For the second week in a row, America's top-selling country record isn't a big budget release by Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Miranda Lambert or any of the usual suspects. It's Aaron Watson's The Underdog, an independent album released without the help of a traditional record label or a national radio campaign.
Haven't heard of it? You must not live in Texas.
For the past decade and a half, Aaron Watson has been one of the Lone Star State's heaviest hitters. National trends have come and gone during those 15 years — country-pop, hick-hop, bro-country — but his spurs-and-Stetson traditionalism remains unchanged. He's the kind of country artist you'd take home to mama: a church-going family man whose songs are filled not with AutoTuned vocals and half-lit salutes to Jack Daniel's, but fiddle solos and PG-rated lyrics that sing the praises of truck stop coffee, Frank Sinatra and marital bliss.
As of this morning, Watson is also the kind of artist who sells 26,340 copies of his 12th album, The Underdog, during its first week of release. That's enough to place him at the top of the country charts, outpacing his closest competitor, Sam Hunt, by more than 10,000 units. Over on the Billboard 200 chart — which ranks all records together, regardless of genre — The Underdog sits at Number Eight. To help put those numbers into perspective, consider this: last week's Number One country record, Blackberry Smoke's Holding all the Roses, climbed to the top without even cracking 20,000 copies.
"A lot of people call me 'up and coming,' but it's more like 'slow and steady,'" says Watson, speaking to Rolling Stone Country via cellphone during a tour stop in Texas. Soundcheck is just around the corner, but he's still happy to talk at length, speaking with the unhurried Texas twang of a man who wants to stop, sit down and savor the moment rather than rush ahead to the next milestone.
"I've been doing this for 15 years, 12 albums and 2,000-plus shows," he adds. "I've been with my manager, my booking agent and my distributor forever. We have wonderful working relationships, and what we're doing right now is pretty much a 'David versus Goliath' kind of situation, 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."
Watson didn't pick those doors locks alone. Multiple times during our conversation, he credits the same triumvirate — "my faith, family and fans" — for taking him from the smallest dancehall in Texas to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, where he'll play next month. Other key players in Watson's uphill climb include CAA booking agent Aaron Tannenbaum, who's been assembling his 200-plus yearly tour dates for the better part of a decade, and longtime manager Gino Genaro.
Watson has been with Thirty Tigers for more of his career, too, joining the company's roster during its very first year. These days, Thirty Tigers — a business that offers its clients an à la carte menu of management, marketing and distribution services — is one of the biggest names in Americana music, its logo stamped onto the back flaps of albums by Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and St. Paul & the Broken Bones. Back in 2002, though, the company was untested and unproven — much like Watson, who'd only released one album at the time. The songwriter wasn't even making enough money on the road to pay for his own hotel rooms, which was why he found himself sleeping on the floor of the Nashville home owned by David Macias, Thirty Tigers' co-founder, during a trip to Tennessee's capital. The two underdogs hit it off, kickstarting a decade-plus business relationship that continues to this day.
With Thirty Tigers' help, Watson enjoys many of the benefits that a record label would normally provide — especially distribution — without giving up his independence. It's a win/win situation for both sides. Thirty Tigers' biggest success stories have always been the songwriters who, like Watson and Isbell, operate outside of the Nashville norm, relying not on radio airplay (although Watson has enjoyed several Number One hits on Texas radio) but on heavy touring, a strong social media presence and a grassroots fanbase to sell albums. Instead of spending time developing those artists' following, Thirty Tigers can throw its weight behind targeted areas — say, getting Watson's music into record stores outside of Texas, or pairing him up with the same publicist who helped break Brandy Clark's career in 2013.
"There's a value system behind the guy," says Macias, who signed Watson as his first client. "He'll play a show and start talking to a 10-year-old kid afterwards, and his manager will come up and try to get him to talk to a radio programmer instead, but Aaron's not gonna do anything until he sits down and finishes that conversation with that kid. Sometimes, you say, 'Come on, we've gotta conduct business,' but it took us a long time to understand this is who Aaron is, and this is what motivates him. And that's good business."
"When we first started working with Thirty Tigers," Watson remembers, "David asked me, 'How many records do you guys move a week?' And I said, 'Well… about four. We sell about four records a week.' But we felt like we had something with a lot of potential to sell more, and David actually listened to that. The people at Thirty Tigers have become like family since then."
What does all of this recent success mean, though? Is Nashville losing its stranglehold on country music? Is Texas's music scene about to gallop into the national spotlight? Or, as Macias puts it, is Watson's Number One album a sign that listeners are looking to abandon the beers n' babes motif of bro-country in favor of a "more traditional type of country music that's largely been absent from the airwaves?"
Watson doesn't know the answer, but he does think there's enough room on the field for everyone to play ball.
"People ask me about the Sam Hunt record," he says of Montevallo, the pop-influenced, heavily synthesized album that's currently sitting just below The Underdog on the country charts. "Sam Hunt's record is killing it. I own that record. It's probably the most un-country record I've ever heard in the country music industry, but at the same time, it's a great record. My record is incredibly country in comparison, and that's ok. I've told people, 'Hey, 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 flavors."
Different flavors, indeed. In an industry that's spent the last half-decade dishing out a litany of undercooked songs about country girls, dirt roads and Sundaze, it's The Underdog — not its competition — that's spicing up the menu. If Blackberry Smoke's chart-topping Holding All the Roses was a victory for the little guy, then Watson's album is something much bigger: a sign that maybe, in a genre whose leaders still view radio airplay and major-label record deals as the biggest keys to success, an outsider can climb to the top without playing by Music Row's rules.
"I'm not creating some New Age outlaw movement here," Watson insists. "There's plenty of love to go around. It's not me versus Luke Bryan — although he does owe me a couple of shows. I let Luke open up for me in 2009, and the whole deal was, 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. Ha! I guess he can send me a text to let me know where to show up."
Hey Luke — your move, bro.