When Aaron Watson’s 2015 album The Underdog debuted at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard country albums chart, the country music gatekeepers who had for so long looked the other way as he rose up the ranks could suddenly no longer afford to ignore his efforts.
Problem is, they didn’t do their homework when they came calling. Somehow, they’d almost all uniformly missed out on the fact that Watson had northwards of 2,000 live shows under his belt, having released his first album in 1999, toured the world and first collaborated with none other than Willie Nelson back in 2004.
They’d look at Watson, who has resisted the temptation of signing with a label for two decades and instead worked his ass off to establish himself as an independent force to be reckoned with, and they’d call him an overnight success.
And how does Watson reply?
“Oh, I chuckle,” the native Texan says now from the back of his tour bus as it barrels back from yet another distant clime and back on toward his native West Texas. “I laugh at it a little bit. And, honestly, I’m kind of flattered by it because to be doing this for 20 years and people think that we’re just get started? I mean, that is flattering.”
To hear the ever-humble Watson tell it, it just confirms to him that he’s made the right decision to build his brand from Texas and do things his way. The way he sees it, if people can’t tell the difference between the 20-year foundation he’s built for himself on his own dime and the product that the million-dollar Nashville machine churns out – well, that’s a win in his book.
Better still, it’s been a sign that what he’s got in store for the masses next will work out just as well, too.
Watson has every reason to believe it will. Last year’s Vaquero essentially repeated The Underdog’s success from a few years back, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard country album chart and outselling the well-established likes of Brad Paisley, Toby Keith and Rascal Flats, just to name a few. And it isn’t just album sales where Watson’s been proving his worth as of late: In the last 18 months, he proudly reports, he’s headlined more than 100 sold-out shows across 40 states and 10 countries.
These days, Watson is essentially writing his own ticket as an artist – to the point where he’s more than comfortable ignoring the critics who say his newest music isn’t mainstream or Nashville enough to keep him in the limelight.
Again, Watson can’t help but laugh. He’s never tried to be a mainstream country artist. In fact, he says, he’s never even tried to write a country song.
Instead, he just writes what feels is right for each song. To illustrate his point, he brings up the Vaquero single “Run Wild Horses,” with its sultry between-the-sheets vibes and R&B undertones. It’s a far cry from Vaquero’s lead single, the rather straightforward barroom stomper “Outta Style,” which he will forever fondly recall as the first song in his career to earn widespread radio airplay. And yet “Run Wild Horses” is following right along in suit, getting picked up and added to the rotations of most of the same stations that supported the single that preceded it.
If Watson had his druthers, country music would stop taking itself so seriously all the time and all this talk of being “[anything] enough” that pervades the industry at this point would fall by the wayside.
“I mean, honestly, what is country music at this point?,” Watson asks rhetorically. “I don’t even know what it is anymore. I mean, I’m not trying to be rude, but Justin Timberlake sounds more country than a lot of the country artists from the genre today. So what is country? I don’t know. What I do is I focus on my brand of music.”
That ethos hasn’t just worked well for Watson, but for his similarly independent, Texas-bred country music contemporaries as well. There’s no denying it: Between acts like Watson, Casey Donahew, Cody Johnson and Jon Wolfe – just to name a few — Texas country music is having itself a real moment in the national spotlight.
Watson wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It might be my name on that No. 1 record,” Watson says, pointing at The Underdog again, “but I really feel like that achievement kind of belongs to all the guys in this Texas music scene that have helped build it. I just feel obligated every step along the way to take an opportunity to say to people, ‘Hey, there’s so many talented artists in this Texas music scene. You’ve got to go check them out.’ I’ve never been the kind of artist where it’s all about me, and that’s not what I’m going to do now. Texas is home. Texas is my bread and butter. And I tell everybody everywhere I go that I’m unapologetically Texan.”
Watson’s love for Texas isn’t something he has to say, really. His music makes it quite clear.
“It’s definitely a theme in my music,” he says. “I’d call it the flavor, really.”
When Watson speaks to those old country music gatekeepers, they sometimes balk a little at how Texas-focused his music is. There’s danger in having such a narrow focus, that people might not be able to relate to his content.
Recalling those chats, Watson chuckles right on cue. He hasn’t listened to those voices for 20 years, and he’s been doing just fine without it. No need to start now.
“Look at the Beach Boys,” he says. “They sang about surfing in California — and guess what? People in Kansas, they got it.”
People will keep getting what he’s trying to do, too, Watson says. He’s pretty confident about that.
“Listen, I try not to let my Texas swagger get too out of hand, but I sometimes can’t help it,” he says. “It’s important to me that I keep waving that flag for Texas music wherever I go. I’ve always stayed true to myself and, by doing that, we’ve built this brand of music that people can depend on. As a writer and as an artist, though, I feel like we’re only at the tip of the iceberg. Like, I really feel like these first 20 years have really helped us lay a solid foundation. But now we’re just going to build upon what we’ve done in the last 20 years.”
Only now, everyone – everyone — is paying attention.
“Lord willing,” Watson says, “the next decade is going to be super exciting.”