As an independent country music artist, Aaron Watson has released 13 albums and in February 2015, he made history when he released The Underdog, making him the first independent male artist to debut at number one on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. The record sold more than 26,000 units in the first week.
As part of his European Tour Aaron Watson plays a gig in Ireland for the first time and gives Lonesome Highway an interview to share his philosophy and thoughts about the music business and his career.
Your first time in Ireland and you have brought the full band with you. Does this work financially when you are trying to break into new territories and does it not make sense to come over initially on a solo basis?
My band are on salary so apart from a couple of extra plane tickets it makes sense. Our show in London sold 500 seats, so we have grown that market relatively quick and Manchester was 300, Glasgow about the same… So, we have had a successful run and although the show in Dublin is in a small room, it is sold out. I love doing acoustic shows as well and you have to make the most of every night. I have been doing this for 17 years now, 13 albums, 2500 shows and we are still up and coming. We have played all sorts of venues. There is nothing better than a small venue packed full of people who love music. It’s going to be so much fun and I want the crowd to hear the full band.
Being an independent artist you have a lot of responsibility in taking care of the business. Do you have a large staff back home that helps with the running of it all?
I’ve got a couple of dozen people in what has developed into a pretty solid business. I love music, I love writing songs and playing live but If you don’t have a solid sense of business about things, then you cannot continue doing what you love. I wait until the time is right to hire the right people. People ask me why I have not signed to a major label and I say that I have now become the major label.
You have achieved everything without compromising at all; rather than have the major labels dictate to you what direction you should take
Yea, that feels so good and I love music, so I can’t imagine having to sing songs that I don’t like. How can you sell people a bunch of crap? My new album is coming out in a month and I wrote all sixteen songs and I’m passionate about all of them. I can get up on stage and share the story behind each song, where it came from and what it means to me. It’s soulful and personal and not really about the genre. It’s about whether it is original and unique.
Technically I do have a record deal because I’m married and my wife is the CEO and I’m more like the custodian! On a serious note, music is not an Industry, it’s the family business … We’ve always put the fans first. How has a West Texas boy from some small town outsold so many major artists.
Over the years, we have stayed true to our brand of country music. We haven’t shifted and chased after the different phases and stages and flavours of the month. We stay true to ourselves and we work hard. I always say we ride a horse named hustle and we always put our fans first and like to hang out with them after each show. The people who turn up tonight, tell their friends and it starts to grow. It only takes a spark.
I play a little of everything and there will be a couple of new songs. I am a fan first and know when you go to a show, you want to hear the artist play your favourite songs. So you slowly and gradually incorporate the new songs in due time.
You have spoken in the past about getting up early to write songs. Do you still do that?
I love that. We live on a farm with a lake behind the house and as the sun comes up I make coffee and I write with my guitar before breakfast and before my kids start to wake up. I may take ‘em to school and then come back and write some more; or maybe go on the ranch and do some work there. There is nothing more satisfying, in my opinion, than writing a well-crafted song. That feeling you get inside after you’re finished, when you say ‘this is a good song’...
When you are writing a song do you go back and redraft until you get a perfect version of it?
Absolutely. More so than ever lately with the new record (Vaquero). After the success of the last album, The Underdog, which debuted at number 1 in the Billboard Country Charts, a lot of people said that if we wanted to continue our success then we would have to break out of the Texas outlaw thing. Because, they said, that made us a regional act. Well, I just laughed and said we played 38 states and 8 countries last year so that’s not a regional act. It’s a wrong opinion and perspective.
I’m from Texas and this is where I was born and raised so it is an integral part of who I am. It’s like food; you don’t have to be from Mexico to like Mexican food or from Italy to like Italian food – to think that me being me, is going to keep me from crossing over borders? That is just narrow minded. I remember Chris LeDoux when I was growing up and he was singing about Wyoming and it made me want to go to Wyoming. It’s like U2, when I study some of the lyrics and realise he is writing about home; his home. We all like history and geography and music has that in it too. When people said we had to get away from that Texas thing, I didn’t pay much heed to it; what we did for the new record was to paint a Texas flag on an old building outside a town where I live and I held up a guitar in a very revolutionary pose; just to let ‘em know we are from Texas.
