INTERVIEW: Aaron Watson: ‘I’m a salesman selling a song’


Country music’s Aaron Watson has a new album coming out this month on Big Label Records,  Red Bandana. Americana Highways had a chance to talk to him about the album and some of the stories he had to tell, so we pulled on over to chat.

Americana Highways: You lived in a closed down gas station. How did that come about?

Aaron Watson: My roommate and his girlfriend decided to get married one weekend out of nowhere. He had to pack up and move. It kind of left me high and dry. I wasn’t able to pay both parts of the rent for the next month. I had a little place where my first band was practicing, it was in a gas station. Part of it was closed down next to the convenience store. I thought to myself “I could just move in there.” I moved the couch over there. I had my music stuff over there and hooked up the computer. For the next year, I lived in a gas station. It doesn’t take a lot to make a college boy happy. I’m a pretty simple guy. I sure enough would have to get up in the morning and drive to a friend’s house to shower and get ready. Right next to me was the convenience store. I could wake up at two in the morning, go over there, and get a hot dog. There were some definite perks. That was the beginning of a dream for me. I put every dime that I made working at two jobs towards my music – writing songs, recording songs, buying equipment. It’s part of my story. It’s definitely Chapter 1. It’s funny now when I drive past that area, there’s a pharmacy where the gas station was. I’ve gone in there a few times with my boys. I go to the back corner of the store and say “Right here is where I lived for a year.” My boys get a kick out of that.

AH: How does Red Bandana compare to your previous albums?

AW: It’s more mature. I hope it’s better. As a singer and songwriter, I hope to improve with every record. After Underdog went #1, I had a lot of people tell me that if I was going to capitalize on that success, that we needed to get away from the regional sound – Texas music. I didn’t agree with that. We got a lot of advice from major labels telling us that if we were going to take it to the next level, that we had to get away from that regional sound. I felt like that was never great advice. We had just put out the first independent country album to ever chart #1. Why would you do anything different? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. With Vaquero, we didn’t change. On the cover is a Texas flag painted on a wall, and I’m holding my guitar in a kind of rebellious stance. I think that’s where I’m at with Red Bandana. Vaquero is the first album in my career where I’ve had Top 40 hits on the radio. I think a lot of people assumed that my next album may be a little more mainstream. Instead you put on Red Bandana and the first song doesn’t even have a chorus. The second song is an instrumental. I think it was important to let people know things are growing, the crowds are getting bigger, but we’re still staying true to our brand of music.

AH: How do the expectations from Underdog and Vaquero and from fans affect the way you write and record?

AW: It affects me a lot. Our album before Underdog Real Good Time – charted Top 10. That’s when things started getting real. Before then writing was more of a leisurely thing. I wrote when I wanted to. With the success of Underdog and Vaquero, it’s like everything I’ve worked so hard for is on the line. Everything I’ve worked for for the last 20 years pivots on this moment. I worked harder on Red Bandana than on any other album. I made this record with the concept, “What if this is my last?” We don’t know what the future holds. By changing my mindset and thinking this could be my last, it helped me get super focused on my songs and the message. If this is really going to be my last record, what am I going to leave behind? What if this is the last album my children ever hear from their father? It’s the same concept as living every day as if it’s your last. Giving your best effort. I wanted to make an album that was impactful, inspirational, music with meaning. I wanted it to be nothing but heart. It had to be my heart. That’s why I wrote every song by myself. I needed to write this album by myself. It’s been my songs that have gotten my career this far. I need to keep doing what I’ve been doing, and not change just because we’ve had some success with radio.

As a songwriter, I think I’m starting to catch my stride. I love all forms of music. I think a lot of people see this west Texas cowboy and think, “He probably only likes campfire songs.” I listen to everything. My kids listen to everything. I love pop music. My first album was Thriller, but that doesn’t mean I’m trying to be Michael Jackson. My passion is songwriting. Guys like Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, when I hear those guys, I think, “Man, I want to be that when I grow up.” I’m 40, but I’m still trying to grow up. I start the album with “The Ghost of Guy Clark”. It’s the manifesto for the whole album. That’s me challenging myself to stay true to who I am and not be influenced by what others are doing. It’s a song about chasing after your heart, not chasing after a hit.

AH: Why is it so important to you to remain independent?

AW: Out of principle now. The first 10 or 15 years, I was independent out of survival. Music is my passion, my dream, my occupation. For the first 15 years none of the labels had anything to do with me. Now I’m independent by choice. With our record sales, ticket sales, and merch sales, I think without a doubt we could probably call anyone we want and get a record deal. Besides some nominations on awards shows, what would signing a deal with a record label do for me right now? I own all my albums and the publishing. I know that signing a deal would probably help us out with the radio game as well. We’re growing my record label, and I have bigger dreams than just myself. I have dreams for this label where we’re able to sign artists in the near future and develop them. Give them an opportunity they can’t get anywhere else. Here’s the fact of the situation. There are a lot of great record executives out there, but there’s not a lot of them that have been an independent artist for 20 years who know the struggle of being an artist. Not a lot of record executives have 2,500 shows under their belt like I have. I feel like I have a lot to offer artists when it comes to guidance and business, and down the road, offering them a fair deal that develops their career. I sympathize with a lot of these major-label artists. Their hands are tied. Labels put them out on the road with nothing to sell. I think we have a lot to offer artists. We look forward to developing that side of the business. The foundation of our label is my records. Someday when I’m an old man, we’ll focus on other artists on the label. I’ll never be one of those record executives who wears a suit and tie.

AH: That’s gotta count for something.

AW: And I won’t drive a Mercedes either.

AH: What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?

AW: I don’t know. I’ve been making music for so long now, I don’t know. I can’t imagine doing anything other than what I’m doing. That’s a really tough question. Doing anything other than music has never even crossed my mind. Of course growing up I wanted to play shortstop for the Houston Astros. Even now I’m to an age where I would have already retired. I couldn’t be happier with what I’m doing. I think I have a greater appreciation for these moments right now because it took me 20 years to get my career to this point. I have such a great appreciation for my fan base because for the longest time, I had no fans. Every night that I climb onto that tour bus, I’m thankful. For so many years and so many shows, I was sleeping in the back of a dirty white van. Of course I appreciate that tour bus. That’s why I take things so serious. I understand how blessed I am to be in this situation. That’s why I poured my heart and soul into all 20 of these songs. I wanted to give my fans the best that I’ve got. I think this album is the one. I still like all other 15 albums, but I feel like this is the one. It’s exciting. I feel like I’m just getting started. I’m excited to get on the road and start playing these songs live. The part of the show that’s most important doesn’t even involve music. It’s after the last song. It’s me getting down there at my merch stand and hanging out with my fans. As an independent artist I can tell you music is not an industry. It’s a family business. I jokingly say this, but it’s pretty much the truth. All the proceeds from this new album go straight into my wife’s purse. I’m a traveling salesman selling a song.

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