When Gene Watson entered the studio to record his new covers album, My Heroes Have Always Been Country, he realized he knew every song by heart.
“It’s the only recording session I ever went to where I didn’t need a lyrics sheet,” he says. “I’ve been singing these songs for years and years. They’re the songs that made me who I am, so I remembered them just like I’d been singing them yesterday.”
It’s very likely Watson was singing them yesterday. At 70 years old, he continues to record and tour tirelessly, and his voice has lost little of the stateliness and expressiveness that defined such hits as “Love on a Hot Afternoon” and “Farewell Party” in the late 1970s .
On My Heroes Have Always Been Country, Watson puts his personal stamp on popular hits and personal favorites by some of the artists who have influenced him.
“I don’t try to sing any of these cover songs like the original artists,” he says. “I take a deep breath and sing them the way I feel them.”
While making preparations for a short tour, Watson spoke to CMT Edge about making old songs sound new, picking just one Buck Owens tune and preserving his voice.
CMT Edge: What inspired you to record a covers album?
Watson: In all of my shows, I always slide at least one cover song in there, whether it’s by Merle Haggard or George Jones or Buck Owens. And every night, the people who wait in the autograph line say, “Man, you ought to record that.” So I got to thinking how neat it might be to go in the studio and pay tribute to all of these artists that I’ve admired since before I ever had a recording contract.
We decided to run with it, and it was a real treat. The production more or less came off the top of our heads. Dirk Johnson is my producer, and we really got our teeth into these songs. I thought it came off rather nicely.
There’s a good mix of well-known hits and more obscure picks. How did you select which songs to cover?
Actually, picking the songs was probably the hardest part of it because I could have recorded thousands of songs. When I think of an artist I really like, his whole catalog would jump in front of my eyes. So I just picked out the ones I really wanted to do. Some were just my favorites, like that Haggard song that never was released as a single, “I Forget You Every Day.” That’s one of my favorites on the CD.
Choosing one Buck Owens song seems like an impossible task.
I used to sing just about everything that Buck Owens ever recorded, so I could have dug back into the archives and pulled out any number of songs that would have been fantastic. But “A Little Trouble” came to mind when we were in the studio. We didn’t add any frills or anything like that to it. We just laid it out there.
You took some liberties with the arrangements, especially on “Long Black Veil,” where that chorus sounds really dark and dramatic.
That was a song that I’ve loved ever since it came out. Of course, I was a huge Lefty Frizzell fan, and I even recorded “Long Black Veil” for David Frizzell and his Frizzell & Friends album. I always thought there was more in that song than what people were getting out of it. Dirk came up with this arrangement of it and, boy, I thought it really brought out that eerie feeling in the song.
How do you prepare to sing such an iconic song? Are you working to distance yourself from Frizzell’s original vocal performance?
I had to sing away from Lefty. It’s real easy to fall into that Lefty vein and use a lot of his vocal mannerisms. When I first started doing the song in my shows, I used to do it exactly like Lefty did. But the arrangement really changes the way the song kicks off. The verses go in one direction, and then it changes on the chorus. So that helped me when I sang it for the album.
You mentioned that you tried not to imitate Lefty on “Long Black Veil.” Is that something you have to be aware of when you sing a big hit like “Make the World Go Away,” which has been covered so many times?
I do a completely different rendition of “Make the World Go Away.” Even though I’m paying tribute to Ray Price, I’m trying to take what he made famous and make fans appreciate it as a Gene Watson song. My version is different from Ray’s version, and I hope it’s equally effective. We do it in the show now, and I’ve had standing ovations for that song. People really wanted us to record it. It’s a little different on the record than the way we do it onstage because it has strings.
You’ve said these are some of the songs that made you the singer you are. Can you elaborate on that idea?
Throughout my career, I’m never through learning. When I hear someone do something I like, I take it apart. I study it. I listen for the vocal mannerisms and phrasings. Merle Haggard is the master of phrasing. It’s not necessarily the words he’s saying. It’s the way he says them. I still study that, and I try my best to think of how I can play off someone like Merle or Buck Owens. How can I be just as effective. I work at that all the time. Every time I get on stage, I’m still working at it.
Your voice still sounds robust on My Heroes Have Always Been Country. What do you do to preserve it?
The key to keeping my voice actually is getting enough rest. I have to watch it and make sure I get some rest. I’m not a drinker. I don’t smoke. So I try to take care of it in that respect. Even then, if I get too tired, my voice is the first thing to go. So I have to be careful, especially working the road like we do. But the Lord’s been good to me. He’s let me keep this voice intact for so many years.
Do you think you might do another covers album?
I would. I could go back and pick from thousands of songs. Back in the days when I worked the nightclubs around here in the South Texas area, I would get onstage and stand behind that microphone for four or five hours and never sing the same song twice. If this album really goes over with people, it could turn into a series.
There is an array of songs out there that I could sing and that today’s generation has never even heard. It’s so much easier to go back in time and find old material than it is to get good material from a new writer. So many of the new writers, I don’t want to take anything away from their skills , but they haven’t lived. You have to really live before you can write a classic.