February 18, 2016

The Song is Everything: An Interview with Gene Watson

“To me,” Gene Watson says, “the songs are everything.” 

For more than a half century, the country music legend has cultivated one of the most venerable catalogs in the business with such classics as “Love in the Hot Afternoon,” “This Dream’s On Me,” “Farewell Party,” and “Nothing Sure Looked Good On You,” among many others. What’s more, whether in his leanest years playing in bars and nightclubs throughout his native Texas or in more recent ones performing on the most prestigious stages around the world, Watson has always heeded the integrity of his songs as well as, at the same time, his audience.

“I’ve never taken music for granted, never have,” Watson said recently, on the phone from his Texas residence. “I never took the people for granted, and I always tried my best to give them what they asked for.” 

In striving to consistently live up to his audience’s expectations, Watson acknowledges the ongoing struggle that inevitably ensues in his efforts to live up to his own — particularly when seeking out new material to record. “The writers that are trying to write these songs haven’t lived,” he said. “They have not lived. You can’t write it if you don’t know about it. If you haven’t lived it, if you haven’t seen it, it’s impossible. That’s one thing that makes it so tough when I start looking for material to record because very, very, very seldom you find anything with any substance from a modern-day younger writer.”

That’s why Watson’s latest LP, Real. Country. Music. (due 2/26), includes songs by such songwriting stalwarts as Kris Kristofferson (“Enough For You”), Larry Gatlin (“Help Me”), and Dean Dillon, Hank Cochran, and Keith Whitley (“She Never Got Me Over You”). “I have to go back to the traditionalists when I’m looking for material,” Watson said. “That’s the only way you’re going to find the quality material that I look for. That’s where I’m at.”

When you’re searching for a song to record, do you have any certain criteria or is it more instinctual — either you like it or you don’t?

Well, I listen from several points of view. Naturally, it’s got to hit me, but more so than that it’s got hit you when we deliver it. I look at it this way: If I can tell a story and it seems true to life — something that might have happened to you or someone you know, something that you can relate to, a story that you’ve heard, something you’d told, something that’s real life that you can really get your teeth into — that’s what I look for. I’m not one of these guys that’s recording about “getting stuck in the mud” and all that stuff. That’s not what I look for. I look for things that could be truthful, some things that might’ve happened or more than likely happened; because if I pick a song that you can relate to, I automatically got your attention. Then it’s up to me to sell it to you.

Is that something you’ve been able to refine over the years? Of course, nobody can predict for sure if an audience will connect with a song, but you’ve been very reliable with the material you’ve chosen to record as far as whether it resonates or not. 

I’ve always said that the good Lord above gave me the voice. He can take it away any time he wants to. But I always figured that if I personally had any talent — or the best talent I had — [it] was picking the right songs for Gene Watson. I’ve always been that way. I’ve never deviated from that, and I never will. If I don’t feel the song, chances are it’s not going to be recorded by me.

Do you ever consider fact that you have so many hits and fan favorites when you’re picking songs? In particular, do you wonder how well they’ll fit in with your other songs — in the sense of quality — when you’re singing them on stage, whether they’ll complement your classics?

That’s a good question. I’ve never been asked that. I really haven’t thought that much about it because it seems like my train of thought seems to go from A to B along the same lines. By the time I get through [with a new song] — even though the song, the tune, the melody, the tempo might be a little different, I want it to be the same criteria and meet up to certain standards before I record it — I feel like if I succeed in that while I’m staying within the confines of what I do and what I’ve been successful at. That’s a great question you just asked. Actually, when I get through with a project, I immediately start looking forward to the next one. ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to change it and yet make it stay the same?’ which is a pretty hard point to reach. I guess I’ve just been lucky at picking the right kind of songs that my fans can relate to, and thank goodness for that.

A lot of times, when you go to see certain artists in concert, the new songs don’t stack up to the most famous ones. Yours do, though.

That’s a great point. Of course, when I’m working the stage show, I try my best to keep the audience in mind. If I get off the track of what got me there, I’ll immediately go back to ones that they made hits out of. You don’t dilly-dally with the audience too awful much. You’ve got to play what they want, because they’re the ones that pay the bills. They paid hard-earned money to come see you. They could’ve gone anywhere they wanted to, so you better keep them on your side. So anytime that I think I’m getting a little bit shallow with the show, I’ll reach back and get one of those gut-busting hits and do it and it never fails to bring it right back around. It does mean a lot, I think, to stay within the confines of what made you famous or what you are, to be able to reach back and communicate that way at any given time. And I certainly try to do that.

