Gene Watson with Moe Bandy and T.G. Sheppard
8 p.m. Saturday
1544 W. State Highway 9, Norman
There’s an unmistakable yearning for authenticity that surfaces in difficult economic times. That may be responsible for the resurgent interest in traditional country, and you won’t find a more honest, homespun adherent than legendary balladeer Gene Watson.
For more than a quarter-century, he’s essayed the vicissitudes of the heart. He’s tried to satisfy a “Fourteen Carat Mind,” contemplated his lover’s happiness with his passing at his final “Farewell Party,” and asked a departing lover to “Speak Softly (You’re Talking to My Heart),” all with his effortless, silky croon.
If his lovers always seem less than steadfast, Watson’s been unwavering in his style. He delivers heartbreak as poignantly as George Jones with an easygoing Texas twang while vacillating between mid-tempo honky-tonk swing and lingering piano ballads. He’s never lost his knack as his 2009 album ably demonstrates.
“I think ‘A Taste of the Truth,’ even though it’s not the theme of the song, says it all about Gene Watson. It’s what I am, it’s what I stand for, and what I preach. It’s what I do,” Watson said. “I think it’s one of my best albums to date, and that’s saying a lot.”
Others agree. His duet with bluegrass singer Rhonda Vincent on “Staying Together,” a mournful ode to a flame that’s died, hit No. 1 on the IndieWorld Country Radio Report a few weeks ago, and the album made several critics’ best-of lists for 2009.
Besides Vincent, “Truth” features appearances by Alison Krauss on the sad, aching “Use Me Again,” and Trace Adkins on the rocking Nashville broadside, “We’ve Got a Pulse,” which argues country music hasn’t died yet ” which, of course, depends on how you define it.
“They’ve taken our category away,” Watson said. “Ray Price, George Jones, Merle Haggard ” we’re the traditionalists. Where’s our category? It’s certainly not country music, because they’ve taken that up with that brand-new, fabricated BS.”
He is traditional not only in sound and subject matter, but in approach. Would you expect anything less from a former mechanic who still dirties his hands under the hood when he’s not on tour?
“It gives me some release,” Watson said. When he steps into the studio, it’s not to lay down a track, but to record live with a band ” a style as old-school as it gets.
“When you combine the two ” the live music with live vocals ” you’re going to get a more rounded-out sound ” a friendlier, warmer sound. It seems like it’s matched, because it all happens at the same time,” he said.
Singing is something Watson’s done for as long as he can remember. His family sang in church and at get-togethers; he and his brother played around Texas growing up. But Watson never saw it as a career. It was simply something he did when he wasn’t working at the auto body shop.
Some independent labels approached him after hearing him play in Houston nightclubs, and he cut a few singles. The first one, “Bad Water,” originally recorded by Ray Charles’ female backing singers, The Raelettes, made it onto the national charts. It was an impressive start, but Watson wasn’t quitting the day job.
But when in 1974, “Love in the Hot Afternoon” became an even bigger regional hit, Capitol Records signed him to a long-term contract, and re-released the song nationally, where it hit No. 3 on the country charts.
“I figured I’d roll the tools into the garage and give the music all the consideration I had, and whether it worked or not, I could say I gave it a try,” he said.
Over the next 25 years, more than three dozen of his songs would crack Billboard’s Country Top 40. Even a diagnosis of colon cancer in 2000 didn’t slow him down. His spirit echoes his own father’s hardworking ethos.
“I had to do it the way I did. Of course, the doctors didn’t know. But I would go get my treatments and then I would go hit the road. It was kind of rough when the inside of your mouth is all raw, but it’s what I had to do,” Watson said, reflecting how his father worked while sick, and even took the family around on a bus so he could chase seasonal work.
“Times have improved a whole lot for Gene Watson, but I still I have that mentality. Survival’s not going to run and go jump in your lap. Life’s what you make it, and I try to make the best out of it. I’ve been extremely fortunate.” “Chris Parker