On new album Outside the Box (released Sept. 16 by Fourteen Carat Music), Gene Watson strikes a balance between backing up its title with a few curveballs and maintaining the approach that's earned him "singer's singer" acclaim for 60 years.
"It all stems from picking good material and picking material that was for you," Watson told Wide Open Country. "Just because I can sing 'Farewell Party' doesn't mean I could sing 'The Gambler,' so I was always real critical about picking my own material. I tried to record songs that my fans could relate to, and it's been real successful for me. It's the same formula now. It's just that with this album, I used a little bit of different types of music here and there and kind of sprinkled it in there. Instead of just singing all the real high, hard stuff, I dropped it down, and I'm singing a little more mellow on it. Not that I'm changing any style or anything. It's just that to me, this album is just a little bit outside the box from what people are expecting from me."
Watson mined the past for several gems, from a song he'd recorded in the '70s ("Lie to Me") to a country classic first popularized by Jimmy C. Newman ("I'll Keep Holding Your Memory") and a less obvious example of Merle Haggard's poetic brilliance ("Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive"). More notably, the son of a blues guitarist and harmonica player stepped up to the tall task of recording "If I Had Any Pride Left at All," a song popularized by Etta James and previously recorded by elite country vocalists Joe Diffie and John Berry.
"Because of the blues background I have through my dad, a lot of it rubbed off on me, even in my country singing." Watson said. "It's just a song I couldn't get tired of listening to by Etta James. I made up my mind I was going to try it. I didn't know whether I could sing it or not. Never did try to sing it until I went in the studio. I thought we brought it off. I thought it came off good."
Flipping through country music's back pages positioned Watson to collaborate for the first time with fellow Texas native Willie Nelson.
"That was a dream that I didn't figure would ever come true, and it probably wouldn't have if it hadn't been for his daughter, Paula Nelson," Watson explained. "She called me one day and told me that the two biggest regrets that Willie had was one, not going and hanging out with Frank Sinatra when he had a chance and the invitation. The second one was not answering an invitation to sing on a song that I was recording. With that being said, she said that she knew that he'd really love to talk to me. So, she gave me his number and I called him in Hawaii. We talked for quite a while, and I told him it'd be a highlight of my career to get to record with him. He said, 'Well, what song would you want to do?' I told him, I said, 'It's a song you wrote several years ago and had a cut on called 'Wonderful Future.'' He said, 'I'm in.'"
"They Played It" stands out among the fresher material for namedropping a who's-who of Nashville session musicians, such as the late Bob Moore, Pete Drake and Hargus "Pig" Robbins.
"I thought it was such a unique song because a lot of people that buy records, listen to radio, CDs and all of that stuff, they hear the songs and they like it or don't like it," Watson said. "Very seldom do you hear of the guys that make the music sound good. A song without the band's not much of a song. I thought how neat it would be to record this song. Erin Enderlin, who was writer on it, and me were talking, and I said, 'I think it's such a cleverly-written song because it does pay tribute to the players that usually don't get recognized for how great they are.' So, I couldn't wait to get into the studio and record it. I love showing my appreciation for these musicians because they've been the backbone of so much of my music. I think it's only right that they get all of the accolades that they deserve."
As intended, Outside the Box strays from expectations just enough to keep things interesting without drifting too far from the formula that made "Love in the Hot Afternoon," "Paper Rosie," "Fourteen Carat Mind" and other Top 10 hits timeless.
Outside the Box Tracklist
1. "If I Had Any Pride Left At All"
2. "If She Only Knew"
3. "Wonderful Future" (Feat. Willie Nelson)
4. "Lie To Me"
5. "Some Fools"
6. "I'll Keep Holding Your Memory"
7. "I've Got One of Those Too" (Feat. Rhonda Vincent)
8. "They Played It"
9. "The Blues Are Alive and Well"
10. "Who Do You Think You Are"
11. "It Looked Good On Paper"
12. "Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive"