In his first Nashville show in more than four years, vocal wonder Gene Watson played to a full and enthusiastic house Sunday night (Jan. 29) at the 3rd & Lindsley night club. Backing him was his five-piece Farewell Party Band.
Watson used the occasion to launch his latest album, Best of the Best: 25 Greatest Hits, which will be released Feb. 14. The album features re-recorded versions of the hits he achieved on Capitol, MCA and Warner Bros. Records.
Bluegrass star Rhonda Vincent, with whom Watson recorded the 2011 album Your Money & My Good Looks, joined him for two songs of his 13-song set.
The crowd greeted the 68-year-old Watson with a standing ovation and interrupted several of his songs with spontaneous applause.
Although his resonant voice sounded as honeyed and caressing as ever, he apologized to the crowd for its quality, saying he had only recently returned from a cruise and was still suffering the aftereffects of flu.
"Besides that, "he added, "I just swallowed a bug. But I'll be OK if he don't cross his legs."
This is Watson's 50th year as a recording artist. He cut his first single -- "If It Was That Easy" on the tiny Sun Valley label -- in 1962.
Watson opened with "Should I Come Home (Or Should I Go Crazy)" from 1979 and then moved on to "Love in the Hot Afternoon," the steamy 1975 tune that won him a contract with Capitol.
He followed with "Got No Reason Now for Goin' Home" (1984), "Taste of the Truth," the Rebecca Lynn Howard-penned title track from his 2009 album, and "I Don't Need a Thing at All" (1977).
Aiming for a lighter mood, he brought Vincent out to spar with him on "Sweet Thang," the 1966 Nat Stuckey hit that Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn transformed into a duet classic the following year. Vincent remained on stage to add her transcendent harmonies to Watson's cover of Buck Owens' 1964 chart-topper, "Together Again." (The two singers recorded "Sweet Thang" for Your Money & My Good Looks and "Together Again" for Watson's 2007 duet project, In A Perfect World.)
Watson called on the trumpet-playing talent of his lead guitarist, Brian Kelly, to add the signature sound to his next song, the ghostly "The Old Man and His Horn" (1977).
Watson paused to reflect on the fact that while fans know the words to his songs, they don't always know or ask for them by the right title, particularly if they're in an advanced stage of celebration.
He recalled playing a club where "you could drink if you wanted to -- and most wanted to" and how an over-served woman came "ping-ponging" through tables toward the stage imploring him to sing that song about "not having anything on."
That song, of course, was "Nothing Sure Looked Good on You," a Top 10 hit from 1980, which he sang to the crowd's delight.
He said he rewrote and recorded "Pick the Wildwood Flower" (1979) because it was basically the story of his life, of fleeing the family farm to seek his fortune in the city and ending up, in his case, working on other people's cars.
"I tell you," he said, gesturing out to the audience, "this beats working on cars."
He followed with "Paper Rosie"" (1977) and then with "Fourteen Carat Mind" (1981). Recounting the song's history, Watson said "Fourteen Carat Mind" had finally made it to No. 2 in Billboard by Christmas of 1981, at which time the charts were "frozen," that is kept the same for a two-week period.
"I didn't know whether it would be No. 2 or No. 22 [after the charts resumed]," he continued.
But when the New Year arrived, the song had moved up to become the first No. 1 of 1982 -- and the only No. 1 of Watson's career.
Once more alluding to his vocal problems, he announced to the crowd's obvious chagrin that "Farewell Party" (1979) would be his last song of the evening. And it was, despite the standing ovation it elicited.
Jimbeau Mathus & the Tri-State Coalition opened for Watson with a short set that ranged from blues to traditional country and included such crowd-pleasers as "Town With No Shame," "Who's Gonna Sop My Gravy" and "Shady Dealings."
Mathus was a founding member of the musically adventurous but now defunct band, the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
Watson said he plans to return to Nashville for another show after his voice heals.