This piece first appeared in the Summer 2019 edition of the Country Way of Life magazine. The Autumn 2019 edition is out in September.
In 2015 Aaron Watson topped the Country Album chart with The Underdog, the first time an independent country musician had done so.
Dan Wharton has interviewed him many times for Your Life in a Song. The most recent interview was on his tour bus at CMA Fest 2019 in Nashville. Dan describes his friend Aaron as an ‘authentic Texas country artist who has forged his way independently staying true to himself and his roots throughout’.
Amen amigo! Red Bandana, Aaron’s 14th release in a career which has spanned two decades, came out on June 21 2019 in an environment where Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris have had the biggest albums of the year. A fun song about taking one’s horses to the old town road had spent 11 weeks as America’s biggest song in any genre.
In 2015, when The Underdog was riding high, Aaron spoke to Rolling Stone Country, who profiled a man who topped the chart with an album that wasn’t made ‘in the system’ of Music Row. ‘What we’re doing right now is pretty much a David versus Goliath kind of situation,’ Aaron explained, ‘because I’ve never been embraced by the music industry.
‘There’s only so many times you can be told you’ll never make it. At some point, you have to say, Hey, we’re gonna need to take a different route to get where we’re wanting to go. And that’s what we did. If someone shuts a door in your face, you don’t let that stop you; you pick the lock, take it off its hinges or find another door that’s open.’
When he started in the early 2000s, Aaron found a friend in David Macias, one of the most important guys in Nashville and co-founder of the label Thirty Tigers. After his gigs he would sleep on David’s floor. The Rolling Stone piece compared him to fellow Tiger Jason Isbell, whose career includes Grammy Awards and songs on Hollywood film soundtracks. ‘Heavy touring, a strong social media presence and a grassroots fanbase to sell albums’ are pivotal for an indie at without the mechanisms of a Big Machine or Warner Music behind them to do the dirty work.
On the different flavours of country music, which in 2015 was all Sam Hunt and Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line, Aaron gave an analogy: ‘Wouldn’t it be a shame if you went to the store and the only kind of jelly on the shelf was grape? Sometimes you want apricot. Sometimes you want strawberry. You need different flavours.’
On staying true to his roots, Aaron told Dan in 2018: ‘It’s what makes me me. Music should be a window into your heart and soul.’ It is important for Aaron to sing songs he believes in, especially in front of a crowd. I wonder if Aaron will perform Red Bandana in its entirety, as if a cinematic experience.
Dan spoke to Aaron, a father of three children, in June 2019. The pair were in Aaron’s van the day after he joined Crystal Gayle and Charley Pride at the Grand Ol Opry, telling a great anecdote about Steven Tyler of Aerosmith being backstage at a previous performance. I recommend you watch his Opry performance, days before the release of Red Bandana, of Country Radio. Done it? Good.
Before I dissect the album properly I must emphasise two tracks that are among the best by anyone released so far in 2019. Country Radio appears on the first disc – oh, the album has 20 tracks and is 70 minutes long, so strap in! The seventh track, Country Radio is a marvellous piece of music. Aaron recalls how his mum and dad used to dance around the living room with the Grand Ol Opry on the radio. Now Aaron has songs of the radio himself, not least Kiss That Girl Goodbye, a hit on Texan radio and even on country radio more generally. ‘Tempo! Tempo! Tempo!’ was how the song was sold in Billboard’s Country Update weekly magazine. As of June 2019, the song was at 27 in the Country Indicator chart for smaller stations and falling from a peak of number two in the Texan Radio chart.
Dan’s website Your Life in a Song is a big supporter of country music. Aaron was plugging The Underdog in the UK in January 2016 and a very green Dan Wharton filmed an interview, which is available on Youtube. Speaking of European fans Aaron admires ‘the people’ and their ‘appreciation for country music’; crowds are ‘less rowdy’ than in the States.
In a 2018 interview Aaron told a more experienced Dan of his love of the UK: ‘Maybe it’s because my last name is Watson! It’s such an honour to have people enjoy my music from so far away. The UK is as important as a touring destination as the East Coast of the USA. These people are passionate about country music. Fans in the UK are maybe better music critics: they dig a little deeper, it’s not about the party song. They’re listening to melodies and lyrics and a lot of times they’re more into who wrote the song, not the “star” that’s singing it.’ And yes, he did air-quotes around star.
Dan asks Aaron about being a chart-topping independent artist in the country charts. ‘I thank God for blessing me with such loyal fans. Getting to do what I love for a living…We had success and we continued to work hard and keep doing what we do. I’m gonna keep giving it my best.
