Gene Watson is one of my all-time favorite singers, and it is good to report that he is still sounding great at the age of 65. Listening to his new album, his second for independent label Shanachie, is like listening to a masterclass in singing country music, a subtle rendering of understated emotion. Gene is not a songwriter, so the ultimate artistic success of his records always depend on finding great outside material, and fortunately he has found some fine songs here from some of the best writers currently in Nashville, which are ideally suited to his voice. The overall theme is one of lost love and regret.
It opens with ‘Speakin’ Of The Angel’, a great traditional sounding mid-tempo number written by Shawn Camp and Jim Rushing, which is a joy to listen to even though the protagonist is heartbroken dwelling on his beloved ex planning to marry another:
“If I swear that I don’t love her, God knows it’s a lie,
Speakin’ of the angel is enough to make me cry.”
The title track comes from the pen of Rebecca Lynn Howard, and is a fine ballad with a beautifully realized metaphor, delicately delivered in Gene’s best style, as he addresses another ex, this time one he now regrets having left, finding the freedo he had hungered for has a “lonely flavor”:
“I’d eat my words to have you back
If I thought I could
‘Cause the truth don’t satisfy me
Like I thought it would
In fact it leaves me hollow
With a bad taste in my mouth
It’s hard for me to swallow
Tears won’t wash it down
Knowing you don’t want me back
It’s all that I can do
To keep from chokin’ on
The taste of the truth”
Another gorgeous sad ballad perfect for Gene’s voice is ‘Til A Better Memory Come Along’, previously recorded by both Mark Chesnutt and Shelby Lynne. I like both previous versions, but this is quite lovely as Gene can’t get over the woman who has left and tells her memory so with perhaps the best vocal performance on the album:
“How long will it take before I leave you
In the past where you belong?
One day I might forget
But right now I’m not that strong
So I’ll hold on
Til a better memory comes along”
Just as good is another sad song about failing to get over someone (and obviously not trying very hard), Tim Mensy and Keith Stegall’s ‘Three Minutes At A Time’, as the narrator forgets his troubles for a while by listening to country songs on the jukebox: “it’s heartache in rhyme, but it helps me hang on”, he testifies.
The most unusual song is Harley Allen and John Wiggins’ lovely-sounding but lyrically biting look at the misery caused by love. The song is framed as the point of view of an anthropomorphization of love, who comes across as a frankly malevolent figure, despite the gentle melody and beautiful vocal:
“I make people crazy
Make their hearts beat wild
Cry like little babies
I just watch and smile
I make ’em all unhappy
Still they can’t get enough
You’d think that they would hate me
But still they call me Love
I invented heartbreak
I came up with pain
How much can these fools take?
Are they all insane?
I’m as bad as whiskey
Strong as any drug
Poison when you kiss me
But still they call me Love.”
Current chart star Trace Adkins pays his respects by joining Gene on a riposte to songs like ‘Murder On Music Row’, written by Jerry Salley and Billy Yates. Gene and Trace declare, ‘We’ve Got A Pulse’, vouching for the rude health of country music to a slightly funky up-tempo tune. The cheerful lyric sounds as though it was written specially for the project, with Trace’s lines “We’ve had a few near misses, but like Watson we’re still here” and “This ain’t no farewell party, friends” clearly tailored to Gene and his signature hit. Notably, it is the only happy song on the album. When I first heard this I felt it wasted the potential of Trace’s voice on one of the lesser songs on this set, and I was also diconcerted by the opening lines, which Gene growls out uncharacteristically deeply, but the track is engagingly good-humored and won me over in the end. I could have done without the bar-room cheering towards the end, though.
Rhonda Vincent seems to be supplanting Alison Krauss as the duet partner of choice for many of my favorite singers, and she lends her voice to the steel-dominated ‘Staying Together’, written by Jerry Salley Jr and Monty Holmes, a bleak tale of a couple staying together for the sake of others (their children and their parents), knowing all the while:
“There ain’t nothing sadder
There ain’t nothing colder
Staying together don’t mean it ain’t over.”
It’s a fine song, but although the solo verses from both Gene and Rhonda are great, their voices do not meld together very well on the chorus. I’ve come to the conclusion that much as I like her on lead, I don’t really enjoy her work as a harmony singer.
The aforementioned Alison Krauss offer much more understated harmonies on ‘Use Me Again’, written by Billy Lawson, Curly Putman and Dale Dodson. This is a very good, and beautifully sung, plea to the woman who has called a halt to their fling (“don’t let a little thing like love, baby, mess your good thing up”), which has been somewhat marred by some unnecessary orchestration in the form of the multi-tracked violins and violas of Gail Rudisill-Johnson. This is really the only mis-step by producer Dirk Johnson, as otherwise this is an album featuring lenty of fiddle and steel, but with Gene’s voice and the songs taking center stage. The instrumentation on ‘Use Me Again’ is not that bad, but it falls short of the standard of the rest of the album, and the track would have been more effective with a more stripped-down production.
Gene exercises a little ironic self-deception, which is really not working, as he wilfully refuses to recognize the signs of a woman gone in the wry and enjoyable ‘It’s My Lie’, written by Timothy Menzies and Monty Criswell. Of course those suitcases she left with were packed with charitable donations, and:
“That letter from her lawyer taped to my front door
Doesn’t really mean she doesn’t love me any more
Hey, it’s my lie – I’ll tell it like I want to.”
Tim Mensy and Debbie Hupp contributed the mid-tempo ‘Wrong Way To Find Mr Right’, a sardonic look at that favorite topic of country songs, desperate women looking for love in all the wrong places. Given the extremely high quality of all the material, this song is one of the lesser moments here, but it affords a probably necessary change of pace.
The album closes with a revival of the lesser-known Hank Cochran song ‘I Know An Ending’, previously recorded under the fuller title ‘I Know An Ending When It Comes’ by artists including Jack Greene, Merle Haggard and Emmylou Harris. It is another song that feels tailor-made for Gene, as the protagonist finally realizes it’s all over and responds with sad resignation:
“I may have missed a lot of things you said
I know most of them went right overhead
But with all my heart I know this song’s been sung
And at least I know an ending when it comes.”
This really is my favorite album of the year so far.
Taste Of The Truth is available digitally and in CD form at Amazon.