When a veteran mainstream artist is inevitably cast aside from radio and their time in the spotlight is finished, they generally respond in one of two different ways. Some become dramatically less active in recording new music and release new albums only sporadically. A few even retire altogether. On the flip side, others record with newfound vigor, enlivened by the freedom to record without the need to kowtow to commercial pressures. ’70s honky-tonker Gene Watson undoubtedly falls within the latter category. Despite not having anything even resembling a hit since the late ’80s, he has quietly released a string of highly worthwhile albums over the past two decades to a small but dedicated fanbase. His 2016 release, the fittingly titled Real. Country. Music., continues that trend, and will almost certainly be among the better traditional country records released this year.
While never a household name, Gene Watson has a reputation among erudite country fans as being among the most talented and underrated vocalists in the genre’s history. While evaluating the likability of a singer’s voice is always an exercise in extreme subjectivity, I think this reputation is well-deserved. Watson’s multi-octave tenor and well-honed interpretive skills compel me to describe him as one of traditional country’s finest practitioners. And Watson’s voice has held up amazingly well for a man in his early 70s. Indeed, he sounds virtually identical to the way he did on classic tracks from his prime like “Farewell Party” and “Love in the Hot Afternoon.”
The title of Real. Country. Music. probably clues you in to the kind of music Watson makes – straightforward traditional honky-tonk music with prominent steel guitar, fiddle, and traditional country song structures and lyrical content. Thankfully, unlike some modern artists and albums that make a big deal about how “real” they are, Real. Country. Music. doesn’t rely on its traditionalism as a crutch or use it as a substitute for good singing or memorable songs – it has those in spades.
In terms of material, Watson isn’t a prolific writer, but he is an excellent song chooser, drawing from the catalogs of some of the best names in the business. Slightly disappointingly, unlike other recent Watson efforts like the magnificent A Taste From The Truth from 2009, Real. Country. Music. doesn’t seem to contain any brand new originals. It could aptly be described as a covers album, as all of the songs have been recorded before. However, none of these songs are especially famous, so you’d have to be extremely well-versed in your country music history to recognize all of them (I didn’t).
The album opener, a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s breakup song “Enough For You”, begins with swirling strings and oohing background singers, and for a second I thought I must have selected the wrong album given how uncharacteristic these production techniques are for a Gene Watson recording. However, these flourishes work within the context of the song, and soon enough a beautiful steel guitar kicks in and Watson tears into Kristofferson’s poetic lyrics with gusto. The next track, an excellent take on the Bill Anderson classic “When a Man Can’t Get a Woman Off His Mind”, is another highlight. It’s a classic heartbreak song with some very clever lyrics (as typical of Bill Anderson compositions), and Gene completely makes it his own.
Larry Gatlin’s moving “Help Me” is another standout. The narrator is a man who has hit rock bottom and finally decides to seek God’s help. I’ll be honest in that I regard Johnny Cash’s recording of this song from American V as the definitive version, but Gene’s take is very nice too. Gene also unearths the perpetually underrated David Ball’s “A Girl I Used to Know” from Ball’s excellent 2004 album Freewheeler. The song revolves around a common theme – a man being unable to forget an ill-fated romance from long ago – but it’s a very solidly written tune with a nice melody.
Also noteworthy is a recording of “She Never Got Me Over You”, written by three masters in Hank Cochran, Dean Dillon, and Keith Whitley. It’s the last song Whitley ever wrote, and he died before he could record it. Mark Chesnutt was the first to record it and did a fine job, but I like Gene’s version here even better. There are several other similarly high-grade stone country weepers, including a take on Nat Stuckey’s “All My Tomorrows” and a cover of the Conway Twitty hit “A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn.” The final track, “I’ll Find It Where I Can” is an uptempo country-rocker previously recorded by both Waylon Jennings and Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s by far the least traditional track on the album and probably won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I quite like it.
Overall, the material on Real. Country. Music. sets a high bar. Granted, there are maybe a few tracks that I would describe as slightly less memorable (“The Bitter They Are, The Harder They Fall”, “Ramblin’ Rose”, “Old Loves Never Die”), but they’re completely listenable and don’t mar the overall experience noticeably.
This is the type of album where you know exactly what you are going to get. Real. Country. Music. doesn’t it try to be innovative or groundbreaking, nor does it attempt to make any grand, cohesive statement. It’s simply thirteen straight-ahead traditional country songs that are skillfully written, produced, and performed. Realistically, no, it probably won’t be the absolute most memorable or mind-blowing album you’ll hear in 2016, and maybe not even anywhere near it. But country music needs albums like this, reminding us that the pure traditional country sound is wonderful, timeless, and always relevant. If you agree with that statement, you’d be hard-pressed to find a significantly better traditional country album released in the first half of 2016 than Real. Country. Music.
Best Tracks: “When a Man Can’t Get a Woman Off His Mind,” “A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn,” “She Never Got Me Over You”
Grade: 3 out of 4 Flags