Aaron Watson will turn 40 later this year — even though, as he jokes, he still looks 30. The West Texas native has independently released 13 country records over the past 18 years, but a wider audience may not have taken notice until as recently as his 2015 release, The Underdog, which became the first independently released country record to reach number one on the country Billboard charts. Shortly after, he made his Grand Ole Opry debut.
“I went to Nashville, and I had dreams like every country boy has,” Watson said. “I had pretty much every door slammed in my face, and at some point, you either give up or you make your own path. I came back home to Texas. I told my dad, ‘None of those record labels liked me.’ He said, ‘That’s alright. That’s the same thing they said to Willie for all those years. Willie finally made it about the time he was 45.’ I think I was 20 or 21 at the time, and I said, ‘Forty-five? Are you telling me I’m going to have to do this for the next 25 years until I make it?’ And he said, ‘Yep. If you want it bad enough.’”
His latest release, Vaquero, has actually outsold its smash predecessor, a feat that strikes awe in Watson, who says that despite record sales being down 42 percent in the industry, his own sales are up 48 percent. It’s a model that he credits to taking ownership of his own business from the beginning and taking time to reach one fan in one market at a time.
“My future is not dictated by some bigwig at some record label that doesn’t know a D-chord on a guitar,” he said, paraphrasing “Fence Post,” the final track on The Underdog. “My career has been built on hard work and hustle, making the fans feel like family night after night after night for the past 18 years.”
He faces down a lot of categorization: independent, regional. But over the last decade, he’s performed in 40 states and 10 countries, and he’s continued to grow his brand. He’s continued to grow his fanbase. He’s continued to make the business model work for him. And, most importantly, he’s continued to write great country songs.
“We don’t chase phases, stages, or flavors of the month; we stay true to our brand,” he said. “We work hard. We ride a horse named Hustle. All of the greats have stayed true to their brand of music regardless of the current trend. Willie, Waylon, Merle, and Johnny Cash. There were more years where they weren’t at the top than years where they were at the top. It’s tough for artist in today’s world because the record labels make them be what they have to be to get a song played on radio. When you buy a George Strait album, you know you’re going to get a George Strait album. Same thing goes for Alan Jackson. And so many of the greats. You know what you’re going to get.”
It doesn’t mean folks haven’t tried to make Watson something that he isn’t. He’s been asked to change his style. Doing so — giving up the authenticity that he clings to — could have made him a household name long ago. But “the underdog” refused.
“A few years back, I was discussing doing some sort of joint venture with a guy at a label and he said, ‘How dedicated are you to your buckle and your boots and your cowboy hat?” And I said, ‘Well, I wear them to church every Sunday — that’s how dedicated I am to it,’” he said. “In a very smart-aleck tone, I said, ‘Well, what would you suggest? Would you like to see me wear some skinny jeans and some lace up boots and maybe cut the sleeves off my shirt and wear a hat turned around backwards with some leather wristbands?’ And he just kind of looked at me. And I said, ‘Why would you guys want to make me into something that you already have? Do you want vanilla cream all day long or would you like a chocolate? Do you always want grape jelly or would you like some apricot jelly every once in a while?’”
He looked up to other Texas troubadours like George Strait and Dale Watson and Ray Benson and Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver. There was an authenticity to the guys that made it happen without leaving Texas, and authenticity is something that Watson staunchly refuses to compromise.
“It’s possible to be both traditional and trendy,” Watson said, referring to the meteoric popularity that Strait earned 15 years into his career. “People know what’s authentic. People always want to ask me about Sam Hunt. If Sam Hunt is being authentic and he’s being true to himself and the music that’s in his heart, then that’s who Sam Hunt needs to be. It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to be more pop country. It’s okay to be more of an R&B country artist. It’s okay to be more of a cowboy country artist. Country music needs to be more open-minded and accepting of the fact that there are all different kinds of forms of country music. Turn on a pop station. It’s rock one song, it’s pop one song, it’s Bruno Mars the next song. Pop has many different flavors. I’m a fan of every artist, because I have to believe that they’re out there trying to make a living for their family. My biggest frustration comes from watching labels flush an artist down the toilet if they don’t have immediate success.”
He doesn’t particularly have an explanation for how the new music model worked for him. And he doesn’t perform Christian music, but he’s a Christian artist that works daily to use his platform and the success of the model to spread the Word.
“When you’re that guy and Rolling Stone calls you up and asks, ‘How in the world does some independent artist from West Texas outsell all these major label acts?’” he said. “It gives me a great platform to say, ‘You know what? I don’t know. But we’re going to give God all the glory, and we’re going to thank him for blessing me with the best fans in the world.’ It’s about doing what you love. Every night before I hit the stage, I say a simple prayer: ‘God give me courage to get up there. Let my light shine for Jesus. Help me give these fans joy.’ These people are spending their hard-earned dollar, and a lot of these people have had a rough week. If I can get up there for an hour or two and let them just relax, man, what a great opportunity for me.”
Watson’s mother is originally from near Birmingham, so he insists that he has aunts and uncles and cousins scattered throughout the area that will “come out of the woodwork” for the show.
“When we come to Birmingham, I don’t care if we play for 50, 500 or 50,000, I’m going to put on the same show,” he said. “After the show, I’m going to hang out at the merch booth and I’m going to shake hands and I’m going to give hugs and I’m going to take selfies and I’m going to let all those people know how much I appreciate their love and support. I’m also going to encourage them to burn copies of my CDs for all their friends. I can do that because I’m not just the custodian at my record label — I’m also the CEO.”
That’s the new music model. And Aaron Watson has gone from underdog to champion, carving his own path in an industry that has swallowed many others whole.
Aaron Watson comes to Tin Roof Birmingham on Thursday, May 4. Doors are at 5 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15.