If you’re a fan of country hitmaker Gene Watson and you’re considering buying his new collection Best of the Best: 25 Greatest Hits, you should know all 25 “hits” are re-recordings. They’re faithful re-recordings, slavish to the original arrangements and even keys, so it probably won’t make a huge difference to you. All the same, the gentleman Watson might have warned consumers somewhere on the album’s packaging. If, say, you came of age in 1981 listening to “Fourteen Carat Mind”—Watson’s only number one hit, a cheerful stomper about a sawmill worker whose gold digging woman leaves him destitute (She’d go on to narrate the Pistol Annies’ “Hell on Heels”)—you might feel momentarily disoriented by this new version. The tenor Watson sings with a reedier voice and noticeably different background singers, but the song still sounds great. Producer Dirk Johnson has an eye for things that shine, so he and the band have copied the original arrangement note for note; thanks to better recording technology, the guitar and piano and pedal steel and fiddle lines sparkle anew, as though somebody scraped the sawdust off ‘em.
If you’re a musician with a legacy, re-recording your hits isn’t uncommon—everyone from Devo to Squeeze to Johnny Paycheck has done it, usually so they can make some money from songs still owned by their former record labels. For Watson, Best of the Best is a chance to compile songs from his MCA and Capitol years and release them on his own label, Fourteen Carat Music. (A previous cross-label comp, 2001’s Ultimate Collection, isn’t quite as comprehensive.) And if you listen to Best of the Best in a certain way, Watson and Johnson’s meticulous re-creations become impressive pop-art endeavors, like Gus Van Sant’s nearly-shot-by-shot remake of Psycho or Damien Hirst’s extensive series of spot paintings. What constitutes an “original” work of art? When is a greatest hit not a greatest hit? When we plunk down money to relive a song, do slight differences reinvigorate that song or suck the air from our memories? Since Watson remade these songs for blatant financial reasons, does that somehow invalidate the songs as art?
If you’re asking such questions, that just means you live in a world where art and money are irrevocably intertwined, and it takes the extreme statements of a Van Sant or a Hirst—if not the subtler work of a Gene Watson—to even make the questions heard. And anyway, the answer to that last question is “No.” Dirk Johnson and his expert band, including veteran drummer Eddy Anderson and hotshot fiddler Aubrey Haynie, ensure that these remakes sound just as vital as the originals, even if they’re note-for-note copies. On the number two hit “You’re Out Doing (While I’m Here Doing Without)”, Nashville session pro Kelly Back tosses off lightning fills while Watson lands the song’s many syllables with musical ease. Johnson also plays some sweet Fender Rhodes on the blue-balls anthem “Cowboys Don’t Get Lucky All the Time” (Alas, it stiffed at number 11 in ‘78). And besides all the great individual performances, the band knocks off Watson’s myriad styles—honky tonk weepers, countrypolitan struts, the cheap Mexicana of “Carmen”, even the terrible shuffle “Don’t Waste It On the Blues”—with equal parts commitment and nonchalance. Showoffs.
If you’re skeptical, if slick turn-of-the-’80s Nashville doesn’t do it for you, you should still check out this album’s sequencing. Seriously, if the Grammys had an award for Best Album Sequencing, Best of the Best would be the one to beat. Watson and Johnson have grouped the songs into little thematic units, so that Gene Watson songs from different years converse and comment on one another. Watson made this album with money on his mind, but he opens it with a suite of songs discussing the evils of money and the virtues of poverty. “Fourteen Carat Mind” goes into the gentle “Paper Rosie”, where Watson idealizes a little old lady who sells paper roses and touches lives. (He also enjoys wine in both songs.) From there we move to the racy “Nothing Sure Looked Good On You”, Watson’s lament that his current gold digger isn’t satisfied with life like Paper Rosie. Offended, she engages in wanton behavior, so he sings “You’re Out Doing”, and… you get the picture. We hear diptychs on big themes: Loneliness (“Got No Reason Now For Going Home” and “One Sided Conversation”); New Orleans (“Love In the Hot Afternoon” and “The Old Man and His Horn”); Cheating and Insanity (“Should I Come Home (Or Should I Go Crazy)” into “What She Don’t Know Won’t Hurt Her”); and Hot Sex, or its absence (the aforementioned “Cowboys” slides wickedly into “This Dream’s On Me”). Watson closes the album with songs of memory, infidelity, and home, until he cheerfully falls off the wagon in “Drinkin’ My Way Back Home” and neatly loops back to the album opener “Fourteen Carat”. It’s like The Dark Tower with more honky-tonks.
So if you’re a fan who just wants to hear songs that’ve shaped your own memories, infidelities, and homes, what are you waiting for? Purchasing Best of the Best puts money into Watson’s pocket rather than the big labels’, and you’ll enjoy reliving these tunes, whatever the slight differences. If you’re up to it, though, you could explain to me the appeal of the brutal waltz “Where Love Begins”, in which the gentleman Watson pressures a virgin to give it up. “What’s that? What’s the matter? What’s making you cry? / You say it’s the first time for you? / LEEEAVE if you’d rather not lose what you came for! / Walk out the same door that I let you in!” Number five in ‘75, a precursor to Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night”; what a cad.
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