Gene Watson Is Luminous in Career Retrospective Album

Gene Watson ’s honey-smooth voice purrs and confides with an intimacy unmatched by any other country singer. Only the late Conway Twitty rivaled him in seductive urgency.

Still, you can search the awards lists of the Country Music Association, the Academy of Country Music and Music City News and never know Watson existed. He’s never had a gold record nor been a member of the Grand Ole Opry.

But despite being so roundly ignored by country’s official gatekeepers of fame, Watson is a great deal more than a cult favorite and a critics’ darling. Since making his chart debut in 1975, the Palestine, Texas, native has volleyed 21 singles into the Top 10, including his sole No. 1, “Fourteen Carat Mind.” Fortunately, he continues to record — and with as much vocal charm as ever. In August, RMG Records released his newest studio album, From the Heart. Now he’s the subject of a career retrospective.

Life-long fans and recent converts to country music alike can enjoy total immersion in Watson’s inhibition-cleansing magic with the just-issued Gene Watson: Ultimate Collection from Hip-O Records. The package’s 23 cuts include 15 of his Top 10 singles in chronological sequence, beginning with his breakthrough hit of 1975, “Love in the Hot Afternoon,” and continuing through “Don’t Waste It on the Blues” from 1988.

Unaccountably omitted from the roundup album are Watson’s signature tune, “Farewell Party,” as well as the love-awry classics “One Sided Conversation” and “Should I Come Home (Or Should I Go Crazy).” Helping to compensate for these shortfalls is the inclusion of some wonderfully sensitive and touching songs — such as “Maybe I Should Have Been Listening” and “Everything I Used to Do” — which somehow never came close to the top of the charts.

Twitty caught the heat in 1973 for his suggestive “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” and again in 1980 with his even more explicit “I’d Love to Lay You Down.” But Twitty undercut his critics by allowing that he was only singing about the wholesome attraction between a married couple.

Watson made no such dodges. “Love In The Hot Afteroon” is pure, undisguised and unapologetic lust-in-a-box, and “Where Love Begins” is nothing more spiritually exalted than trying to talk a girl into bed. Whether panting toward or sighing away from love, Watson’s heart and aims are always in plain sight.

While Watson didn’t write any of the songs in this greatest hits collection, it is apparent from their remarkably uniform themes and attitudes that he had a big hand in selecting them. They show him to be a specialist in distilling the crucial moment — that first buoyant puff of cigarette after sex, the last anesthetizing pull from the bottle before the bar lights snap off.