By Vernell Hackett
NASHVILLE, Tenn (Reuters) - Early on, Gene Watson pursued his dream of working on cars, toiling as a mechanic, then relaxing with his weekend hobby playing country music in Houston honkytonks and beer joints.
The hobby became a 50-year career for Watson, 68, who has gone on to record a string of hits including "Love in the Hot Afternoon," "Paper Rosie," "Sometimes I Get Lucky and Forget," and his signature song, "Farewell Party."
The native of Palestine, Texas, grew up poor, his father a laborer who always managed to put food on the table, though for a time the family lived in a school bus.
"Singing was a part of everyday life for me and the rest of my family," Watson said in an interview. "It was something I loved, but I never dreamed of becoming a recording artist."
An opportunity presented itself when the Wilburn Brothers duo caught his act and invited him to perform, and Watson never looked back.
He moved to Nashville and quickly established his signature sound. He recently celebrated 50 years as a recording artist with an album, "Best of the Best: 25 Greatest Hits."
Watson said the album was the hardest thing he has ever recorded.
"I thought it wouldn't take any preparation because I had been playing these songs for years," the singer explained. "I can remember recording the originals. I just thought I could breeze through it. But I was wrong."
TRUE TO ORIGINALS
Watson wanted the songs to be true to the original sound, so he brought the old albums into the studio. Any time there was a question on phrasing or how to sing something, he listened to the old recording.
"I knew my fans would be picking this thing apart," Watson said. "When they hear it, I think they will be genuinely satisfied and pleased. If someone is new to my music then they'll hear good country music. As critical as I am about music, I have to say we came as close as you could ever come to the originals."
"Love in the Hot Afternoon" was originally released in 1974, three years after Sammi Smith broke down a barrier in country music to sexually suggestive lyrics by scoring a hit with Kris Kristofferson's song "Help Me Make it Through the Night."
"It had been recorded six or seven times but never released," Watson said of "Love in the Hot Afternoon." "People were afraid of the lyric and of not getting radio play.
"The song said some things that could have been risqué for radio, but I got lucky. There were a few stations that wouldn't play it but I got enough airplay to take it to number one. I just made up my mind that I was going to record it the way it was written."
"Farewell Party" was another risky song for Watson.
"People thought it was too morbid, but I had faith in that song. I finally told my producers I was going to record it. We had 15 or 20 minutes left on a recording session, and I went in and did it in one take."
On the other end of the spectrum, Watson was wary of recording "Paper Rosie," thinking it did not suit his style. But he was asked during a studio session to give it one more try, and Watson nailed the song.
"When we went back in, we added a flute and clarinet, and I tried to change my attitude about the song. When we were through I had fallen in love with it," he said.
Among his recent offerings is an album of duets with bluegrass queen Rhonda Vincent. He also recorded an album featuring guest appearances by Joe Nichols, Vince Gill and Lee Ann Womack.
Artists such as Nichols and Clint Black cite Watson as a major influence on their music, which he found flattering.
Watson said he is busier now than he has ever been.
"I'm working Canada, England, Ireland and here in the U.S. We have people wanting us to come to all points and play country music," Watson said. "At this juncture of my career I'm hotter than I've been in ... I can't remember when.
"I'm as proud of this project as any I've ever done. I probably worked harder (on it) than anything I've done because of me being so intense in getting it as close as I could to the originals. I think the songs speak for themselves. I hope fans are as proud of it as I am."
(Editing By Andrew Stern and Bob Tourtellotte)