FOR THE LAST 10 years, Gene Watson has scored one country hit after another. While John Anderson and George Strait draw press and praise as youthful saviors of traditional honky-tonk, Watson has quietly carved a reputation as an unreconstructed hard country singer who grew up in Texas' fertile honky-tonk tradition and never left. On his latest album, "Heartaches, Love and Stuff," Watson lends his smooth, note-bending delivery to another set of tears-in-your-beer songs.
If there's a problem with the album, it's that those songs tend to plumb the wellworn barroom concerns of infidelity, drink and guilt somewhat unimaginatively. Most of them are rescued by the honest and soulful treatment afforded by Watson's emotive singing and his Farewell Party Band's sparse, but emphatic, honky-tonk instrumentation.
"Winos Prayer" is exactly the kind of maudlin story that gets effortlessly dignified by Watson's warm and tender phrasing. When Watson is given something special like Merle Haggard's tormented "I Must Be Somebody Else," the emotional impact conveyed by his soft vocal edges and broken slurs is worth a few tears.
Ricky Skaggs has a new album, "Favorite Country Songs," composed of ten songs selected by Skaggs from his last five studio albums. Sort of the opposite of a greatest hits collection, "Favorite Country Songs" offers only material that wasn't released on singles. Although the record offers no new tunes, it is an impressive collection simply because Skaggs' intense perfectionism allows nothing that could be called second-rate.
The album does achieve some consistency in theme and style by focusing on Skaggs' more plaintive, romantic ballads. His harmonies with the White sisters lend a sweet, old- timey feel to two Stanley Brothes' songs, "I'll Take the Blame" and "If That's the Way you Feel." For all the attention Skaggs' sparkling nouveau bluegrass arrangements receive, it is really the loneliness and tension held in his high Kentucky tenor that grant his music drama.
GENE WATSON -- "Heartaches, Love and Stuff," (MCA 5520).
RICKY SKAGGS -- "Favorite Country Songs," (Epic FE 39409); Watson and Skaggs appear at Constitution Hall Saturday at 9.