"I was just thoroughly amazed," Gene Watson tells CMT.com from his home in Houston. The source of his amazement was just how well the pieces of his new album, In a Perfect World, came together. What began as a solo project evolved into one of the most striking duet albums of the year.
Watson's voice still has the warm resonance of a cello, but it's enriched considerably on the CD by background vocals from such admirers as Vince Gill, Joe Nichols, Rhonda Vincent, Lee Ann Womack, Mark Chesnutt and Connie Smith.
Initially, Shanachie Records approached the singer to record "a flat out Gene Watson album," consisting of eight new songs and three "classics" of his choice. Involving other artists, he explains, "was certainly not in the deal." However, Watson has a way of inciting enthusiasm.
"It seemed like this thing just sort of snowballed on us," he says. "We thought that I was going to be in [the studio] and doing the production work and all that, which is what I usually do. But we got Brent Rowan on board as producer, and, boy, he just poured out his heart and soul into this thing."
Songwriters were equally eager to score a Watson cut. Hit tunesmiths Tim Mensy and Skip Ewing, Watson notes, "opened up their catalogs to me." In the end, he recorded five songs Mensy had written or co-written and one of Ewing's. The three classics he picked to cover were Ray Price's "Don't You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me," Buck Owens' "Together Again" and Merle Haggard's "Today I Started Loving You Again."
"As we were going along recording," Watson recalls, "Brent would ask me who I liked, who I listened to, who I admired, and then I would drop names. He started contacting some of these people, and the next thing I know they've got Vince Gill on it. They've got Lee Ann Womack on it and Joe Nichols, Mark Chesnutt and Connie Smith. It was terrific. Rhonda Vincent [who harmonizes on "Together Again"] just knocked me out on this thing."
Mensy and Harley Allen wrote the doleful title track, and Joe Nichols provides the harmony.
When Watson agreed to do the record, he didn't have a particular producer in mind. "John [Lytle], my manager, and I had talked about how neat it would be to take a top-notch Nashville producer and see if we could get him interested in this," Watson explains. Given all the [limitations] we had to work with, I never dreamed we could have done it. Of course, Brent produces stuff on Joe Nichols [whom Lytle also manages]. So John called and talked to him. I didn't know this, but Brent had been a fan of mine for a long time. We talked, and he jumped at the chance. He said, 'Yeah, I'm on. I want to do it.'"
What made the deal even sweeter was that Rowan agreed to use many of the veteran studio musicians Watson was accustomed to recording with, among them pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins, steel player Sonny Garrish, acoustic guitarist Bobby All and bassist David Smith. The other players were no slouches, either: Shannon Forrest and John Gardner on drums, Aubrey Haynie on fiddle and mandolin, Greg Galbraith on electric guitar and Rowan, himself, on various guitars and organs.
"It seems like everything just fell together," says Watson. "I know I'm kind of simplifying it and making it sound easy, but Brent worked so feverishly on this thing and contributed so much."
One of the "new" songs is actually a Harlan Howard effort that's been around a long time. Titled "Let Me Be the First to Go," it is a father's entreaty to God to keep his beloved wife and children safe together, and it sounds like a classic in the making.
"The first time I ever heard that song, Vince Gill was singing it," Watson says. "I got [it as] a demo through the mail -- this was years ago -- and it just knocked me out. I went in the studio, and I recorded the song. [But] we had too many songs [already cut]. So we had to start shaving here and shaving there.
"We never did finish the song, and it wasn't released. So when we got ready to do this project, naturally I started going back through all these songs that I has admired for so many years. This one was just about at the top of the list. ... After we got it recorded, we thought how neat it would be if it were possible to get Vince to sing on it. And he was so eager to do it."
Instead of recording his vocals after the musicians had laid down their tracks, Watson sang live with the players, just as he's always insisted on doing. He explains, "I told Brent in the beginning, before we got too deep in conversation on the production end of it, [that] when I get in the studio I feed off those musicians and they feed off me and that's the way I love to do it. Brent said, 'Well, that's not the way it's done now.' I said, 'Yeah, I know. But that's the way I do it.' He said, 'Well, that's the way we'll do it." So we did. I admire him so much. He catered to my every whim."