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."