Iconic country singer Gene Watson recently rerecorded a batch of fan favorites for Best of the Best, 25 Greatest Hits. The 69-year-old singer’s new collection reconfigures his brassiest (“Love in the Hot Afternoon”) and brightest songs (“Fourteen Carat Mind”), which are closely honed to the previous versions.
“We wanted to duplicate these songs exactly, I mean as close to the originals as could be done,” the Texas native says. “It was a one-year project, but it was real satisfactory to me. Everybody loves what we’ve done with them.”
CMT Edge spoke to Watson in late December as he prepared for a show at the Grand Ole Opry.
CMT Edge: Why rerecord these songs now?
Watson: You know, they’ve been leased out and rereleased on different labels throughout the years and I still had to purchase them because I didn’t own the masters. I said, “For me to pull this off, I’m gonna have to do an outstanding job on rerecording them.” So I chose my producer Dirk Johnson, who’s a good friend, and we started putting this together. Now I own the project and that makes it a little bit better. I don’t have to buy my product from someone else and pay their prices.
Did you have a specific 25 songs in mind from the start?
Actually, the thing was stopping at 25. We took not only the chart songs, but we took the songs that are the most requested, the most loved, the most remembered. We’re still the kind of artists that after each show we sign autographs and take pictures and shake hands and all that. Therefore, we get a lot of feedback from our fans.
These songs are kind of embedded in our minds. After we settled on which we wanted to do, we got to nitpick around with them. You know, we can always go back and add more and possibly do a box set or something.
How did these songs hold up as you revisited them?
They’ve proven to me to be timeless. I’ve been extremely fortunate because I handpicked these songs myself. I’ve always had the freedom to pick and choose the songs I recorded. So, the songs having such longevity makes me feel that much better. It makes me feel like I’ve at least done something right. I hope they have a timeless fashion to them. People are really acting like that, which makes us feel good.
Has anything changed in the way you perform them?
Actually, I still sing the songs in the same key that I did when I recorded them, and we did them in the same key on this new album as they were originally recorded and at the same tempo. I tried to duplicate the phrasing. In fact, we got some players on this album that were on the originals. That’s how meticulous we were.
How do you pull off singing them in the same key years later?
Well, I guess I’ve been blessed. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I try to get all the rest I can and take care of my throat as well as I can. Sometimes it stretches a little bit, but that’s why they call it a job. I’m just thankful I’ve got a job that I enjoy as much as I do. So, you know, I work a little harder hitting those notes.
I think that’s what it takes to sell it to the public. Every time my foot hits that stage, I’ve got to look at it like that’s a brand new song and deliver it to the people in the finest fashion I know how. It all makes the loop from the album to the peoples’ ears when they come see a concert. We try to do it just that good onstage.
You don’t get tired of singing “Fourteen Carat Mind” over and over?
(laughs) Well, let me tell you how I deal with that, Brian. You’re right, I can sing these songs in my sleep because we’ve done them so many times, but we come out on that stage and know those people have spent their hard earned money to hear these songs, and it makes them brand new again.
I don’t mean make them brand new to the point where you have to create another type of phrasing or change the tempo. These people paid their money to hear them just like they heard them on the radio. That just makes us work that much harder and makes it a whole lot easier.
What originally compelled you to cut “Love in the Hot Afternoon”?
Well, I honestly thought it was a hit from the first time I heard it. Of course, the song had been recorded several times by big name artists and I was a nobody. Everybody who recorded it had changed the wording because it was pretty spicy for those days. I talked with my manager and producer and said, “I want to record this song but exactly like it was written.” I think it takes that to have the effectiveness.
We didn’t know it was going to be the single, but it was. When we got in the studio, we just played it off the cuff. It just happened that, lo and behold, we got our first major recording contract with it. We recorded that song in ’74.
What makes a great country song?
First off, I think before a writer can write a great country song, I think he’s had to have lived. You have to know what you’re writing about. You have to have seen something happen. As far as me picking it, I’ve got to pick a song that people can relate to. I need to tell their life story. I need to tell some sort of happening in their life. I need to get their attention. If you’re telling someone’s life story, you’re gonna get their attention. I think as long as they can put their self in that position, they don’t have to see you on TV to feel that song. They know where it’s coming from.
Are there singers and songwriters that always move you?
Absolutely. One of them passed away, Dave Kirby. Another was Joe Allen. They used to write together and wrote a lot of hits for me. As far as singers, Joe Diffie is one of the all-time greatest voices as far as country music goes. Yeah, there’s some out there that I really like and really admire.
What do you look forward to when you play the Opry?
Well, I always look forward to the Opry. I mean, that’s the roots of what I do and any time I get to come Nashville to do the Grand Ole Opry, it’s a great pleasure. It’s so prestigious and I feel so honored to stand in that circle. I’m not a member — although I would like to be — so it’s a great privilege.
Is there anywhere in Texas that’s similar, that gives you the same feeling?
I don’t think there’s a place anywhere that comes even close to playing the Grand Ole Opry as far as the feeling you get. There’s just something about stepping out onto that stage, especially at the Ryman. There’s no other feeling to equal that. That’s the pinnacle as far as I’m concerned.
You’re singing to people sitting in church pews. There’s something about that …
Yeah, and I was raised in church. I started singing in church and that’s how I first remember ever singing. I can relate to that.