“It feels so good to be this far into my career and still feel like I’m just getting started,” says independent country artist Aaron Watson, 20 years in and looking back on the kind of mainstream success he was long ago told he would never see. “It’s crazy, people still call me an up-and-coming artist. … But it’s better than being old and washed up.”
After building a rabid grassroots fan base on almost two decades of authentic album releases and relentless touring, Watson “broke out” in 2015 with the No.1 debut of Underdog on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, and backed that up two years later with the No.2 arrival of Vaquero. He doubled down with a Top 10 single at country radio (“Outta Style”) – achieved without the benefit of a major record label’s support – and now stands ready to drop the next chapter in his DIY saga, Red Bandana.
But if anyone is expecting Watson to sacrifice his integrity in order to keep that success going, they haven’t been watching these past 20 years.
Red Bandana is fiercely unique and bleeds the independent attitude Watson’s carried since the beginning. In an era of superstar EPs and stand-alone singles, it’s 20 songs long and can be played on a loop, with the last few tracks blending seamlessly back into the first. Dusty cowboy ballads, instrumental Tejano interludes and spoken-word poems join modern anthems and stone-country themes, with Western strings, horns and a devil-may-care attitude renewing Watson’s commitment to doing things differently. Put simply, it shows a complete lack of interest in currying favor with an industry which is now – finally – ready to accept him.
Speaking with Sounds Like Nashville ahead of the ambitious project’s release, Watson says he knew this would go down as a unique moment in his story, so he wanted it to be special.
“I’m an independent artist, so even more than a mainstream artist, I’m nothing without the fans,” he explains. “There’s no multi-million dollar advertising budget to sell the records, it’s
the fans, and without them I’m literally nothing. So I made this record with the mindset that this might be the last one. … If this was the last album my children hear from their father, what messages do I leave them? It really helped me focus on heart, rather than focusing on a hit.”
That sense of heart comes through right away, and there’s no turning back on Red Bandana. Setting the mood with the sound of his own grandmother’s wind chimes, Watson makes his intentions clear with “The Ghost of Guy Clark,” a plainspoken poem imagining a confrontation with the legendary icon of country song craft. “It doesn’t even have a chorus!” Watson asserted.
In it, Watson plays Clark his fictional latest hit – and is quickly put in his place for its vapid cynicism. It’s all meant to say right upfront this won’t be Watson’s “please-put-me-back-on-the-radio” album.
“He said ‘I guess that’s alright, if that’s all you’ve got to give / If that’s all you’ve got say in this one life you’ve got to live / There’s no meaning in your melody, so predictable and weak / Wasted words and shallow rhymes, I’d rather hear a woman cuss me a blue streak,’” Watson firmly intones.
“A lot of people have asked me who that message is for,” he says. “Is that directed at a certain artist? And it’s like ‘Yeah, well I’m directing it to myself. That song is a manifesto, and me holding myself accountable through the whole album saying, ‘This is what this album is.’”
In a move sure to please longtime fans, what Red Bandana “is” is a satisfying journey through Watson’s life – almost like an autobiography told by turning the dial on an old AM/FM radio, just like the one his father had.
With one song blending into the next, the album follows “The Ghost of Guy Clark” with a South-of-the-Border instrumental, “El Comienzo del Viaje,” nodding to Watson’s West Texas roots. Then the story of his rejection by Nashville and subsequent drive to succeed without its support is told through “Dark Horse,” while the tender folk sweetness of “Heartstrings” acts as a love letter to Watson’s daughter – and a study guide for how to one day write a song of her own.
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A while back Jolee asked me to teach her how to write a song so I started from scratch and this is the song that I came up with. I came up with a simple guitar part and a pretty melody and then I looked into her blues eyes and wrote down exactly how I felt. This little girl always tugs on my heartstrings so track 4 is called HEARTSTRINGS & the Red Bandana is but 4 days away!!!!! TEXAS MUSIC is fixing to take the country by storm so Y’all get the album now by clicking link below or the one in the bio http://smarturl.it/AWRedBandana #jointheREDBANDANArevolution #awredbandana #puttingcowboybackincountrymusic #independentTXmusic
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Elsewhere, “Country Radio” feels like a classic-pop-meets-country slow dance, dedicated to Watson’s parents, and “Legends” highlights the heroes which played on a loop throughout that real-life love story.
