Gene Watson – Mechanical royalty
“But I seemed to have this photographic memory for songs,” he adds. “If I heard a song twice, I knew it. That’s how much I loved music.”
Watson married at age 17 and continued to work on cars to support his family. In the early ’60s, with brothers and cousins, he formed Gene Watson & the Other Four, playing hard country in Houston honky-tonks and cutting his first single for Sun Valley, a label founded by his drummer. “We recorded it in Houston,” he recalls. “Two songs I wrote — I think one side was ‘If You Can’t Come, Just Call’. It was terrible.”
That group didn’t last, but Watson had developed enough of a following in Houston that Gabe Tucker, who ran a local label called Tonka and worked promotions for Elvis Presley and Eddy Arnold, signed the young singer, releasing half a dozen country singles starting in 1965. One was picked up by a rock ‘n’ roll imprint out of Los Angeles called UNI, but none ever charted.
Watson took up residency at the Dynasty Club and consistently packed the joint. Roy Stone, a record store owner, and Russ Reeder, a distributor, heard what Watson could do with a country ballad and knew he had something bigger than Houston. They formed a label, Wide World Records, specifically to record him, and made plans to head to Nashville.
“I didn’t think anything would come of it,” Watson says. “They brought me to Nashville to record at Studio B. We walked in and Jack Clement was there as the producer. I didn’t know Jack from Adam’s house cat. Junior Huskey was on bass and I think D.J. Fontana was on drums. I didn’t know any of these guys.”
Two of the first songs they recorded, “Autumn In June” and “I Told A Lie”, were written by Gene’s cousin Bill Watson. Clement heard the talent but found it still too rough to result in a hit, even with another song Watson picked, “Burning Memories”.
“You’re only allowed four songs in a three-hour period,” Watson recalls. “With one of the songs, Jack said, ‘I can cut a hit on this, boy, but it will take the whole session to do it. Roy Stone said, ‘No, no, we need four songs.’ We went back to Houston and released some of it on World Wide. But Roy thought we could get as good a sound in Houston, so we recorded some more there.
“Finally I got disgusted,” he concludes. “I said, ‘If I can’t record in Nashville, I’m gonna quit.’ I think that was the greatest I’d ever sounded in my life.”
Although Watson fell under the spell of Nashville’s sonic magic, the town itself never held any allure for him. “To be brutally honest, I just didn’t like it,” he says. “There’s a story in that. There’s something about being too close to the forest. I didn’t want to be in the Nashville clique. I didn’t want to be in the Texas clique either. I didn’t want to do western swing that Bob Wills was doing. I didn’t want to be too smooth. And I didn’t want the bright cutting edge of the west coast. And that left me in a dilemma. I had to do what I felt was right for me.”
What was right for Watson at the time was staying in Houston and keeping his automotive day job. After the commercial failure of “Autumn In June”, Reeder bought Stone out of his share in Watson’s contract and formed a new label, Resco, to record “Bad Water” in 1974. It was Watson’s first charting song, and was quickly followed by another and very different single, “Love In The Hot Afternoon”, written by Vince Matthews and Kent Westbury.
“It was in a load of demos,” Watson says. “That song had been recorded by several people before. It was a little racy for the ’70s. A lot of the other artists changed the lyrics around. I told Russ I want to record it, but there’s no way you can change the lyrics and still get the full meaning. I figured worst-case scenario is it wouldn’t do anything and we’d lose the song.”
“Love In The Hot Afternoon” wasn’t the first country single to reference sex or drugs, but few country songs have ever made illicit encounters sound and feel so good. The setting is New Orleans, with a street vendor murmuring low of file gumbo, and a world of pure pleasure circling the singer.
“There might have been a couple-three stations that didn’t play it,” he says. “But with that Buddy Spicher fiddle turnaround and Herschel Wiggington doing that file gumbo bass line, it was really different. I’ll be honest. I kinda set a theme with it. I knew I was on the right track. ‘Where Love Begins’ was our next hit. Talk about some suggestive lyrics.”
“Love In The Hot Afternoon” did very well for Resco in the south and caught the ear of execs at Capitol Records, which quickly signed Watson to a five-year deal and reissued the single. By then, Watson had already covered the southern markets, and yet the song still hit #3 nationally, finishing 1975 at #4 on the country charts.
Between 1974 and 1977, Watson recorded songs that would become signatures: “Where Love Begins”, “You Could Know As Much About A Stranger”, “Because You Believed In Me”, “Paper Rosie”, “The Old Man And His Horn” and “I Don’t Need A Thing At All”. Nearly all are ballads, often built around Pig Robbins’ piano, with delicate strings and background singers set softly in the mix, until they rise with Watson on the choruses. Watson was developing a confident storytelling style, building quiet dramas of intimate relationships with secrets shared between the singer, the musicians and the audience. He picked every song and directed every arrangement.
“Everybody understood that if you wanted to get the best out of Gene Watson, let him do his thing,” he says. “It didn’t take me no week to do no albums. I’d get in, do my best and go. They just turned me loose in the studio. I felt so good communicating with the musicians, I just loved it. Mostly, I’d look for songs that people can relate to. If you hear a song on the radio, and they’re telling your life story, they have your attention. If I can tell your life story, sad or happy, I figure I’ll get your attention.
“Probably,” he adds, “if I ever had a talent for the music business, it’s knowing the kind of song that’s right for me.”
By 1980, Watson, who says he’s never been a chart-watcher, had landed over a dozen songs in the top 20. “Farewell Party”, the song for which he named his band, and with which he has closed his shows for nearly three decades, came in 1979. The ballad begins with the overdriven echo of Lloyd Green’s pedal steel and the words, “When the last breath of life is gone from my body and my lips are as cold as the sea…” Written by the late Lawton Williams, it’s the beginning of a grim fantasy, but one that many who have tasted depression have indulged.