If you don’t consider Texan Aaron Watson a household name, on par with the likes of Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett, give it a little time. He didn’t sign to a Nashville label when he started writing and performing music in West Texas and he wasn’t a CMT darling, nor was he writing pop-soaked country tunes that could corner the crossover market. But, just wait a moment and he’ll find a way to be compared to the other legends of Texas country music. After all, despite a career of almost two decades of a life spent on the road, center stage and in the studio, he’s still just now becoming a breakout star.
“I was in Nashville last week and I’m still ‘up and coming,’” Watson beams. It’s something he’s clearly just shy of being proud about. He’s had to cultivate a rebellious spirit over the last two decades, having heard pessimism and discouragement at every turn. Still, Watson has a genuine nature that spills over into every word. He is laughing and shaking his head as he explains his ‘newcomer’ status.
“Seventeen years, 13 albums, 2,000+ shows later, and even after we’ve charted a record number one on Billboard – making history because it’s the only independent album that’s ever charted number one – and have an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, I’m still ‘up and coming,’” he says. Reflecting on a pedigree that would be the envy of most country music successes, Watson laughs. “That’s pretty good for an ‘up and coming artist.’”
To find out where a newcomer like Watson gets his start, you have to go back to a magical night in 1993, when a man took command of a stage, a stadium and more than one dreamer’s future. Garth Brooks was holding court in the most spectacular way that most country music fans had ever seen. In so doing, he charmed a young Miranda Lambert (see the Fall 2016 issue of Texas Lifestyle Magazine for that story) into pursuing a life in music. And, across the field, also marveling at what was transpiring before him was a teenage Aaron Watson, nearly riveted to the stage. The performance launched an idea.
“I love Garth Brooks, but he’s not a specimen of a man,” Watson explains. “He’s an average white boy, like me. So, when I saw another average white boy like me get up there and drive the girls crazy, I was like, ‘I need what he’s got. Because I need all the help I can get.’”
It isn’t true of the man who now graces stages like the hero he admires. One need only look at the successful marriage, having lasted nearly 14 years and counting, to know that he didn’t need much help driving the girls anywhere. Truth be told, he might not have needed that much help then, as his recollection of that magical night reveals.
“I went with my girlfriend at the time and her family,” Watson explains “She was short and she couldn’t see. So, I put her up on my shoulders, trying to be the stud who saved the day. I held her up on my shoulders for an hour and a half. She probably only weighed 90 pounds, but I only weighed 130. I remember my legs hurting so bad, but being too proud to say, ‘Hey, I’m fixing to pass out.’”
Beyond demonstrating the chivalry that Watson adopted early in life, the story displays just the kind of dedication he applies to every effort. And it is that sort of effort that takes a baseball prospect from Abilene to stages across the globe, and the top of the charts, especially when no one thought it would happen.
After releasing 11 albums that received mostly local attention, but created a groundswell following, Watson’s musical triumph arrived. A mere 22 years after that fateful concert at Texas Stadium saw the release of “The Underdog.”
The album carried the timeless sound of traditional country music – a sound that was on its most flamboyant display while Watson played a precarious balancing game with his date – into the production-heavy world that pervades the contemporary country music scene.
When asked how he did it, Watson can only flash his humility. “I have no idea,” he confesses. But, despite his honest denial, he follows up with an evolving theory. “Staying true is what’s gotten me to this point. There have been opportunities where we could have signed a major record deal, but that always would have meant changing what made me who I am, and that’s just not something I could ever agree to do.”
The pitfalls of a life in the limelight threaten nearly all who stand within it, however, and the light keeps shining brighter on Watson. The success of “The Underdog” has led to sold out shows in Italy and a night playing the historic Ryman Theater in Nashville, all of which change the strongest of personalities. It is a war between who an artist is and where they come from, the music industry and the starmaker machines. Watson is standing strong.
“So often as an artist gets more successful, they begin to change who they are,” he says. “A lot of them started with a cowboy hat on. Then, after a couple of hit songs, they’re wearing baseball caps on backwards. And they’re not wearing a buckle…they’re wearing skinny jeans and lace-up boots. I’m still wearing the same thing that I was wearing 17 years ago, because the cowboy is timeless. The cowboy is classic.”
