The Texas-born singer was invited Friday to join the Grand Ole Opry.
Editor’s Note: Country music great Gene Watson was pleasantly surprised Friday evening when he was invited to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry — by no less a notable than Vince Gill — during an Opry show at Nashville’s fabled Ryman Auditorium. To celebrate the occasion, we are reposting here a 2012 interview we did with Watson in Houston prior to the release of his terrific album “Best of the Best.”
Cowboys & Indians: Most people just drag out the old master tapes when they put together a greatest hits compilation. But for your new Best of the Best CD, you actually went back into the recording studio and re-recorded hits like “Farewell Party,” “Fourteen Carat Mind” and “Love in the Hot Afternoon.”
Gene Watson: And it was the hardest album I ever tried to record in my life. It was extremely difficult. And I know a lot of people say, “Why? You’ve been singing these songs for years.” And that’s true. But I have changed them – even so slightly – throughout the years, as I’ve performed them in live shows. And I did not want to do that on this record. I wanted them to be right. But it wasn’t easy. It took me over a year to complete this project.
C&I: Still, these new recordings don’t sound precisely like the originals, right?
Gene: No, we didn’t go for the new, fresh Gene Watson who was there on the original recordings. We wanted the sound of the original cuts, but we also wanted that mystique, the sense of the toll that time has taken on Gene Watson. We wanted to reflect that. In every way. Even when we had the photographer come in to take the cover shots – they weren’t necessary happy shots.
C&I: You do look a tad pensive on the front and back photos.
Gene: [Laughs] I’m a serious-minded person. It’s sort of like when I’m singing “Farewell Party” and somebody asks me to smile. That’s not a song you can smile during.
C&I: That’s for sure. Of course, you could say the same thing about a lot of your other Top 10 hits, like “Paper Rosie,” “Got No Reason Now for Goin’ Home” and “Nothing Sure Looked Good on You.”
Gene: Well, I’m sort of an audible actor. With each song, I play the part. And I kept that in mind when we were doing the photos. Because these are serious-minded songs for me. There’s nothing to hardy-har-har about in most of these things. And we wanted to capture that.
That was one thing that my manager, John Lytle, was real adamant about: Getting across that mystique. Like, what’s enabled Gene Watson to stick around for so many years? How did he maintain his voice to sing in the same keys that he did then? How will he capture the same feelings and emotion that he did back then?
C&I: You’re still touring quite a lot, and playing at venues like the Grand Ole Opry. You’re 68, so you’re used to the demands of live concerts. But does the work ever get any easier?
Gene: It’s not easy to do. Whether you’re sick, whether you don’t feel good, whether you’re tired – whenever you step out on that stage, and stand behind that microphone, you have to put everything else out of your mind. That audience is a brand new audience. Those songs have to sound brand new. And you have to deliver them that way.
Every time I leave the stage, I know I’ve left it all out there. Whether it was a huge crowd or not so big, they still deserved everything I’ve got. And I think that’s something that’s contributed to my longevity. I always sign autographs after the show. I shake hands with people, I take pictures with people. And I get feedback from them.
C&I: Getting back to the new CD: There’s a line in “The Old Man and His Horn,” where the aging musician looks back on his life and career and says: “I tried but it sure was hard.” Those words must have a different meaning for you now than they did back when you first recorded that song.
Gene: [Laughs] That’s absolutely right. Like I say, I’m an audible actor. And it’s a lot easier now to put myself in the frame of mind of that old man. When I was singing that song for this album, I knew how it felt to be giving it all you’ve got, and maybe not succeed to the point where a lot of other people would like to succeed. But, you see, I never did strive to be a superstar. That never was one of my goals.
But I always had a specific sound in mind. No one ever picked my songs for me. I always picked out my own material. Right from the start, I figured what I had to do is make people like the way I sing. And I figured that to do that, I had to tell their life stories. I had to tell a story about something that happened to them. Or something that could have happened to them. Something they’ve dreamed of, something they’ve seen take place. Because if you can tell a person their life story, you’ve got their attention. And they’re not going to forget you.
So I’ve kept that in mind with every song I’ve picked out and recorded. It’s like the old man says: “I tried, but it sure was hard.” Well, I’m still trying.