In a city where it seems like every other citizen plays acoustic guitar, the one who plays it the best may well be session veteran and producer Biff Watson.
Now in his third decade in Nashville, Watson's list of album credits takes up 10 full pages in the All Music Guide. Among the hundreds of top albums Watson has played on are seven by Alabama, six by Patty Loveless, eight by Martina McBride, three by George Strait and one by Shania Twain.
His entrance to Music City U. S. A. in 1971 wasn't exactly front-page news.
“I actually hitchhiked to town the day after I graduated high school in Chatham, Va.,” Watson said.
He began playing guitar at age 11 and from that point on he knew he wanted to work in music. A school band director named [Lee Hampton] Benton got his prize pupil thinking about recording.
“He let me use his sound-on-sound recorder,” Watson said. “I would take it to church and put B-3 on it then come home and put a bass line down.”
Considering that he was still years away from shaving, that's incredible. When he got to Nashville, Watson played on a few projects — primarily demos and showcases — but made his real living for 12 years on the road backing up artists Crystal Gayle, Tracy Nelson, and Don Williams.
By 1988, Watson and his wife Marian (the sister of producer Paul Worley) had three children — Michelle, Fletcher and Paige — and the road had lost its appeal.
“I wanted to come to town and work in the studios,” he said.
He did some work on keyboards, earning a niche as one of the first in town to use a synthesizer (a DX-7 and a Prophet) when many keyboard players passed.
“But I'm a guitar player,” Watson said.
In 1991, his guitar work on Billy Dean's No. 1 “Somewhere In My Broken Heart” earned Watson loads of attention. Producers like Emory Gordy and Garth Fundis began using him a lot.
How does Watson start work on a song in the studio with an artist he's never met?
“Generally you get your cues from the producer, knowing all along that the producer has been hired by the artist and it is the artist's record,” Watson said. “One of the first things you learn about being a session player is that no matter how good you are, it's not your record. You support the singer and you accompany the singer.”
He says the most important trait for a successful session player is to have excellent people skills.
“You're in a room with no windows for many hours and you have to get along,” he said. “You must show up ready to play and with a great attitude. That is extremely important.”
The guitars he usually carries into the studio for a session include a Collings, Gibsons, Martins, Taylors, a Santa Cruz baritone guitar and a Ramirez gut string.
The lower-pitched guitar works especially well for Watson when he's backing female singers since its lower timbre blends. Lately, he's also used an exotic-sounding Greek or Irish Bouzouki on albums by Carolyn Dawn Johnson and The Wilkinsons.
Watson is now having his first real commercial success as a producer, sharing production duties with Mike Bradley on Aaron Tippin's Lyric Street Records CD, People Like Us. He and Worley co-produced Ty Herndon's new Sony/Epic album due this spring, while he and Shelby Kennedy are producing Sonya Isaacs' second album for Lyric Street Records.
But no matter how many albums Watson (whose real name is Fletcher Bangs Watson V) produces, he will best be known as a session ace on acoustic guitar.
“I give a lot of credit to the fact that I've endured or persevered,” he said. “I have to say that I've been here 30 years as of June, and since I've never really been employed or salaried by anyone, I've always lived from day to day, not knowing what I'd be doing in three months. After many years of having done that, I basically rely on leaps of faith.”
Note: This article was written by Phil Sweetland, and accompanying photograph is by Rick Malkin. It was first published in CMA Close Up, March-April 2002, pp. 33, 37. It is reproduced with on this website with the permission of CMA Close Up magazine.
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