That’s not to say you can’t challenge yourself with something new, but you have to find a balance.

And you really can’t go one-hundred percent off of what you think is great. What you’d better do is — when listen to music, when you record music, and when you’re doing a show — make sure that this is the type of music that is going to accomplish what you’re setting out to do career-wise, just like you said. I could not [envision] myself going out there and saying, “Well, I don’t give a damn what the people think. I’m going to do what I want to do.” I could never be that way. To me that’s nothing more than arrogance. I just couldn’t do that.

Was there a moment early on, while working in the bars and clubs around Texas in the ‘60s and early ‘70s before you signed your first major contract, when you recognized that what you weren’t just acting out a passion but that — all modesty aside — you possessed a talent worth pursuing as a professional career?

I think there was. I’m not particularly sure, but I noticed right away that it was worthwhile when you can say something that makes people laugh and sing something that’ll make them cry and then turn right around and reel them back in with a smile. It’s something you have to study. It definitely takes experience, and you have to know what you’re looking for to be able to do this. I strive to do that, every show. Every time I sing “Farewell Party” I want to go down there and jerk their hearts out, make the tears roll out their eyes. On the other hand, when I do a different kind of song, I’d like to make them smile. To have the talent to change that disposition off and on of those people is so much. It shows from being in the business for as many years as I have, you’ve got to know how to do that, when to do it, and at the same time be honest not just with the people out there but [with] yourself.

You worked quite a few grueling years before you scored your first nationwide hit, and so you must’ve have something perhaps in your subconscious that made you continue to do it and not be disillusioned by the harshest parts of that early experience to the point of quitting. 

Well, I think I’ve been confronted with just about every situation as long as I’ve been in the business. I’ve always tried to just play a song the way I felt it. Forget about who you sound like. Forget about any kind of punch lines or signatures or anything. Reach down and sing that song from the gut. When I say that, I mean that you don’t have to see a video to know whether somebody is sincere and good at what they’re doing. That’s what I’ve always done. That’s what I still do. When I leave that stage, I’ve left it all out there. I don’t take nothing with me. I leave it all on stage. And I’ve done that all my life, as far back as I could remember. I’m just thankful that I can communicate with the audience as well as I do.

Right, because you were not some overnight sensation. You put in some hard time before you got well-known.

That’s true. Back when I started out it was called “paying your dues,” and Lord knows I’ve been paying them for fifty-something years.

So many of the great country singers and songwriters are, sadly, no longer with us — and they seem to be going at a greater rate these days. Do you feel, at this point, like you are carrying the banner for traditional country music?

Yes. You hit the nail right on the head. I do feel like that’s what I’m doing. I’m so proud to be doing it. It’s exactly what you said. We’ve lost so many great artists and we’re losing them at a whole lot faster right nowadays. I mean, who’s going to carry the banner? I’ve got to. Well, Merle’s still alive, but there’s not that many left. I feel like if I don’t carry the banner, well then who is? I can’t take a chance on country music not getting a right shot of it being carried on. The song that Jones had out, “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” it’s never been more apparent than it is right now.

To what do you attribute your enthusiasm for what you do today? What keeps you interested and eager to keep making records and playing for people?

Of course, I love music. Every member of my family were singers [although] I’m the only one that took it up professionally. I love music when it’s good, and I’m not saying that what I do is the only kind that’s good. There are good kinds of music in a lot of forms and different styles. But I love music. And, you know, I’m a blue-collar kind of guy. I have to make a living like anybody else. I’ve always said that I’m no better or worse than whoever I’m talking to, so I approach everything with pretty much a common style. Even though I’ve sung these songs thousands upon thousands of times, every time I enter from backstage and walk out in front of that microphone, I’ve got to pretend that that song is brand new. I strive so hard to do it a little bit better than I’d done it the night before. Every audience is different and this song means so much to so many people, and I try to give them the best I’ve got. I feel like that’s the least I can do.

You never want to get complacent.

That’s right. We have to repeat a lot of songs because they’re what people come to see, but I don’t write a show out. I’ve never got a planned show. The guys in my band, they have to listen close to what I’m saying, because what I say to the audience automatically sets up whatever song I’m going to do next. That’s the way I’ve always done it, just played it off the cuff unless I’m doing a scripted thing on TV or something like that. But [at] a regular stage show or anything like that, if you asked me what I’m going to do I couldn’t tell you because it comes straight off the top of my head. It’s strictly for that audience right then. Every audience is a brand new audience and they deserve the best that Gene Watson’s got.