Gene Watson's 2012 CD, Best of the Best: 25 Greatest Hits.
By Robert K. Oermann
© 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
Honky-tonk legend Gene Watson is celebrating his 50th anniversary as a recording artist with a flurry of activity that has made him gladly busy.
“He’s extremely happy right now,” reported his manager, John Lytle, President, Lytle Management Group. “He is so dedicated to what he’s doing. This seemed like the perfect time to remind the industry what this guy has accomplished and all the great songs he’s sung. We’d been talking about re-recording his greatest hits for several years. And it occurred to us that doing that and celebrating the 50th anniversary at the same time would be a good idea.”
Two hurdles on the path toward this goal stood right at the start. One of the curiosities of the record business is that artists who record for a major label pay for their own recording sessions, yet the label owns the finished recordings. In addition, Watson’s big hits of 1975 through 1990 were recorded for several different corporations.
To address both situations, Watson re-recorded his classics for his own label on a 25-song collection called The Best of the Best.
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Session players recreated the original arrangements, almost note for note. Watson’s voice has not aged. As a result, these performances sound precisely like the originals — and Watson finally “owns” his hits himself.
“I wanted these to sound as close to the originals as could be done,” he said. “I just thank the good Lord above that he’s let me keep my voice intact. In fact, I probably hit the notes better now than I could back then.”
The album’s producer, Dirk Johnson, went out of his way to hire players who had participated in the original sessions or, if they weren’t available, those who understood and loved those recordings. Their familiarity with the music made everyone’s job easier, especially since Johnson had isolated key parts on the older recordings on Avid Pro Tools, so they could be immediately cued and played back for quick reference.
He also worked to update sound quality while retaining the feel of each tune. “Everyone played through amps in the studio back then,” Johnson said. “Because more people record direct now, I’d take those parts and run them back into amps that were used in that period of time. There was an entire week where it sounded like there was one player in my room, doing the same part over and over again, but those were the new parts for this album, blowing through that amp into a mic.”
Among the more than 50 charted singles and 21 Top 10 blockbusters on the new collection are “Farewell Party” (written by Lawton Williams), “Got No Reason Now for Goin’ Home” (Johnny Russell), “Fourteen Carat Mind” (Dallas Frazier and Larry Lee), “Love in the Hot Afternoon” (Vince Matthews and Kent Westberry), “Memories to Burn” (Dave Kirby and Warren Robb), “Paper Rosie” (Dallas Harms), “Sometimes I Get Lucky and Forget” (Bobby Lee House and Ernie Rowell) and “Speak Softly (You’re Talking to My Heart)” (Jessie Mendenhall and Steve Spurgin).
In April, Watson celebrated his new album with a concert at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and performed twice on the Grand Ole Opry, where he presented each member of the show’s cast with a copy of The Best of the Best. RFD-TV dedicated an edition of “Larry’s Country Diner” to Watson. Just prior to the album’s release in February, Sirius/XM satellite radio recorded a concert and three-hour interview with him. And he performed several times live at the CMA Music Festival in early June.
“It was so great listening to him,” said Lytle. “Gene doesn’t even know how interesting his stories are or how fascinating his life has been. It’s fascinating to work with somebody who has his kind of history.”
Watson accepts his remarkable vocal talent as a matter of course. All seven Watson children sang, as did his parents. “I can remember singing before I can remember talking,” he said. “Even when I was a kid, if I heard a song twice, I knew it.”
Born in Palestine, Texas, in 1943, Gary Gene Watson was singing in holiness churches with his family at an early age. His father played blues harmonica and guitar alongside African-American field laborers. Both parents were church singers and guitarists. Watson grew up loving blues, classic gospel and the Country stars of the 1950s.
Even amid the toughest hard-luck stories of Country Music, Watson’s stood out. His family drifted from shack to shack as his itinerant father took logging and crop-picking jobs. He worked with his parents and siblings in the fields. There was no place to call “home” until his father customized an old school bus for living quarters and transportation.
“Yeah, we were poor,” the singer remembered. “Today, people live in motor homes. Ours was yellow. We traveled to Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas until one day my dad decided we were going to Phoenix, Ariz. We didn’t have any money to go to Phoenix, so we worked our way out there. We would cut spinach. We would pull radishes. We would pick potatoes. We would pick cotton. Whatever it took, we did it. That’s the only life I knew.” Continue Reading