Heading into 2020, Gene Watson's lengthy wait to join the Grand Ole Opry cast ranked up there with Tanya Tucker's lack of Grammy awards when it came to the most glaring oversights in country music. Yet just as Tucker scored a couple of affirming wins from the Recording Academy in late January, Watson got his flowers on Jan. 17 when Opry member Vince Gill invited him to join Nashville's most esteemed club.
When Watson officially becomes the next member of the Grand Ole Opry on Fri., Feb. 7, one of the greatest country singers of the past 50 years will join an institution that in recent years favored inviting such younger, more pop-friendly acts as Luke Combs, Chris Janson, Dustin Lynch and Kelsea Ballerini.
In an interview conducted backstage at the Grand Ole Opry House on the eve of his induction, Watson chose not to focus on what took so long. Instead, a short discussion with Watson painted the longtime fan favorite as someone with the same attitude as Opry legend Minnie Pearl-- He's just so proud to be here.
"I'm going to try to uphold the tradition as well as I can, and I hope I do a good job and do my best," Watson said.
Country music's longest-running and most famous live show already feels like home to Watson. After all, there's no telling how many times the artist behind the 1975 hit "Love in the Hot Afternoon" has played the Ryman Auditorium and the Opry House as a special guest.
"Thankfully for me, they kept the door open any time I was coming through," Watson says. "If they could squeeze me in, they would have me on the show. That was a huge complement. I guess if I were being honest, I could say I already gave up on being a member. It meant a lot to come here and perform anyway, even if I was a member or not. When they make you a member, that makes it even better."
Even when hits like "Paper Rosie," "Farewell Party," "Fourteen Carat Mind," "Nothing Sure Looked Good on You," "Sometimes I Get Lucky and Forget" and others slowed down, fans continued backing every new album, tour and appearance on the Grand Ole Opry stage.
"I've always said this: The fans will either make you or break you," Watson says. "I don't care how many times they play your song on the radio. If the fans don't go for it, you're going to starve to death. They've always kept me eating ever since I gave up my day job and said I'm going to give it the best shot I can."
Gill might be the most visible and most beloved old soul in Nashville, which made him the ideal person to break the big news to Watson.
"I've always admired what he stands for," Watson says of Gill. "I admire him as an instrumentalist and a vocalist. I think one thing I admire most about him is the man himself and what he stands for. You don't have to ask somebody else. If you stay around him for a while, you'll know because he'll tell you what he stands for and what he believes in. I love that. I've always been that way myself, and Vince is the real deal."
Watson says similar things about fellow traditional country mainstay Steve Wariner, who'll handle induction duties while Gill's away on tour.
"I've got so much admiration for Steve," he says. "He's always stuck by his guns, and he's devoted to country music. And again, another great musician. I'm so grateful to have Steve be the one that's inducting me."
Questions and answers about Watson's fellow traditionalists and his lifelong Grand Ole Opry fandom all led back to one common topic: Country music's loyal, knowledgeable fan base.
"It's so fresh on me now that I'm waiting to wake up, thinking it's a dream," Watson adds. "I'm so thankful to my fans out there who kept on sending in petitions and had enough faith in me to keep coming to the shows."