Aaron Watson learned about the power of music at a young age. His father, a Vietnam War veteran, sought comfort in music, and Aaron grew up listening to his dad’s records, gaining an early appreciation for songcraft and strong melodies. He started penning his own songs at a young age, and subsequently built a following by releasing his albums independently and tirelessly playing live shows.
His 2015 release, The Underdog, debuted at Number One on the Top Country Albums chart, making him the first independent male artist to hit the top of the chart with a self-released and independently-promoted album. Two years later, his song “Outta Style” became his first Top 10 Country hit, exposing him to an even wider audience.
With the release of his latest album Red Bandana (out on his own label, Big Label Records), Aaron reached the significant milestone of 20 years as an independent artist. He’s candid about the struggles independent artists face, particularly in the country industry, but he uses those struggles as motivation to work harder. At the end of the day, he’s grateful to be able to do what he loves, and to share that passion with his many dedicated fans.
We caught up with Aaron just after he’d returned home to Buffalo Gap, Texas, where he lives with his wife and three children. We chatted about how being an independent artist has changed over the past two decades, how he approaches the songwriting process, and his dream collaboration. (Hint: It’s a famous redhead.)
You once said that you’re only as good as your next record. That being said, tell us about your new album, Red Bandana.
This is my 18th album; I’ve been doing this for 20 years now. Before I make a record, I go back and I listen to all my previous records because it helps me get my bearings. It reminds me of where I’ve come from, and it gets me focused on my brand of music. I listen to the early records now and they’re pretty rough, but I have to remember that that was the best I could do at the time. And over the years, it’s fun to see my writing and singing improve.
That journey has led me to where I am right here, right now. And that’s the Red Bandana album. There are 20 songs on this album for the 20 years that I’ve been making country music, and I just wanted to give my fans something really special. I wrote the entire album all by myself, so if it’s terrible, I’m the only one to blame! [Laughs.]
There are themes throughout this album — it’s almost cinematic — and some of these songs go together, back-to-back, almost like The Beatles’ Abbey Road, or like something off a Pink Floyd record, or Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger album. I wanted this to be an album that entertains people, and I also wanted it to be full of songs that have meaning. Every night after every show, I have fans stand in line for hours to take pictures with me, and to share their stories with me. And often those stories are about how my songs have helped get them through a tough time in their life. As a songwriter, there’s no greater reward than that. And that was my mindset with this album.
As you mentioned, 2019 marks 20 years since you released your debut album. How does it feel to hit such a big milestone?
It’s kind of a big deal! I’ve been an independent artist for 20 years. I’ve been so blessed, but there are a lot of obstacles when you’re independent. A lot of people in the mainstream music industry assume I’m independent because I’m not good enough. I’m speaking from experience, you know. Even now, as we’re growing my record label and we have a full staff pushing radio, there are still obstacles.
I can’t control all those things, but the one thing I can control is myself. I can challenge myself to put on a better show every night and to write better songs. I’ve always believed that if you poured your heart and soul into a song and you made music that makes a difference, then your career is going to continue to grow and flourish. I can’t sing as good as Carrie Underwood and I don’t have her dance moves, so I can’t compete with her. But I can compete with myself and challenge myself to be better today than I was yesterday.
You get into some deep emotional territory on this album. Do you feel that’s something that comes more naturally with perspective?
Yeah, I think so. I’m becoming more comfortable in my own skin. I wrote a song several years ago … my wife and I, we lost a daughter. Her name was Julia, and we lost her shortly after she was born. I wrote a song for Julia called “Bluebonnets,” and I remember I was reluctant to put it on an album because it was so personal. But I went ahead and did so. I actually got a text message today from a guy that I’m friends with who recently lost a loved one. And he said, “Man, this song ‘Bluebonnets’ is really helping us get through this tough time.” And that taught me a lot; that’s the whole of it, stop chasing after a hit, and chase after your heart. A song that’s full of heart tends to live on.
