Gene Watson – Mechanical royalty
The scenes that open Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, with Harry Dean Stanton alone in the desert and the sound of Ry Cooder’s slide guitar curling around like a memory or a premonition, are among the most striking and beautiful images of loss and loneliness in modern film. They resonate because of the synergy: The loving gaze of the director, the presence of the actor and the sounds of a virtuoso all come together.
Gene Watson says he doesn’t see himself or the town where he was raised in that movie — no surprise, really, as the film wasn’t shot in Paris — though his early album covers show a young man with butcher-chop sideburns and curls of smoke around his face. He could be the twin of the character Stanton must have been before his fall. Watson has had his own falls: from fame, from music trends, from hard drinking, from disease. He’s not a pained or lonely soul, but he has always known how to make the dramas of love and desire become more than fictions, more than images of other people’s lives.
More than 30 years after his first top-10 single, “Love In The Hot Afternoon”, Watson still commands his gifts and instincts. His first record on the Shanachie label, In A Perfect World (released September 25), marks a comeback of sorts. On it, he’s joined by some of the singers he has influenced, including Mark Chesnutt, Vince Gill, Joe Nichols; the affair might seem like another namedropper’s ball, another false start to bring him back from mainstream desertion.
Only there’s the voice to reckon with: a big, billowing silk banner of a voice, warm like the east Texas sun, present like a soul revealing itself in the smoothest bend of a line. He’s still a master of phrasing, still takes risks with melody, and still has a lot to say to and about the human heart in an imperfect world.
Paris, Texas — population 25,000, just south of the Oklahoma border. The town has changed, to be sure, since Watson was born in nearby Palestine on October 11, 1943. Demographics and income have shifted, and the deep poverty he knew as a child, while hardly gone from the region, is hard for anyone to convey.
“I was raised out on the rural route, went to a country school, a real, real poor upbringing,”, Watson says. “I didn’t know about the better things in life so I didn’t miss none of that. My dad was quite a vagabond, a hard worker. Our family worked at whatever we could to get by. My dad worked in sawmills, logging, for tire manufacturers. We pulled radishes, cut spinach, picked cotton. Whatever it took, that’s what we did.”
In the ’40s, Watson’s family drifted, always looking for work, making their home in a converted school bus. It wasn’t a romantic picture; it was necessity, and it was what Gene and his seven siblings knew as home.
“My dad converted it, put in beds and a place for mom to do the cooking,” Watson says of the bus. “We could go from crop to crop. We’d pull in, and we were home no matter where we were. If there were any roots, it was in Paris. That’s where I had more relatives than anywhere else. That’s where my dad bought our first house. I’ll never forget it. It was an old house, they’d moved hay out of it. He paid $900 for it. Boy, that was a ton of money back then. The main thing was, we made it a home; as far as we were concerned, that was the way we were supposed to live.”
After his family settled down on the old lake road, Watson attended Central High School in Sumner, Texas. Gene went with his mother to church services, and sang with and for the congregation.
“You’d call it Pentecostal,” he says. “Holy rollers, shouting, speaking in tongues. These were small churches, very musically driven, very strict, and the women didn’t wear makeup or cut their hair. We sang what you’d call southern gospel, the traditional songs — ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ and ‘I’ll Fly Away’.
“The congregation would sing from books, but I would get up and I would pick out songs by George Jones, gospel songs he had done. I was always wanting to do the latest stuff. I was young and they would call me up during special song services. I might reach back and do an old black blues type gospel song. That’s the first memory I have of me singing, back before I could even play guitar. My older sister had to play guitar for me. That was kind of embarrassing.
“I still have my beliefs,” he pauses. “I don’t think religion changes. I think people do.”
Outside of church, Watson soaked up the voices that dominated radio: Lefty Frizzell, Carl Smith, Webb Pierce, Faron Young. “A #1 record would stay #1 for three or four weeks,” he says. “There were two stations in Paris: KPLT-AM and KFTV, First National Bank building in Paris, 1250 on your dial! I’d go down with my brothers and sisters and sing on Saturday afternoons and Sunday. We’d go with other people from church, with acoustic guitars, and sing harmony songs for a 30-minute show.”
From his father, who played guitar and harmonica with other field workers, the young Watson learned something of music — the blues, especially — and something of working on vehicles. As a boy, he loved both, but it was cars he dreamed of. “I’d sit around drawing pictures of cars. I knew every make and model, the engine and transmissions.”
Watson started small high school groups with his younger brother Jessie, who played guitar. “We’d do the old Jimmy Reed stuff, and country, but also Carl Perkins and Elvis. Mostly school functions, but we did play the Cowtown Hoedown in Fort Worth. My grandmother bought us matching shirts. We got a standing ovation.”
Jessie was too wild to be tied down to anything, even music; Gene, for his part, never thought much of it. He grew up and music receded from his daily concerns. “I might get up and sing a song but it was nothing professional,” he says. He worked on cars instead. That work was steady, real, hard, and he loved it.
“That was so much to wish for,” Watson says of becoming a country singer. “I never even fathomed that. Getting paid to sing? That was out of the question. Maybe I didn’t think I was good enough, maybe I didn’t want the rejection. I never dreamed of making a living from it. I idolized Marty Robbins and Lefty Frizzell, who I thought was way ahead of his time. I was thrilled to hear them on the radio. But I never dreamed of the music business.