Gene Watson, a recurring guest at the Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry House dating back to 1965, finally got inducted as a member during a Feb. 7 appearance on country music's longest-running and most influential live show.
Steve Wariner officially welcomed Watson as the newest member of the Grand Ole Opry just three weeks after Vince Gill shocked Watson with long-awaited news. Gill offered one of his classic country forerunners Opry membership in exchange for a live performance of "Farewell Party."
"It's impossible to describe the feeling, the moment they invite you to be a member of this family, this institution that's been around since 1925," Wariner said before Watson's induction. "I remember well that night, but this night's not about me. This night is about what I think is the greatest country singer and the greatest interpreter of a country song probably that we have today. I know personally because I can recall the first time I heard Gene Watson singing one of my songs. I co-wrote a song with Bill Anderson called 'Make Sure You've Got It All.' I didn't have words after I heard the way Gene Watson treated this song."
During his first set as an Opry member, Watson reflected on Gill's surprise invite.
"I've never in my life been fooled as much as I was that Friday night," Watson explained. "I'm pretty good at spotting a surprise coming on, but boy they nailed me. I'm not kidding you."
Watson, a Palestine, Texas native, made his Opry debut at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium around 55 years ago. His mainstream career began in 1975 with Capitol Records and has included such top 10 hits as "Love in the Hot Afternoon," "Paper Rosie," "Memories to Burn," "Fourteen Carat Mind," "Nothing Sure Looked Good on You" and "Don't Waste It on the Blues."
"Seems like my career just kind of happened accidentally," says Watson in his Grand Ole Opry bio. "It was purely unintentional. Music was just a sideline. I was going to be playing and singing no matter what line of work I was going to do. I never did really have any high expectations out of the music business. Even today, I never know what to expect from one day to the next. But there is one thing: As far as I know, I do have an honest reputation in the music business, and I wouldn't take nothing for that. If anything in the world means 'success' to me, that right there does."
It seems like quite the oversight for a purveyor of classic country music and honky-tonk love songs the caliber of Watson to wait so long for an Opry invite. Yet while some got the call early, including George Jones in 1956 and Alan Jackson in 1991, other country music legends, such as Charlie Pride, Mel Tillis and Crystal Gayle, got the invite deep into their careers.