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There Will Be Flowers

11 May

Gene Watson on the set of Hew Haw, ca. 1979

Sadly, George Jones is now gone. Thank god we still got Gene Watson.

I’m probably in the minority believing that country music produced it’s most glorious body of work in the 1970’s. Yes: raw, early country forms were far closer bound to it’s haunted, hillbilly wellspring. And I do recognise how freeing it must have been to finally strip away all that rhinestone and cocaine gumming up the works, come the 1980’s. Still, the 70’s saw country music finally matching the success of it’s pop counterparts, step for step – often by the very same country artists who’d laid it’s foundations decades earlier. There was ample funding for a sensitive producer to get a distinctive singer to balance flashy excess with down-home constraint, and come up with real country magic. And this happened more often than most folks wanna admit.

Gene Watson was that singer, and thankfully Russ Reeder was also that producer. These two paired up for a series of great LPs on Capitol Records, starting with Love In The Hot Afternoon from ’75. The first six have since been reissued by Hux Records, two each on three separate CDs. I reckon the best pairing to be Reflections/Should I Come Home from ’78-’79, which contains his signature tune, “Farewell Party.” But all three CDs are consistently good and often really great listens.

Gene’ll forever be described as traditional country since he stuck to those weepy ballads and passive-aggressive honky tonk numbers that I’ve recently started to love so much. His producer Russ worked a delicate hand, never skimping on the fiddle or steel guitar as some of his contemporaries did. But like Billy Sherrill’s countrypolitan acts, Gene wore Nudie suits and sometimes sat comfortably atop the very same gospel choirs found on late-era Elvis records. So you’re really splitting hairs here.

What is unique about Gene was the honed talent underpinning his singing. Sure: George Jones’ voice cut closer to real life, Charlie Rich crooned with more soulful authority, and Willie Nelson could lay further behind the beat than just about anybody. But Gene’s natural vocal prowess – his range, his timing, that awesome sense of control – probably tops them all. He succeeded in elevating a simple Texas drawl into a strata reserved for quite refined artists, something rarely achieved in the realm of country music.

With Gene, there’s not much gossip to enliven things: he’s stayed married to one woman all his life, avoided drug/alcohol addiction, and continued to work at a Houston auto body repair shop after his recordings were hitting the charts. But the lack of backstory just allows his godsend voice more room for what it does best. And Gene ain’t lost it yet neither – check out his amazing version of Lefty Frizzell’s “I Never Go Around Mirrors” recorded in 2001: