One of the ironies of the rise of the neotraditional movement in the late 1980s was that it swept away some of the old guard who had been keeping more traditional sounds alive on country radio. Gene Watson was one of the casualties. His last album for Epic, produced by Billy Sherrill, was an excellent effort which deserved to do much better than it did.
The title track is a smooth confessional from a man who warns off a woman who is getting a little too close:
I’ve always been honky tonk crazy
I’m someone that’s best left alone
Cause when I get honky tonk crazy
I only feel right doing wrong
I’ll take you and make you love smokey old bars
Cheap whiskey and a sad country song
Till there’s nothing left of the lady you are
And then like your pride I’ll be gone
Lovely steel guitar and fiddle, and Gene’s seductive vocal makes the prospect seem more inviting than it should. The song, written by the legendary Harlan Howard with Ron Peterson, was also recorded by Keith Whitley (and is available on the posthumous Sad Songs & Waltzes). Gene’s version disappointingly failed to creep into the top 40 on the Billboard country chart.
The second and last single did a little better, reaching #28. The funky ‘Everybody Needs A Hero’ (written by Max D. Barnes and Troy Seals) is a Georgia boy’s reminiscence of a somewhat disreputable childhood hero. The implication is that he is actually the kid’s father or grandfather:
My mama says I turned out just like him
She worries and prays that I’ll change
I didn’t know until a few days ago
Why he sent me his gold watch and chain
‘I Didn’t Think Of You At All’ is a classic Gene Watson heartbreak ballad, with perfect phrasing conveying the emotional devastation of a man desperately trying not to let it show. Gene squeezes out every drop of emotion while never oversinging it. Equally broken is the protagonist of ‘Ashes To Ashes’:
I tried everything, even drowning your memory in booze
So I finally decided to lie down and die with the pain
Oh, but my heart kept on beating and softly repeating your name
When they lay me away the last words they’ll speak
Here lies a man that don’t rest in peace
God gave me your love and God knows I threw it away
What I put you through is the same hell I’m living today
Now praying don’t help so dying’s the best I can do
In similar heartbreak vein is a revival of a country classic, ‘You took Her Off My Hands’, one of Harlan Howard’s earliest compositions (with Wynn Stewart and Skeets McDonald) whose best known recording is that by Ray Price; Patsy Cline also recorded a version under the title ‘You Took Him Off My Hands’. Gene’s interpretation is superlative.
‘Getting Used To Being Loved Again’ is a gently vulnerable ballad expressing the wonder of finding new love at last. ‘I Always Get It Right With You is a warm, tender love song.
‘When She Touches Me’ features a former Casanova who has been felled by falling in love with one of his conquests.
‘Nobody’s Baby Tonight’ is a sympathetic song about a fragile woman whose man has recently left her and is so lonely she resorts to picking up a man in a bar.
The pacey ‘Her Heart Or Mine’ tackles a relationship which has run out of steam, but there is no way of avoiding hurting one or the other:
There’s no way I can make both of us happy
I don’t know if I should break her heart or mine
After this album failed to maintain Gene’s commercial status, he left the label for a period in the wilderness. He enjoyed a brief resurgence when he signed to Warner Bros, recording two excellent albums for that label, Back In The Fire which I included in our retrospective look at he Class of ’89, and At Last. But linking up with new labelmate Randy Travis’s manager (and later wife) Lib Hatcher turned out to be a bad move, and legal wrangles coincided with the end of his major label career. The 90s saw Gene recording for a succession of minor labels, many of which have gone out of business, making the music he made there hard to come by.
This is a wonderful, underrated album from an artist at the peak of his vocal prowess, which deserve to be better known. Unfortunately it has not yet been re-released, and only rather expensive used copies seem to be out there at present. If you do come across a copy, it’s well worth it.