Best of the Best: An Interview with Gene Watson
Having recorded his first song in 1962, this year Gene Watson is celebrating his fiftieth year in the music business. To celebrate, he’s released Best of the Best: 25 Greatest Hits—featuring re-recorded versions of some of his classics—on his own label, Fourteen Carat Records. While on the road, Gene found a few minutes to chat with us about the record as his bus headed from Texas to Florida.
Juli Thanki: Why decide to re-record these songs at this time and keep the new versions so close to your earlier recordings?
Gene Watson: Some of these songs, it’s been so long since they were out that they’ve been taken out of the catalog, and you can’t get ‘em. And now, except for XM Radio and oldies stations, it’s impossible to hear them. We’re always having people come up wondering what album a song was from, and where they can get this, this, and this, and it’s impossible. You can’t find them. So I decided to put together this group of songs and bring them out, and that’s what we did.
JT: How did you pick what songs were going to be on the record?
GW: It wasn’t easy. I tried to gather the songs that were not only the biggest songs on the charts, but the most requested, the most loved, and the ones that people had asked about more than the rest. You can’t be spot on with everything, but these are the 25 that I thought were the closest to filling all of those bills. This album is really for the fans because they’re the ones who have kept me going my whole career.
JT: What makes a song appeal to you when you’re deciding whether or not to cut it?
GW: I think if I start telling a story in song, and I tell something that’s happened to you or something that could have happened, well, I’ve automatically got your attention. That’s something you won’t likely forget. I try to pick songs people can associate with.
JT: What was the recording process like for this album? Was mimicking the original versions of the songs easier or more difficult than you imagined?
GW: It was probably the hardest album that I’ve ever tried to record. I wanted to get [the songs] so much like the originals, and when we were in the studio, laying tracks down, I had the originals right there with us, so if there was a question about phrasing or diction or tempo, I could refer to the original. I tried to get the songs as exact as I could. With that many years [between recordings] you’re not going to get them exact, but they’re as close as I’m ever going to be able to get them. I can still sing the songs in the same key I originally recorded them in, and recorded in the same tempo, and tried to stay as close to the phrasing as possible. I hope everybody’s pleased with it.
JT: Some young country singers have been in the news the past few years with voice problems; after decades of singing and touring, your voice is still in fine shape. What do you do to protect it?
GW: My voice depends on how much rest I get. Truly, I don’t do anything special except maybe use some honey and lemon and stuff like that when I feel as though it’s getting a little raspy. As far as exotic treatment or anything: no. When I get tired, my voice is the first thing to go, so I try to get as much rest as I can.
JT: How has your opinion or perception of the country music industry changed over the course of your career?
GW: I’ve seen a lot of things come and go. Since I started, I’ve seen the country crossovers, I’ve seen the rhinestone cowboys, the urban cowboys, I’ve seen the outlaw phase, I’ve seen the hat acts, and even on the West Coast there was a big craze called “punk country.” I’ve seen all kinds of phases and fads, but I’ve always been fortunate enough that it all comes around back to what I started with. The only thing that I miss now is that electronic technology has taken a lot of the skill out of it. That I regret. I like for anybody to succeed that they start out doing, but if doesn’t make any difference whether you know how to sing or not in order to record a perfect record, well, that hurts because I think it’s a talent that is God-given. I think it’s a skill that people either possess or they don’t possess, and now there are hit records that really are fabricated in the studio. That part of it I regret.
There’s a lot of us artists who’ve paid our dues and came up the hard way, playing the nightclubs and beer joints and all that stuff. I never worked for another artist or anything, so I certainly never had my foot in the door. Everything that I’ve gained throughout my career, I’ve gained by recording the best material I could find and learning from my mistakes. Thanks to a lot of good writers out there and most of all, all the beautiful fans, I’ve been able to sustain [a career] for as long as I have.
JT: Your Money and My Good Looks was one of my favorite records last year. How did you and Rhonda end up working together for that album?
GW: I’d been fortunate enough to play some bluegrass festivals; I like bluegrass music, anyway. I’d started a project called In a Perfect World, and a lot of the Nashville artists that I really, really think the world of, that I really admire, came by and sung on the album with me: Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack, Connie Smith, Mark Chesnutt—and it seems the only duet on the album was with Rhonda Vincent. I just loved the way our voices blended on that song, so I had another duet, “Staying Together,” on the next project, A Taste of the Truth, so I called Rhonda and asked if she would sing it with me. I thought it was a great song. Then we got to working some shows together and doing these songs, and we just thought about how neat it would be to record a country duets album. It didn’t take that long: we talked about it, started gathering material, and went right in to the studio. I think it’s a good album; it’s one of my favorite albums.
JT: Any more plans for future collaborations?
GW: We’ve talked about it, but there’s no dates set. I always look to the future and try to have something to look forward to. Without goals, I think you become idle, so I try to keep something out there in reach. I want to do another gospel album; we’re also planning on doing a Christmas album, and I’d like to do another album of original songs, too. I’ve got plenty in mind to keep me busy, so now all I need to do is find the time to get around to doing it all. And I’m always on the road, like one of those old country doctors. Wherever they want us, we try to go.
JT: You’ve been on major labels like MCA and Epic and smaller labels, but now you’re on your own with Fourteen Carat Records. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to running your own label?
GW: I’ll be honest: I don’t think there’s any difference in the music. The main thing with this product is that I can control it in-house. I can call the shots with what will happen and won’t happen. Anything that happens, good, bad, or indifferent, I can’t blame anybody but myself. I had another label that I owned, but I wanted to start fresh.
JT: What’s country music been to you?
GW: I think country music is a tradition. It deserves to be held in the highest esteem. I hope it gets back on track because I think traditional country music is an art form we’re losing and I think it’s going to be gone if we’re not careful. Like the song George Jones put out, “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?”
That’s a big question, but for me, country music is my life.
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