That humility and dedication to his roots and the music that first inspired him to pick up a guitar can often be seen by industry moguls and fans alike as insincere, or, worse, as stereotypical. When searching for an artist to promote, the music industry isn’t too fond of niche acts, because they won’t sell to the broader audience. In essence, they won’t ever grow. It’s a dynamic they’ve been trying to convince Watson of for years. It hasn’t worked, for Watson or for the industry’s predictions for his career.
“A lot of people still call me a regional act,” Watson says in disbelief. “I’m a regional act that played in 40 states and eight countries in the last two years.” People across the country and around the world love his brand of country music, he says. And yes, it is heavily influenced by the great state of Texas. “How can it not be? It’s home,” says Watson. “It’s where I raised my babies. It’s where I met my wife. It’s where I buried my grandparents. It’s just home.”
A strong dedication to his sound, to ‘Texas music,’ keeps paying off for Watson and his band, and finds them on the verge of the hotly anticipated follow-up to “The Underdog,” an album that he’s titled “Vaquero.”
Now, while that name might ring a little too much like “High Plains Drifter” or “Bonanza” in the ears of some, in Texas, there’s far more to it. There’s a history there and a meeting of cultures that’s difficult to explain and impossible to replicate, outside the borders of the Lone Star State.
None of this is lost on Watson, in his music or his personality. So, it’s little surprise that, on this latest cover, he stands tall, guitar overhead and backed by a mural of the Texas flag. Call it a battle cry to all who told him he would need to lose his localized sound to become a success.
“The reason it’s called ‘Vaquero,’” he says, “is you can’t talk about the American cowboy and not talk about the vaquero, because that’s the original cowboy. This album is my Declaration of Independence. Instead of going the direction that the mainstream expects me to go, I’m sticking to my roots. I’m saying, ‘this is who I am.’” Standing in front of the Texas flag, painted on a wall outside of Abilene, guitar raised in the air, it’s a rebellious pose. “It’s to let the world know: This is who I am. This is where I come from,” says Watson.
It all has a familiar ring to it, all this talk of staying true and finding the original version of things. It sounds both determined and defiant. At the very least, it sounds independent, particularly in an industry that keeps pushing for constant evolution and reinvention. It sounds, unequivocally, like Texas itself.
One could say that Watson certainly ‘comes by it honestly.’ His home state pervades more than his music. It shapes more than the man, himself. Texas shapes his entire world. From history to music to family, it is a clear part of everything that is Aaron Watson. And, it isn’t always the lofty goal of proclaiming the Lone Star State to the world at large. Sometimes, it’s just about taking it all in and letting it affect you, naturally. When asked about how it is he does this, he’s proud to say, “I take the kids down to Corpus Christi every summer. We love fishing for reds,” he grins. But it doesn’t stop there.
“We just love experiencing Texas,” he explains. “I live in the dead center of Texas, outside of Abilene. Go five, six hours either way and you’re somewhere awesome; or
you can just drive four minutes down the road to our ranch and just enjoy life there.”
And the love for Texas around the world is incredible, he says. “We’re in France and there’s people taking pictures of me and they have phone cases that have the State of Texas flag on the back. I love it.”
It doesn’t get more proud than that. And yet, at a point 17 years, 13 albums and thousands of concerts away from where it all began – and a lifetime away from that magical night in front of Garth Brooks (and under the weight of a too-short date) – there are still those who have reason to cast doubt on Watson and his career path. They are the ones who still consider him an ‘up and coming artist.’ And they still send Watson messages, though his response is still the same. It may be a little better fleshed out and may have the confidence of experience and success to accompany it, but it is still the same answer.
As evidence to that point, Aaron talks of another recent encounter, similar to the time he was branded with ‘up and coming’ status. He explains, “I had a guy from a record label tell me, ‘You’re never going to get away from being a regional act if you’re all about Texas. If you’re fine with just being the king of Texas, then just be the king of Texas.’”
It is Aaron’s response that tells you all that you need to know about the man and everything about how he’s managed to become so successful. It backs up everything he’s spoken about being true and staying true, to both who you are and where you come from. “I said, ‘Man, that’s a great title,’” Watson recalls. “And my theory is this – if you’re the king of Texas, you might just become the king of the world.”
With a number one hit record, 12 albums and thousands of concerts in the rear-view mirror, along with a new anxiously anticipated album, it’s difficult not to think that this ‘up and coming artist’ might just be one to watch, and one of whom Texas should already be very proud.