‘I really like the fish and chips I find in the UK’ states Country Music Legend Gene Watson. He is speaking prior to commencing his numerous appearances in Ireland and mainland UK this July/August.
Gene Watson could quite easily be the Emperor of Country Music. His reign has seen him score over 70 charted songs, including 23 top 10’s and 6 number 1 hits over his forty-year career, which is still going strong at the age of 65. He is revered by many others such as Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack, Trace Adkins to Alison Krauss who consider it an honour to record with him. He is considered as one of Country Music’s best ballad singers in the same league as George Jones, Merle Haggard, Vern Gosdin and others who are the standard bearers for honest, traditional Country Music. There’s no doubt Gene Watson is the real deal. He is what country music is all about. “I like going to the local cafe to drink coffee and talk with the other guys,” Watson says. “I didn’t want to be a superstar. I always said stars were good to look at but impossible to touch. I’m with real people.”
Born in Palestine, Texas in 1943 Gene was brought up singing in Churches with his family. His father played blues harmonica and guitar alongside African-American field labourers. He grew up loving both bluesman Jimmy Reed and honky-tonk king Lefty Frizzell. His earliest public country performance came aged 12.
Watson dropped out of school in the ninth grade to work fulltime. He initially supported his family by doing auto body repair, so by day he worked on cars, and at night he sang in clubs. “But doing music professionally was never a goal of mine,” he confesses. "I always wanted to work on cars. I always say I never did go looking for music. Music found me. Before I ever made a record, The Wilburn Brothers heard me sing down in Houston at a nightclub one night. They said they’d like for me to go with them and do a couple of shows. So I came up to Nashville and travelled to North Carolina with them. They got me on the Grand Ole Opry, and I got a standing ovation and an encore singing the Hank Williams song I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You and 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. That was my first experience with the Big Time. I was 21.”
In the mid 70s, while on Capitol (with whom Gene recorded until 1980), he enjoyed success with a string of national hits: Love In The Hot Afternoon, Where Love Begins, Paper Rosie, Farewell Party, Should I Come Home (Or Should I Go Crazy) and Nothing Sure Looked Good On You. Before signing with MCA in the 80s, Gene’s single Any Which Way, from the soundtrack of the Clint Eastwood movie of the same title, reached top 40 on the country charts. Somewhere along the way Clint Eastwood had heard the song as a demo recording by its writer L. Ofman but he insisted that Gene should record the song. Shortly after moving to MCA, Watson recorded Fourteen Carat Mind which hit #1. A parade of Top Ten hits followed during the early ’80s including: Speak Softly (You’re Talking To My Heart), You’re Out Doing What I’m Here Doing Without, Sometimes I Get Lucky, Drinkin’ My Way Back Home, Forever Again and Little By Little.
In 1985, Gene moved to Epic Records and returned to the Top 5 with the western swing-influenced Memories to Burn, which was also the title of his first album on the label. Subsequent albums with Epic included Starting New Memories in 1986 and Honky Tonk Crazy in 1987. The following year, Gene Watson made his Warner Bros. debut with Back In The Fire, which was followed by At Last. Leaving the label in 1991, Gene recorded the album In Other Words, which was initially released only in Canada on Gary Buck’s label, Broadland International Records. It was later released in the US in 1993. The same year, Gene made his debut album for Step One Records Uncharted Mind and followed it with the albums The Good Ole Days, Jesus Is All I Need and A Way To Survive. A brief stint with the RMG (Row Music Group) Records label yielded the title From The Heart that was followed by the recording Gene Watson….Sings on Intersound Records in 2003. In September 2007 Gene recorded his highly anticipated Shanachie Entertainment debut In A Perfect World. The Associated Press said “Gene Watson has never sounded better” while The Boston Herald called the album “The country music sleeper of the year.”
Gene Watson says, “I have been on top. And I’ve been just as low as you can go.” All of those ups and downs give “a taste of the truth” to Gene’s album A Taste of the Truth released in 2009. He concludes, “There’s a tremendous number of people around the world who continue to come out to hear some fiddle and steel and songs about heartbreak and real life,” Gene says. “Those folks are there to support real country music and make it possible for singers like me to continue to sing it!”
“It means everything to me to meet my UK fans. They are some of the greatest fans in the world and really make me feel at home. They’re so glad to see me and the band and their enthusiasm always makes me want to come back again and again. I think they are just so close to being like my personal friends – always so kind and considerate and a real joy to know.
Are your fans here more ardent? “Well, I guess that depends on whether we’re playing in a posh theatre or a honkytonk in the USA. We get some super rowdy fans in Texas but what is wonderful with the UK fans is that they know so well how to listen quietly to a great song- you know they are seriously listening to the words – but then when that song is over, they know how to let loose and show full appreciation and yes, it might get boisterous and loud but THAT really makes me and the band feel great to know they enjoyed it so much. You can’t ask for it to be better than that.”
Gene continues: “One thing that I enjoy with my UK fans, is that they are so sincerely interested in knowing me. They do a lot of research and it’s humbling to me when a fan knows so much about my career. They really care about the older music as well as the new. They know all about the band and they ask interesting questions about the music, how it’s made, etc. The UK fans are extremely loyal and that is a special joy to someone who’s been in this business as long as I have. ”
When asked about a favourite song there was no hesitation. “Carmen” states Gene “is a song that is heavily requested in the UK and one that is not known as well in the States. In fact, because of the UK fans requesting it so much, we started playing it more often in the States. But the song that goes down best around the world is hand’s down my most requested song, “Farewell Party”. That is by far the favorite song of the fans everywhere we go.”
On venues: “I couldn’t pick just one favourite UK venue as I’ve enjoyed them all so much. I love the intimate feel of the smaller places as well as the huge excitement at the festivals.”
When Gene was asked to state one fact we did not know about him, the response was surprising. “I’m not sure with the internet how much is not known about a person but I know I’ve never mentioned this anywhere – I really like the fish and chips I find in the UK. There’s something with how the fish is fried that is just incredible and I can’t seem to find it like that anywhere but the UK.”
To close the interview with Gene Watson, he was asked which song that he performs brings him close to tears and why?
“The most emotional song for me is the title song of my new album “A Taste of the Truth”. The lyrics to the song mean so much to me as I relate it back to country music. I sing traditional, real country music – not what is passing for country music on radio today – Country Music is all about Truth and even if I’m the only one left standing, I’ll still be singing the real truth of country music. It’s what I stand for, it’s what I am and yeah, I do get emotional everytime I sing that song.”