What happens to all those great songs on albums that never get released as singles, the ones that only those who buy the albums know exist? It's a question that's been gnawing at caramel-voiced Gene Watson for a long time.
During his golden days at Capitol and MCA Records in the '70s and '80s, Watson recorded album after album that bristled with more great performances than radio playlists could accommodate. Many of these albums are now out of print and unlikely to be reissued.
Still, Watson's loyal fans remembered these "buried treasures," asked him to sing them on his shows and wondered where they could buy them on CD. Instead of going through the rigamarole of trying to get to the original master recordings, the 61-year-old Watson, who's still in superb voice, decided to make new recordings of these crowd favorites. The result of that decision is the just-released Then & Now on Koch Nashville Records.
To sweeten the deal, Watson rerecorded four songs for the 13-song package that he did put on the charts -- "Back in the Fire," "You Could Know As Much," "Sometimes I Get Lucky" and "The Jukebox Played Along." But the remaining songs will be new material to all but his most devoted followers. The album's first single, "I Catch Myself," was written by Bruce Burch.
It's obvious, however, that Watson has only scratched the surface with a mere nine album cuts.
"Well, I'm not through yet," he tells CMT.com from his home in Houston. "When I first started this project, I was doing it out of my own pocket. I was so determined and so convinced that these songs were worth putting before the public again, I was doing it on my own nickel, you know. I didn't even get 10 of the tracks done before we landed a [recording] contract with Koch there in Nashville. I'm thrilled to death with it." Watson's previous album -- Gene Watson Sings -- came out in 2003.
"It's been in my mind for quite some time," Watson continues. "But I've had other contracts, other obligations to fulfill with original material. I kind of wanted -- I'm not going to say a boxed set -- but something like that. But it just never did come to pass. ... I plan on skipping around through my career and bringing all these songs that I had so much faith in to life. ... This is just my first effort in that direction."
Watson charted his first single, "Bad Water," on the small Resco label in early 1975. But it was the follow-up single later that year -- also originally on Resco -- that won him national stature. The song was the sultry and sexually explicit "Love in the Hot Afternoon." After it created a regional stir, Capitol Records picked up the record and pushed it to No. 3. They also signed Watson.
"The song was written by Vince Matthews and Kent Westberry," Watson recalls. "It had already been recorded by several artists, one of them being Jim Ed Brown, if I'm not mistaken. But they had kind of smoothed down the lyrics in it because it was pretty spicy for those days. Then I got hold of the song -- the original demo. ... We were flying to Nashville, and I told my manager-producer, 'You know, I want to cut this song, but I want to cut it the way it was written.' I said, 'Let's just go for it, and if it gets played, OK, and if it don't, we haven't lost that much.' So I went in there and backed my ears and I did it like it was written. And we came up with the unique fiddle turnaround in it, and, of course, Commercial Hurshel [Wiginton, a background singer] on that bass line in there --filé gumbo.' It just turned out to be a good record."
Over the next five years, Watson charted nine Top 10 singles for Capitol, among them "Paper Rosie," "Nothing Sure Looked Good on You" and the monumentally disconsolate "Farewell Party." He moved to MCA in the early '80s, where he scored such hits as "Fourteen Carat Mind," "You're Out Doing What I'm Here Doing Without" and "Sometimes I Get Lucky and Forget." Subsequently, he recorded for Epic and Warner Bros.
Several years ago, Watson was diagnosed with cancer, a disease that had taken several members of his family. "I'm coming up on five years of being cancer-free," he reports. "So I've got a lot to be thankful for. It's been a long fight with a short stick."
Given the velvet quality of his voice, it's no surprise that Watson occasionally records a pop tune from the distant past. At Warner Bros., he cut "At Last," and on his Gene Watson Sings album, he covered "What a Difference a Day Made," both tunes from the 1950s. He says he's not averse to doing an entire pop album.
"I don't know if I'd want to make it the primary objective," he muses. "But I'd like to do it and put it out there and see how the public reacts to it." He is certain, though, that he intends to record a duet album with some of today's country stars and notes that he has a provision in his contract that specifies such a project.
As for touring, Watson says, "We've never slowed down. That's one thing I'm so proud of. My track record has at least made it possible for me to stay out on the road -- except for the years that I had the cancer scare, the medical problems. That kind of slowed me down some. ... But we're still working. We're still drawing big crowds. ... If I never have another hit -- and I probably won't -- I've had my time in the sun. I've enjoyed it, and it's still good to me even today. I'm extremely thankful for that."