Like so many country artists of his generation—despite the fact that he was one of the bigger country stars around in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s—Gene Watson was tossed aside for the glittery, polished Music Row sound that has by now been canned, labeled and dished out for years. Fortunately, the crop of new labels coming up have recognized that good is good no matter how much gray might be in the hair or how many (or how few) hit singles or videos they’ve churned out in recent memory. Now with several of his albums out of print (unless you still cling to vinyl) Watson, who is perhaps most famous for his hit “Love in the Hot Afternoon”, shows his gratitude to the label in the liner notes. But it’s the listener who’s rewarded with this baker’s dozen worth of quality honky-tonk country, from an era before Nashville became all about being big and being rich.
There is a timeless quality to music of Watson’s era that is exemplified by “If I’m a Fool for Leaving”. This song features a simple arrangement with all the right touches of fiddle thanks to Hoot Hester and especially the pedal steel courtesy of Sonny Garrish, which keeps it gliding along easily. Watson’s voice, now 62 years young, hasn’t lost much if anything since he first started. It’s a fine toe-tapping honky-tonk country ditty that will sound as good 20 years from now as it would have 20 or 30 years ago. Garrish’s prints are also all over the tender, downbeat country ballad “Only Yesterday”—a song that, from the crop of new country folks, perhaps only Garth Brooks might have done a bit of justice. The chorus props the song up just a touch, but the difference between chorus and verse isn’t dramatic. The ambling, strolling mode behind “If I Were You” is decent but sounds too clichéd at times, with Watson wearing more the hat of a lounge act than a country crooner. Not to say it’s horrid, but it pales compared to the opening tandem of tunes.
Watson’s approach to the record was not simply to dust off old classics, but to root through some of his earlier albums for songs that weren’t radio hits but fans still enjoyed nonetheless. “Baby Me Baby” is a good example. Here there are no surprises, bells or whistles—just a classic country style that has been done to death, but when done well still makes for a great listen well worth repeating. The same can be said for “Back in the Fire”, which Watson carries from start to finish. Even more remarkable is how his pipes have withstood age as well as they have despite Watson being diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, something he managed to beat. The gorgeous “You Could Know As Much” is reworked somewhat into a stripped down acoustic tune with a tad of swing. I heard this one, oh, about 400 times between the years of three and five.
If there is one song which can be described as ordinary or run of the mill, it might be “Sometimes I Get Lucky”. It really does shine as much as the original does, with the harmonies dominating the chorus and diminishing Watson’s lead. It’s still a strong song; just comes off like Watson is doing it in his sleep. What misses the mark from the onset is the Mickey Gilley-ish “Everybody Needs a Hero”, which Watson delivers with a certain Texas swagger that seems forced. Mentioning Savannah Slim as his hero, the song’s slickness is its biggest drawback. It’s the lone abbreviation when the ensuing “I Wonder How It Is in Colorado” comes on, even with the line: “Baloney just don’t taste good when last night’s getting on has got you down.” It also hearkens back to the days when a three-minute plus song was not considered radio-friendly, coming in at little over two and a half minutes.
A few more tracks of similar quality conclude the record, including a tender “I Catch Myself” that proves Watson still has a lot to offer. Hopefully this album might be the start of somebody waking up and putting his valuable back catalog back out there.