehow. Then along about my early teen years, my brother and I were asked to perform for a local show. We got paid some minimum amount but we got a standing ovation and I was hooked on the notion I could get paid for doing a little singing to help pay for a car.”
As a young adult, Gene settled in Houston, TX and began performing in the big Houston nightclubs while working as a paint and body man during the day. He developed a strong local following with his stage act and it was in Houston where he released his debut single on Sun Valley Records. That single, titled “If It Was That Easy” didn’t make any charts but as Gene states “it was just exciting to see my name on a record release and to believe that I was really in the business”. In 1964, the Grand Ole Opry duo, The Wilburn Brothers, took Gene on the road briefly. It was The Wilburn Brothers who brought Gene to Nashville for the very first time and allowed him to sing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. Gene notes “I sang the Hank Williams song ‘I Can’t Help It if I’m Still in Love With You’ and got a standing ovation so not knowing what to follow with I just went out and did a gospel standard ‘It Is No Secret What God Can Do’. After that, they carried me down to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop and I got on stage and broadcast on The Midnight Jamboree.”
Then it was back to the Texas honky-tonks and a string of local singles throughout the ‘60s.
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-10 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 honest 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 not long after that. 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 and into the inaugural class of the Houston, Texas Music Hall of Fame in 2013.
Asked why he is still in such high demand after all these years, Watson reflected “I think a lot of it is because there’s not too much of what I do around anymore. I think there is still 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.”