Gene Watson has been turning out hard-core country songs since the mid-1970’s, with hits like “Farewell Party” and “Fourteen Carat Mind” taking their places in the litany of true country classics. But as lifelong fans know, Watson also has a way with a gospel tune, as showcased in previous albums “Jesus Is All I Need” and 2004’s “The Gospel Side of Gene Watson.”
Now, Watson has given gospel fans another reason to rejoice with his latest album, “My Gospel Roots,” currently in release. The 13-song set features Watson’s impeccable renditions of such spiritual favorites as “In the Garden” and “Satisfied,” along with the album’s lead single, “Old Roman Soldier.” It’s a project that the 74-year-old Texan had been contemplating for some time, mainly at the request of his fans, as he noted to “Sports and Entertainment Nashville.”
“I had one out a few years back,” Watson begins, seated in the office of his Nashville publicist. “The fans had really been asking me for the last few years about doing another gospel album. I decided to go back to the old stuff that my brothers and sisters and I would do together.”
The gospel genre is replete with songs, some dating back more than 100 years. So, how do you narrow an album down to a precious few? “That was the hard part,” Watson concedes. “I wanted to get some of the mainstream songs from that time when we were growing up and mingle in some of the newer stuff. I think we have a good mix of everything and I’m really proud of this.”
As Watson mentioned, he spent a portion of his early years singing with his siblings and his parents in Paris, Texas, where he was raised. His father Ted often led the singing at the church they attended, with the family and the rest of the congregation joining in. “I dedicated this project to my mom and dad,” Watson warmly notes.
When selecting harmony singers for “My Gospel Roots,” the logical choices were artists who came from that similar family background. Gospel favorites The Isaacs provide the sweet backup on “Build My Mansion (Next Door to Jesus),” with Goodman Revival lending their inspired vocals to “Swing Wide Them Golden Gates.”
“We kind of hand-picked those harmony singers,” Watson says. “They all did a great job of matching my vocals with the songs. Goodman Revival gave ‘Swing Wide Them Golden Gates’ that good Southern flair. We just have some great singers on the album.”
There’s an additional challenge of reverence when putting out an album of gospel greats. Artists want to put their own individual stamps on the songs, without varying too widely from the original. Even a singer with Watson’s extraordinary resume knows the difficulty.
“You take a song like ‘In the Garden.’ Well, what can you do with that?” Watson says. “Everybody in the world has recorded that song. You want to do it the Gene Watson way,” he smiles, “but you also want it to be recognizable. People are used to hearing that a certain way.” Watson’s rendition is simple in production, allowing his voice to stand out. There is a certain reverent tone, yet it’s unmistakably Watson.
The track “Old Roman Soldier,” a message of forgiveness, is the album’s lead single, and Watson’s version has already been well received on the gospel charts. “That’s a song that I was just knocked out by,” Watson explains. “I just love what the song says and how it says it. We are all the Roman soldier, if you look at it from that aspect. Everybody knows the story but the way the song tells it is so unique.” Watson also filmed a video for “Old Roman Soldier” in a rural country church.
At some point, Watson aims to record a straight-up country album, which fans have also been clamoring for. Finding the time is the basic sticking point. Watson, who lives in Houston, keeps up a busy touring schedule, and when he gets off the tour bus, he likes to hang at the homestead and tend to his collection of vintage cars. “I still have my little shop,” he says with a grin. “I don’t have a lot of time to work on the cars, but, when I slow down, maybe I’ll have time, then.” His voice trails off, perhaps indicating that he doesn’t really plan to take things slower. Why should he? Even after more than 40 years in the business, he remains in high demand.
Also in demand? His brand of straight-up, traditional country. More to the point, he wonders why contemporary country radio all but refuses to program the legends that got this whole ball rolling. “That’s what kills me,” Watson says, with a somewhat pained expression. “It’s hard to get what I do played on the radio today, but there is still such a vast audience for it. People will drive two or three hundred miles to come to our shows. That should tell [radio] something. Of course, you have to make room for the youngsters but there should also be room for the ones who paved the way.”
Overall, though, complaints are few. In fact, life couldn’t be much better. “I’m getting a good response for the gospel album,” Watson smiles. “And I’m looking forward to getting back into the studio again. My health is good. So, that’s all you can ask for.”
“My Gospel Roots” is available now.