Gene Watson never seems to run out of milestones. The straight-up country singer with the golden voice – who Alan Jackson considers one of his major influences – recently celebrated a couple of career moments, which he notes he’s grateful to have after more than 50 years in the business.
Milestone No. 1, literally, has arrived with a No. 1 single, but in a different genre than country. Watson made his mark with traditional country songs like “Fourteen Carat Mind,” “Paper Rosie” and “Farewell Party” (more on that tune later), but the Texas singer has found recent success in the Christian market with his acclaimed album “My Gospel Roots.” The 13-track album featuring Watson’s renditions of all-time Gospel classics was released last year and recently produced its third No. 1 single in a row, “Build My Mansion (Next Door to Jesus).” The song, featuring Christian family group The Isaacs, topped the Cashbox Country Christian and Christian Servant Radio charts. The string of No. 1s was recently celebrated with a special ceremony on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
“Can you believe that?” Watson exhorts, seated inside the office of his Nashville publicist. “I’m so thrilled. You know, I began singing in church. The first memories I have are of singing in church and I certainly love good Christian music. But I never would have thought that this album would achieve what it had. A lot of people really love it, and I was real satisfied with it.”
Watson recorded “My Gospel Roots” as a tribute to his mother and father, who introduced him to gospel singing. “I wanted to do some of the songs my mom and dad would sing in church,” Watson explains. “One of the songs on there, ‘Swing Wide Them Golden Gates,’ I first heard through my mom and dad. My brothers and sisters and I would do some of those, too.” Watson adds that he was often told by fans and fellow artists that they always heard a touch of gospel in that hardcore country voice. “That never bothered me,” he smiles. “I was proud of that. I just love good country Christian music.”
This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Watson’s signature song, “Farewell Party,” which hit the charts in 1979. Obviously, he remembers all the details of that single, from the first time he heard it – Watson was not the first artist with a cut on the song – and his decision to record it, in spite of objections from his team. “The first time I ever heard it was by Waylon Jennings,” Watson says. “He had a completely different arrangement of it. Little Jimmy Dickens also had it, and Johnny Bush and Billy Walker.” Watson was living in Houston and would do the song at the various clubs around the city. It never failed to get a roaring ovation. Reps from his label and his management, however, didn’t exactly share the same enthusiasm.
“When we were in the studio,” Watson recalls, “we got to the end of the session and I said I really wanted to do ‘Farewell Party.’ Nobody wanted me to do it.” The song was deemed too morose and down for the general audience. After all, the main character is actually singing about his own funeral. What’s more, he’s somberly addressing his wife, with the lines, I know you’ll have fun at my farewell party/I know, you’ll be glad, when I’m gone. But Watson got the go-ahead and the recording went down in almost miraculous fashion. “We were at [recording studio] Sound Emporium,” Watson says. “I got down on one knee and started singing. I got through one chorus and all the musicians made out the chord charts. We rolled tape and that was the first cut. Everybody nailed it the first time. We didn’t have to change anything.”
Watson brought the message home with his emotional delivery of the final phrase, holding the note on the word “gone” in an impressive display of vocal power without oversinging. It should be Lesson One for all aspiring singers. “I didn’t know I was gonna do that at the end,” Watson says with a smile. “It just all fell into place.”
Ultimately, “Farewell Party” became the second single from Watson’s 1978 album “Reflections.” The single was released on February 17th, 1979, and peaked at the No. 5 spot. Over the years, “Farewell Party” became Watson’s signature tune and, to this day, his most requested song in concert.
“The funny thing is it never went No. 1,” Watson notes with a grin. “But it has sustained. I did it recently at the Opry and it got a standing ovation. I wish I had a few more like that,” he adds, laughing. “It was a pretty difficult song to sing, It was risky but I really felt that song. I know I would have recorded it sooner or later. It’s amazing to think that a song could last all those years.”
Watson owns an enviable track record of singles, including his first No. 1 “Fourteen Carat Mind,” “Love in the Hot Afternoon,” “Memories to Burn” and many others. He still sings the big hits at concert stops all around the country, and maintains a manageable road schedule when he’s not back home in Houston. “We’re working a lot and working all I want to at my age,” Watson, 75, says. “Everybody wants to know when I’m going to retire, but I’m not ready for that yet.” And why even contemplate the “R” word? Watson will tell you that he’s busier now than he was 15 years ago. Plus, he’s already making plans for a new album, maybe as early as this year. Most important, he still enjoys good health.
“Well, I guess I could stand to shed a few pounds,” he laughs. “But everything is going really good. I really can’t complain.” Not while there are milestones still ahead.
Gene Watson’s “My Gospel Roots” album is available through Walmart, Amazon.com and other outlets.