‘I don’t really have a bucket list. I just take every day and try to make the most of it. Every day is such a blessing. If you have these things, you’re gonna miss a lot of wonderful things along the way. I never thought I’d get to sing with Willie, play the Grand Ol Opry…’
In 2017 I wrote weekly Country Radio Updates for Your Life in a Song. At the time it was the era of Body Like a Back Road, the biggest country song in decades. Coming up was another big song, Outta Style, the lead single from Vaquero. ‘Rather than chase after hits, we’re chasing after heart,’ Aaron told Dan in 2018. ‘Vaquero was a bigger success [than The Underdog], but it came it at number 2. It was the number 1 seller.’
Outta Style, however, is Aaron’s biggest smash. The song was the little engine that could, rising and never stalling. In my early updates I was amazed at how it got into the thirties, which is awesome for any act without major-label support; some labels give promotions departments six-figure sums to call radio stations and get them to rotate their latest hit. It’s a game and Aaron was playing it too.
The remarkable thing was that it kept climbing. Here’s what I wrote in April 2017 when Outta Style had moved from 40 to 33: ‘It’s one of the songs of the year, putting you in a good mood, referencing Eric Church in the first line (“if every memory is like a melody…”) and putting the case for indie country, a relatively new genre. As you’ll know from this site, Aaron is both a great guy and a great ambassador for country music.’
The next week I made a foolish promise: ‘I will keep featuring this song here until it leaves the 40; sitting at 32 is Brett Eldredge, while Drake White is at 34. Both acts are just as talented but have millions of dollars behind them; Aaron is doing it for the little guy, and he’ll never go outta style!’
By May he had edged up to number 30 but then dropped to 36. In June he played CMA Fest and clambered back up the thirties. In his 26th week on the charts Outta Style had equalled its peak position of number 29. Something was definitely going on and as summer became fall he was climbing, hitting number 26. I compared Outta Style to one of Bruce Springsteen’s best, with a ‘nagging riff’. The song went on to peak at 10 on radio…the week before Christmas 2017, a whole year after entering the 40.
Over summer 2018 Dan caught up with Aaron twice: once in Colorado, again on his tour bus, to get a situation report before he visited the UK in September to play second in the bill to Carrie Underwood. With Carrie suffering from the effects of pregnancy Aaron ended up headlining the night: ‘I never consider myself the headliner,’ Aaron told Dan backstage at The Long Road in the second interview: ‘Just the last guy that gets to play. My job is to give the fans their money’s worth.
2018 saw Aaron release two albums: a Christmas album with vocals from him and his family, and a live album which included Run Wild Horses and Outta Style, the two singles from Vaquero. The former song is another song about Aaron’s wife with a cinematic mood; it was the album’s centrepiece.
‘We’ve worked hard,’ Aaron told Dan about the top 10 placing of Outta Style. ‘We have a solid business model and honestly I let radio know: better get used to me cos we’re not gonna go away! I don’t wanna sign a record deal. I take pride in being an independent artist, and it’s important to my fans that I stay independent.
‘Other artists can see me achieve these things and know it is very possible for them. Maybe we can knock down some walls that have been keeping a lot of independent artists back over the years.
‘The joy of being independent is that Aaron gets to ‘choose my path, the songs I wanna sing. I’m writing every song on my next record. I’m not the best singer, the best performer but my strength is my songwriting. I want to grow as a writer.’
On his fans, Aaron says that they are ‘so excited. Seeing their excitement gets me excited!’ One audience member in the UK had connected with Aaron’s music and consoled her in her life: ‘That’s the power of music. Just that lady made the whole trip worthwhile.’
Speaking nine months before the release of Red Bandana, Aaron said he had 20 songs he was ‘confident in. There’s some rockabilly, lots of folk-sounding songs.’ Referencing the Beatles album with the white cover, nicknamed The White Album but properly called The Beatles; ‘The freedom as artists, there’s a lot to learn from that. You don’t want to give people ten songs. You want to give them a journey, to go back to year after year after year to become something more meaningful every time they hear it.’
Elaborating on the Beatle theme, he told Dan in the van that Paul McCartney was just as capable of writing Blackbird as he was Drive My Car (‘Beep beep, beep beep, YEAH!’). ‘I take a sharp turn and throw you,’ Aaron promised a week before the release of Red Bandana as Dan caught up with him in Nashville. ‘I needed to give those fans something and they needed to know that every word was straight out of my heart.