Is the new release, Vaquero, a concept record?
The vaquero is the original cowboy. There is a lot of tradition with the vaquero and I wanted the album to be rooted, rebellious and traditional. I wanted to make music that you have never heard before. When the band are playing, we can open for any rock band and hold our own. It’s about energy and passion and we thrive on our live show. We have the energy of a punk band but we just use a telecaster and a fiddle. The new record has 16 songs and I wrote all of them so If the record is terrible then it’s my fault. There is a common theme of believing in who you are, sticking to your values; don’t let people push you around. I focus on Faith, family and my brand of country music for my fans.
Are the studio musicians the same as the touring band?
I change them around so that they don’t get tired, having played on the album for so long. I ask them who they want to play with on the records, who are their musical heroes and this pushes them to be better musicians. They have a lot of say in how the songs turn out as they spend time in pre-production with me also. It is a big group record. I produced all my records, some are co-productions and I write the songs and know what they should sound like in my head.
I notice that you sang with Willie Nelson on your 4th release. How did that come about?
What that does is give me bragging rights for the rest of my life. I think it helped me a lot and helped validate me as an artist. Ray Benson from Asleep At The Wheel produced that record and he was playing pool with Willie over at this house and he was playing a rough copy of my new record in the background. Willie said "I really like this stuff" so Ray said if he really liked it all that much he should go and sing on the record. The rest is history. My Dad is a huge Willie Nelson fan so when I got to tell him at home in Amarillo, he was so excited. Willie is not a genre; he is the genre – he is the icon.
Willie, Waylon, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, they are my heroes. My heart belongs with the songwriter; Guy Clark, Townes van Zandt, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earl and the rest of ‘em.
There still seems to be a Nashville vs Texas territorial divide. Do you see that still happening?
Maybe Willie or Waylon started that? Some say it was Bob Wills who played at the Oprey years back and when they wouldn’t let him have an amp onstage, he just packed up and went home. George Strait was not included as a member for many years. Even when our record went to no.1, it caused quite a stir there. The Country Music Hall of Fame and The Opry have been good to us in recent years but I don’t do this to win awards and my career doesn’t revolve around radio or charts. My career revolves around my fans because these are the things that matter. The mainstream artists, my heart goes out to a lot of ‘em, because their days are numbered. You gotta work hard and get on the road. The rest of the World is working hard so every artist should do that as a basic.
All your kids names start with the letter ‘J’, Any particular reason for that?
My wife said that their names would all start with the letter J. Therefore, they did …
Jack, Jack and Jolie Kate - my kids love music and are growing up playing the right stuff, Waylon, Willie, the Beatles. Then recently, my baby girl asked for a Taylor Swift guitar and songbook for Christmas and she wanted me to teach her how to play some of her songs. I said she needed to lock the door as her mamma will video us and put it up on Instagram and Facebook…!!
Music is so subjective, I always stay very open-minded and I don’t dismiss anything. If you are at the top of the mountain, then people say you sold out. You have to be political. If you are small and independent and making the same records, then everybody loves you. It’s a fine line, a fickle game. It’s about the music and the fans and continuing to spread our brand of country music wherever we go.
Ireland is important to us and we will come back because we are committed to Ireland and want to earn the love and respect. You have to be able to start at the bottom and work your way up. New markets are exciting; unchartered territory. It’s an honour to be here.
My Mother has Irish roots and wants me to get some dirt from Ireland for her garden. I wish every woman was as easy to please!!
Aaron Watson gets his wish when Lonesome Highway presents him with a small jar of Irish soil during the show for his Mamma back in Texas. He is thankful and comes across as a genuinely enthusiastic and very likeable person who is fully committed to his craft. He speaks with a refreshing candour and is generous with his time and energy. We look forward to welcoming Aaron Watson back to Ireland and to watching his career continue to blossom in these territories. Aaron Watson's new album Vaquero is out now.
Interview by Paul McGee and Stephen Rapid Photograph by Stephen Rapid