For Red Bandana, I wrote this song called “Riding with Red.” Red is a friend of mine, and he’s a hero of mine. He sets such a great example; he’s like my dad. The song is about all the things I’ve learned from him. And then it goes into “Red Bandana,” which is a continuation of that song. It’s a poem about that red bandana, which signifies hard work, heritage, blood, sweat and tears. And then the next song, “Trying Like the Devil,” is me saying that I’m flawed. I’m imperfect, I make mistakes. I get depressed, I struggle. But I’m trying to be a good man.
You’ve built a fanbase the good old-fashioned way, by playing a lot of live shows and releasing your own music on your own terms. Do you think that’s getting easier or harder with the way the music industry is evolving?
The way things are going, it’s catering to the independent artist, without a doubt. Even five years ago, it was such a challenge. We put out an album five years ago that became the first independent album in the history of country music to chart Number One, and we could barely get that on shelves in major retail outlets.
And that was The Underdog, which was also self-released and independently distributed, right?
Yes, that was The Underdog. And after we put out The Underdog — that charted Number One — we put out Vaquero, and we still had struggles getting on those shelves. There was always that challenge. But I love a good challenge; it pushes me to work harder.
Does it help to have a hit on radio? Absolutely. Do I love to hear my song on the radio? Absolutely. Do I hope and pray that I’ll have more hits? Absolutely. But if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world. I managed to have a successful career for 18 years before I had a hit, and I managed to put out a Number One album. As my record label grows — and we’re small right now — we’re going to be a very competitive label on Music Row. We’re going to sign artists who have a great understanding of the value of the fan. And after every one of their shows, they will get off that stage, and they will get their butts down there to the merch table, and they will meet and greet every person. Without your fans, you’re nothing. I know this because, for the longest time, I played to nobody, and I don’t want to go back to those days.
“Outta Style” was your first Top 40 country hit in 2017, bringing a lot of new listeners to your music. Have you encountered any other young artists who hope to follow in your footsteps by writing their own songs, or owning their own label and publishing?
Gosh, I do. I run into young artists all the time. We’ll be looking for artists who are more than just a pretty face and a pretty voice. I’ll be searching for an artist that writes, an artist that has to do what they have to do regardless of whether they have a record deal or not. There’s a difference between the type of individual who does it because they want to be rich or famous, and the individual who does it because they have no choice but to do it.
I need to write. I’ve written some great songs with other songwriters, but I have no personal tie to those songs. I have high hopes that one of these big stadium acts will sing it, then I’ll be able to pay off our credit card bill. But for me, as an artist, these are songs that are straight out of my heart. It’s crazy that I’ve been doing this as long as I have, because I feel like I’m just getting started — I’ve already started writing my next album.
I need all these great songwriters here in Nashville to help me on the next one. I don’t think I can handle the pressure of writing this next one all by myself. I’m waving my white flag! Come hang out with me on the road! I’ll fly you to Buffalo Gap, Texas. You can stay at the house! [Laughs.]
You are the sole songwriter on the majority of your songs, but you usually have a few co-written songs on your albums. Is the songwriting process different when you collaborate with another songwriter?
No, I don’t think so. Obviously, when I’m alone, it’s just up to me. And I write pretty quick. When I write, I’ll have four or five songs that I’m working on, and if I hit a roadblock with one of them, I’ll jump to the next one. What I enjoy most about writing with other writers is that it’s like going to school. You get to learn, and I’m hungry to learn. I really have no pride. I might be confident in certain aspects of my life, but I have no pride when it comes to being able to sit down in that student’s chair and learn. I got to write with Bob DiPiero and writing with Bob is such a learning experience.
But I had to write this album by myself. I love doing cowrites, and I plan on doing lots of cowrites in the future, but this one was a personal thing. My entire career has been built on my songs, and it’s important to me as an artist that I continue to write songs where I’m able to share my heart with my fans. And I had a lot to say with this one. I feel that, as a writer, I’m beginning to mature and understand who I am.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be a musician? Did you always play music growing up?
My dad is disabled from serving our country during the Vietnam War. When my dad came home from the war, I think music was therapeutic. Growing up, there was always music being played in my house — mostly his records. Dad’s given me a lot of his vinyl records, and I listen to vinyl all the time. And maybe it’s because some of these records were my grandparents’ records, and their hands touched these covers. Vinyl makes you focus on the song; four or five songs get played, then you have to flip it over. You have to respect the vinyl, you have to treat it kindly and lovingly, or you’ll scratch it.
