Johnny Bush, Gene Watson Recall Houston's Wooly Honky-Tonk '70s

When Rocks Off and Lonesome, Onry and Mean were working on our honky-tonk feature story a few weeks back, we had the pleasure of interviewing some of our heroes. Unfortunately not everything could make it into the story, but like those cooks who use even the snout and anus of an animal in their cooking, LOM hates to waste good quote.

Two of the guys who gave us a goodly amount of their time were local heroes Johnny Bush and Gene Watson, honky-tonk giants without question. Both remember the Houston of the '70s as a vibrant, even crazy honky-tonk scene. Bush wistfully recalls the days when Houston had a dozen clubs with 1,000-plus capacity and, surprisingly, when paydays were smaller.

"If you had a single in the charts, you could play Houston every other month at a different venue and never saturate it," he says. "Of course Gilley's was the big one - the world's largest honky-tonk - but the other clubs like Dance Town USA or the Winchester were always packed too. It really was kind of a golden era for country artists."

"Back then, if you had a record in the charts, top gig money was $2,500, so if you drew a thousand people at $5.00 each, everybody made out. Nowadays, artists in the charts are demanding $20,000 minimum, and that math just won't work for 99 percent of clubs."

Gene Watson, who we spoke to just as he was leaving for a tour in Ireland, confirms Bush's remembrances.

Gene Watson in 1983
Gene Watson in 1983

"I remember gigs we played at Dance Town that were so packed if someone fainted there was no way for them fall," says Watson.

Watson was one of the few traditionalists who was able to hang on to radio play and visibility after Nashville and corporate radio began to slick up country music in the '80s - think Reba McIntire, the Judds, Garth Brooks, Clint Black, etc.

"The arrival of the consultants and conglomerates certainly hurt traditional artists," says Watson. "I was doing an interview recently at a huge corporate station and this fellow told me he was the music director. But to me, music director is a meaningless title if someone at corporate headquarters is telling you you can play this and only this."

"I've been extremely fortunate that I got my big break in 1975, a few years before country radio started going south. And I've been lucky that somehow, even during phases that Nashville and radio went through like that country crossover phase, stations were still putting my stuff in the mix. I can work with any of those guys, but I never was a part of a fad."

Watson also disagreed with local songwriter Greg Wood's opinion that if Merle Haggard was breaking out today, he would be more rocking and louder.

  "Not comparing myself to Merle or anyone else, but I think there are some of us who have a style and it's not only what we do, it really is who we are. I don't think Merle would be much different if he was coming up today, assuming he came from the same background."

Watson, whose duet with Rhonda Vincent, "Staying Together," made a huge dent in the country indie charts, still lives in Humble and owns a body shop, which is the kind of work he was doing while he paid his musical dues.

"I was always content to work on cars," says Watson, "so if a trend came along and I was suddenly unable to make a living singing, I had a good place to fall.

"Houston is still my home, and I would love for something to happen to bring the traditional stuff back. I'm glad to hear that so much is going on in Houston right now with traditional honky tonk music. I need to get out and check it out."

As far as the changes he's seen in the business and his own career ups and downs, Watson waxes philosophical.

"When you've loved it and lived it, you think maybe now you're payin' for it with the way things are. But I can't really focus on that. I just do what I do."

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