The album’s first single, “Kiss That Girl Goodbye,” is about as radio friendly as the project gets, filled with upbeat energy and featuring a modern, hand-clapping chorus hook – yet it still feels true to a sawdust covered dance floor in Amarillo, and much of the credit for that goes to Watson’s father.
In fact, the title track shows how much influence the elder Watson had on the album and his son’s life in general – especially the work ethic behind his recent success. It’s his dad’s own red bandana featured on the cover, and his never-give-up, never-sell-out spirit is found throughout. Watson’s dad is a disabled Vietnam veteran, the singer says, with an encyclopedic knowledge of country music who would often ask for help with his day job as a janitor in local churches – an activity the youngster was not inclined to enjoy.
One hot summer day, Watson says, all his friends were going swimming but he had to clean bathrooms with his dad, and after a few hours of “just being a little turd” about it, his dad finally broke. With a bit of mist in his eyes, he stepped to his son and explained the truth of their situation, leaving a mark which has never faded from Watson’s mind.
“He said ‘I was injured in the war, it’s not the life I had planned for myself,’” Watson explains. “’But you know what? God has blessed me with this job, and because of this job I’m able to take care of you, your mother and your sister. So you can bet I’m gonna show how thankful I am, and these are gonna be the cleanest toilets in town.’ It changed me. There’s no way that I can’t stay true to my music, my fans and my family.
“Last summer before I recorded Red Bandana, I was showing him some of the songs,” Watson goes on. “He was sitting in my office, and he said ‘You know, it’s about time you had your Red Headed Stranger moment.’ And I said ‘Dad, good grief don’t compare me to Willie.’
“He said ‘No I’m gonna compare you to Willie because you’ve put out No.1 albums independently, and you did that before Willie even did it, so don’t you sell yourself short.’ He said ‘The one thing about Willie is regardless of what the industry thought of him, he’s always stayed true to himself and been good to his fans. So you get our there and share your heart.’”
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Just the tip of iceberg! Tell me When did you start listening to my music? Which album? What year? You guys are the foundation of my career. No major record label… just you! I stay independent so I can stay true to you! All my successes are because of your support. I’m calling my troops… I need your help. Let’s show em what Texas Music is all about. Y’all help us spread the word and please go pre-order the new album. If you hate it then I’ll sneak a $20 out of @mrsaaronwatson ‘s purse and give you your money back! 😜…and oh how I love it when someone calls me up and coming! You ain’t seen nothing yet!!! Get the album now by clicking link below or the one in the bio http://smarturl.it/AWRedBandana #jointheREDBANDANArevolution #awredbandana #puttingcowboybackincountrymusic #independentTXmusic
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The parallels in timing are there. Nelson was 42 and 18 albums into his career when the monumental Red Headed Stranger came out, and Watson will be the same age in August. The unshakeable self confidence is there, too.
“Of course everybody loves him now, but it wasn’t always like that for the first 15, 20 years of his career,” Watson says. “I mean think about that, Willie did not make it until he was in his 40s. … It’s his perseverance. No one believed in him and everyone doubted him, but he just kept on being Willie. So I just gotta stay focused on my brand of music and treat my fans like family.”
Wrapping up, the album winds down slowly and deliberately, featuring a series of relaxing, string-laden tunes like the romantic “You On My Hands” and the striking “58” – a raw, unadorned acoustic tribute to the victims of the 2017 attack on Las Vegas’ Route 91 Harvest Festival – which caps the project and leads right back to the beginning. But perhaps the inspirational “To Be the Moon” best captures what Watson is all about – even after his success.
Written after the under-the-radar hit maker was snubbed on the red carpet of a big awards show – repeatedly passed over in favor of more well-known artists, all while his wife stood by – it was a response to a fan with spina bifida who often exchange texts with Watson. The young fan saw him in the show’s audience and reached out, saying one day he wanted to be a star, just like Watson.
“I said ‘Man I’m not a star,’ because I sure wasn’t feeling like one,’” the singer says. “He said ‘Well if you’re not a star, then what are ya?’ And I said ‘Well, I guess I’m more like the moon.’ He’s 12 years old so I explained, ‘I guess I’m like the moon because I don’t really fit in amongst all these stars, but I’m here.’ No one says they want to be the moon – they want to be a star – so I ended up writing that song for myself and for that kid and anybody else that kinda feels different. I thought ‘Let’s stop calling it different, and start calling it a little more unique.”