Sesser Rend Lake Days Music – Salty Dogs at 7:30 p.m. June 12, We Got It Covered at 7:30 p.m. June 13, Gene Watson at 8 p.m. June 14, Johnny Lee at 8 p.m. June 15; Miners Memorial Park downtown; free; bring seating.

Few singers in the history of country music possess vocals as powerful as Gene Watson. Even fewer songs evoke stronger emotion than his classic “Farewell Party.” The tune frequently appears near the top of lists of greatest country songs ever recorded and is often played at funerals.

The 59-year old Watson was working at a Texas auto body shop in 1974 when the regional popularity of his song “Love in the Hot Afternoon” spread nationwide, where it peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard charts.

His complete body of work has included 48 single releases, with 21 reaching coveted “Top 10” status, including tunes like “Paper Rosie,” “Fourteen Carat Mind,” “Pick the Wildwood Flower” and “Should I Come Home (Or Should I Go Crazy).”

Watson will be in concert at 8 p.m. June 14 at the 58th annual Sesser Rend Lake Days, held at Miners Memorial Park near the downtown area. Admission is free. Those planning to attend should provide their own seating. Concessions, including roasted corn and barbeque, will be available for purchase.

“This is the fourth time we’ve had him at Sesser,” says event spokesman Keith Ward. “We try not to repeat too often, but Gene Watson always draws a good crowd. We feature country music at Rend Lake Days, and you can’t get more country than Gene Watson. The people never get tired of seeing him.”

Since 1986, the festival has been providing country music fans with a weekend of free major Nashville talent. This year, Johnny Lee completes the double dose with an 8 p.m. show on June 15. He soared to instant superstardom during the Urban Cowboy era with act-breaking single “Lookin’ For Love.”

“He was always a good singer, but the movie put him over the top,” Ward says.

Both Watson and Lee are members of the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame.

The popular event has expanded to four nights of entertainment, with music starting at 7:30 p.m. on June 12 by Salty Dogs and at 7:30 p.m. on June 13 by We Got It Covered.

Each night carnival rides will be provided by J & J Magic Midway and Rides. Wrist bands for each day are $15.

A testament to the respect Watson receives from his piers was evident after the death of Jack Greene in March. A tribute concert was performed in April at the Grand Ole Opry, and Watson was selected to perform Green’s 1966 chart-topping hit anthem “There Goes My Everything.” Although it was taken at an impromptu backstage practice session with a hand-held phone, Watson vocals on the rough video footage posted on his website are simply phenomenal.

Watson’s success story is remarkable. One of seven children, he was raised in a converted school bus and dropped out of ninth grade to help support his family. He started his professional recording career in 1962, persevering against over-whelming odds for 12 years before finally getting his big break.

“Seems like my career just kind of happened accidently,” Watson says. “It was purely unintentional. Music was just a sideline. I was going to be playing and singing no matter what line of work I was going to do. I never did really have any high expectations out of the music business.”

Watson was only 15 when he learned early about the dirty side of the country music business. He grew up singing in church and was developing a big local following with his younger brother, Jessie. A talent scout/producer came to Paris, Tx. to promote the debut show by The Watson Brothers. A huge crowd paid to see the performance, but the promoter “left town with the proceeds” before the show was over.

He settled in the Houston area and steadily built a regional fan base. He toured briefly with the Wilburn Brothers in the mid-1960s, then worked for several small labels before he struck gold with “Love in the Hot Afternoon,” which was eventu-ally picked up by Capitol Records.

Watson’s latest recording is “The Best of the Best,” new recordings of 25 of his biggest hits. He is touring Canada before coming to Sesser. Later this year, he will be touring with bluegrass superstar Rhonda Vincent.

Lee’s early musical momentum was stalled by a tour of duty in Vietnam. After his stint in the Navy, he started working at legendary Gilley’s nightclub in Pasadena, Texas. His band also served as the road band for club owner Mickey Gilley, which put him in perfect position to earn a spot on the Urban Cowboy soundtrack.

His other hits include “Pickin’ Up Strangers,” “One in a Million,” “Hey Bartender,” “You Could’ve Heard a Heart Break” and “Yellow Rose of Texas,” a duet with Lane Brody.

Past performers at Rend Lake Days include Waylon Jennings, Porter Wagoner, Faron Young, Bill Anderson, Little Jimmy Dickens, Billy “Crash” Craddock and Moe Bandy.

VINCE HOFFARD can be reached at 618-658-9095 or vincehoffard@yahoo.com.

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