‘I put a lot of work into the flow of this record. Three or four moments connect, so the music never stops. The whole album’s continuous. In a world where everyone is putting out these three-song EPs…’ At this Aaron sighs. ‘I can’t stand EPs! A true music lover wants an album they can live with: it’s like books – do you want a whole book or just a couple of chapters?’
‘I’m catching my stride as a songwriter,’ he adds. ‘I don’t want to be Luke Bryan or Sam Hunt – those guys are great – but I want to be a songwriter.’ Judge for yourself with Red Bandana.
Grady Smith, who is a sort of independent broadcaster with a Youtube channel and a podcast, tweeted to his 11,600 followers that Aaron ‘WENT FOR IT. This album is kinda crazy but I love it. It has a heart.’
Aaron is guilty on both counts: crazy because of how ambitious it is, heartfelt because of the passion and tenderness in the ballads. Reviewing it on his popular Youtube channel, Grady enjoyed the ‘earnestness, passion [and the] honest display of emotion’ on Red Bandana, contrasting it with the punk and bombast of fellow Texan act Koe Wetzel. Grady loves the opening song Ghost of Guy Clark where Aaron is ‘planting his flag’ and outlining his credo.
Like me, Grady (a man of taste) loves Country Radio and the ‘slow and gorgeous’ To Be The Moon. The song Legends, which starts by naming Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and the pastor Billy Graham, is an academic lecture in country music with a shuffle.
The first disc is very strong indeed: Dark Horse has a Aaron chanting how he has ‘a chip on my shoulder but it doesn’t weigh me down’; Old Friend will be a live favourite, a song about love and life with a chugging four-chord rhythm that both sounds like and namechecks Tom Petty; Am I Amarillo is a modern standard, a kitchen-sink drama and break-up song. The songwriting, as it is throughout the album, is beautiful.
On Disc 2 we hear the suite Riding With Red/ Red Bandana, which explains why Aaron wears that item in concert. Over accordions and guitars and with a tremendous orchestral outro, Aaron lingers on the words ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’. Trying Like The Devil, like Kiss That Girl Goodbye, is fun and fluffy, except here we’ve got some banjo. Country radio seems robotic in comparison with such an organic album, rich in the sort of Nashville Sound that used to come out of country radio back in the day.
I would have trimmed some of the ‘fourth side’ and finished with the excellent Home Sweet Home, which is Track 15, on which Aaron calls himself ‘a tired troubadour, a hopeless romantic, a vagabond that don’t belong’. His scene painting rivals Bruce Springsteen or Guy Clark, which is handy when Guy’s ghost popped up on Track 1.
Also on ‘side four’ are a pair of love songs: You On My Hands and To Be The Moon. The latter is just outstanding, a Hollywood-tinged love song that rivals When You Wish Upon a Star or City of Stars.
Meanwhile Kyle Coroneos aka Trigger, the man who is ‘Saving Country Music’ at the website of the same name, ran the rule over Red Bandana. Unlike Trigger’s favourite acts – Cody Johnson, Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson – Aaron stayed away from major-label overtures, even though he has ‘commercial appeal’, to quote Aaron’s satirical song Fence Post. Trigger loves ‘how involved and lush’ the orchestration is: ‘This isn’t just a country record; it’s a Western record, a cowboy record.’
The week after Tom Petty died, Aaron wrote Old Friend, a song with his influence and ‘being kind to others. It’s a fun song,’ he told Dan. ‘I love playing that one live. My oldest boy Jake listens to it nonstop.’ Jake has his dad’s talent for guitars and drums: ‘He just wants to play.’ Aaron’s middle child loves Heartstrings. ‘She asked me to teach her how to write a song. I showed her how to put chords to it. I wrote that song for her, so she loves it!’ There is ‘no greater compliment’ than having daddy’s music coming from the kids’ rooms.
Awarding the album 1¾ guns up (8/5 out of 10), Trigger says the album is ‘ambitious in its goals, inspiring in its scope and nearly flawless in its execution.’ Its composer is ‘one of a kind’.
Aaron told a revealing anecdote to Rolling Stone in 2015: ‘I let Luke Bryan open up for me in 2009, and the whole deal was that I was supposed to go out to the southeast and open up some shows for him. Six years later, I’m still waiting for that phone call.’ Whatever happened to Luke Bryan?
As a coda to Red Bandana, at Track 20 Aaron adds 58, a song lasting that number of seconds which was written at the request of bereaved fans who lost friends and loved ones at the Route 58 disaster.
58 lost their lives, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives/ 58 every daughter and son left a long trail of tears along 91/ 58 got wings way too soon waltzing across the stars and the moon/ 58 angels singing along forever missed. This is your song.
Red Bandana is out now on BIG Label Records.