Music was always a part of my life. Growing up in the Church of Christ, if you don’t learn to sing right, you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb. And honestly, as I became a teenager, I was like, “Wow, I’m incredibly average to this girl … until I pick up this guitar, and then she looks at me like I’m Superman.” So, that is how absolutely shallow my musical career is. [Laughs.]
When did you first realize that you could write a song?
Gosh, I don’t know … I wrote songs and poems and stuff like that growing up, and then I started taking guitar lessons and vocal lessons. I remember I brought a song to the professor and I sang him the song, and he asked, “Whose song is this?” And I go, “Oh, that’s my song.” He said, “You wrote that?”
Then I started playing little acoustic shows. I had this black book with all these lyrics, so I could sit down at coffee shops and literally play for four to five hours. I’d play for tips, and I’d get hired to play sorority and fraternity events, and private parties. I realized that I enjoyed playing my songs more. And people would come up after and say, “Hey, you played a song that was about this. Who wrote that?” And I’d say “Oh, that’s my song.” I started seeing that people liked my songs over some of these other songs.
I’m a songwriter, that’s what I am. But here’s the deal: No one would ever cut my songs, so I had to cut my own. [Laughs.]
Tell us about some of your musical influences.
I love Mickey Newbury. He was as much of an outlaw as Willie or Waylon, and his albums are unique. They’re so artsy. Obviously, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Springsteen or Petty. Those writers have a great appreciation for crafting a masterpiece.
When you’re a writer, you’re there to write hits and make money. It’s a business. But there are a lot of songs that are big hits right now that lack substance. You can read the lyrics and they say absolutely nothing. The thing is, I like a lot of them — they’re great catchy songs, but they’re not a great lyric. Personally, I fall in love with a great lyric. I think that’s what’s timeless.
But you’ve got to have everything. It hit me when I was at a Paul McCartney concert. He gets up there and sings “Blackbird,” which is a masterpiece. And the next song was “Drive My Car.” You appreciate one because of the other. You can’t have two “Blackbirds” back-to-back or your mind would explode. Sometimes you’ve got to have, “Beep beep, beep beep, yeah!”
Willie Nelson, Elizabeth Cook and Pat Green have appeared on your albums. Are there any other dream collaborations you’d like to make happen?
Ooh … maybe just me and Reba, an entire album. But I probably wouldn’t sing. It would be like, Reba Sings Songs by Aaron Watson. I’m a super Reba fan. She’s the greatest.
How did you first start working with BMI, and how have they fostered your career so far?
One of my favorite experiences in my music career is that for the last three years, I have been able to go to the BMI Awards. Last year, I showed up and checked in, and they put a gold medal around my neck and told me, “You’ve won an award tonight for having one of the most-played songs on country radio last year.”
I remember that night, all the artists were getting up on stage to receive their awards. And they’d get up there with their record labels and their publishing companies, and all their co-writers and their other co-writers’ publishing companies. When they called my name, it was just me up there. Because I am the record label, I am the publishing company, and I was the only writer of the song. It took me 18 years, and that moment was so nice. I felt so thankful and so blessed.
But that wasn’t the best part of that night. After, I had a songwriter come up to me, and he had tears in his eyes. He said, “Thank you so much for being an independent artist. I have been so discouraged with my career and the lack of opportunities, and the lack of believers.” He said, “Seeing another independent artist get up there, it proves to me that this is possible, and that I can do this.” That really inspired me. I realized I have an opportunity to be a voice for songwriters, and to be a voice for all these independent artists.
And BMI has been so good for me, explaining the world of royalties and songs, and making connections with other writers and publishing companies, and just being a great tool to keep me in the right direction. And showing up to the award shows and having so many people from BMI putting their arms around me and telling me, “Dude, great job, keep it up.” BMI is a family, and they make me feel like I’m right at home. I’m really proud to be a BMI writer.