Bearing valentines for Watsonville, Michael Gaither returns with new album, El Vaquero celebration

Watsonville singer-songwriter Michael Gaither (with his pal Meadow) is set to perform Saturday at El Vaquero Winery.
(Via Michael Gaither)

Still basking in the glow of his 60th birthday, bard of Watsonville Michael Gaither takes to the stage Saturday at El Vaquero Winery to fete the release of his first album since pre-pandemic times, “Welcome Back: A Collection.”

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I had a chance to visit with my longtime friend Michael Gaither the day before his birthday — one of those big ones that end in a zero. Michael has become one of Santa Cruz County’s most prominent singer-songwriters, a kind of bard of Watsonville, known not only for his warm, wry folk/country tunes, but his presence at KPIG (107.5 FM), and as the host of a local trivia contest every Thursday at El Vaquero Winery in Watsonville.

Indeed, it’s at El Vaquero where Michael will be Saturday (from 5 to 8 p.m.), still in the afterglow of his 60th birthday, at a concert to celebrate the release of his new album, “Welcome Back: A Collection.” The new recording is Michael’s fifth, but his first since 2017 — the first since pre-pandemic times.

Michael is Watsonville to the bone, and when you’ve passed your sixth decade, you tend to think back on those early years a bit. Several years ago, Michael released a recording of his song “Starlite Drive-In Saturday Night,” a seductive piece of nostalgia, especially for anyone who grew up in W’ville and remembers the old Starlite Drive-In. (The drive-in movie theater is long gone, but in its place is Starlight Elementary School.)

A live version of “Starlite” is featured on the new album, but also included is a sequel of sorts, another valentine to Watsonville’s past, an ode to lost fun called “Cheapskate Hill.”

“Behind the drive-in,” Michael explained, “before there were houses on Winchester [Drive], there was a hill where people would go and hang out in the bushes and party. The lyrics of the song are kind of poetic license, but it was a real place in Watsonville.”

Michael tells me that nostalgia is only an occasional vice for him. “It’s the only real nostalgia piece on the record,” he said of “Cheapskate,” which recently won Outstanding Achievement in Songwriting in the Great American Song Contest.

“I never want to be the guy who’s like, ‘Gee, I wish it was all still like that,’ because that’s not my perspective at all,” he said. “For me, it’s not about, I miss the good ole days. It’s more about, I’m glad we had those good ole days.”

The album also features winking, humorous pieces like “Monkey Town,” “Day Drinking Days” and “No More Tequila for Santa,” as well as warm, reflective songs, particularly poignant in the wake of the pandemic, such as “We’re the Elders Now” and “Welcome Back (to the Land of the Living).”

The era of Cheapskate Hill might have been some good old days for Michael Gaither, but with a new decade and a new album, these days are pretty good for him as well.

“Nobody’s telling me to stop doing this yet,” he laughed.


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