On the eighteenth floor of a hotel in downtown Nashville, Aaron Watson is standing with his head pressed against the window glass. Below, the city looks like one long construction zone, all cranes and hard-hatted chaos.
"I'm looking down," he says in a voice that's gone slightly hoarse, the result of a long week spent promoting his eleventh album, Vaquero, "and there's a bunch of dudes who've been up since 6 a.m., working construction at the building across the street. I've done a lot of manual labor in my life, so I'm very thankful to get onstage every night and strum my guitar and sing my songs."
Watson is familiar with the workingman's schedule. For the past two years, he's been getting up before sunrise, nailing down ideas for new songs while each day is still new. Some of those mornings have found him at home in Abilene, Texas. Others have found him on the road, promoting 2015's The Underdog – an album that topped the Billboard Top Country Albums chart back in March 2015, making Watson the first (and only) male singer to send an independently-released record to Number One – with a tour that visited six countries and nearly 40 states. He's done all this without a traditional record label. Without major radio airplay, too. And, perhaps most importantly, largely without Nashville's help. Watson is a Texan in the classic mold: a self-governed, cowboy-hatted family man who's found success on his own terms, 850 miles away from the country capital of the world.
Don't mistake his 18-year career for some sort of countryfied civil war between Tennessee and Texas, though. On Vaquero, Watson ignores state lines and whips up his own geography, creating a place where Tex-Mex twang, sexed-up soul, backwoods ballads and big-city country-rock all intersect. Recorded in Nashville with producer Marshall Altman – the man behind left-of-center mainstream releases by Frankie Ballard and Eric Paslay – Vaquero is the broadest, boldest thing he's ever done, weighing in at 16 tracks. That's more than an hour of Watson-penned music, written with zero regard for the mainstream world that, thanks to The Underdog's success, the guy more or less occupies these days.
"For the last 18 months, I refused to listen to mainstream music," he says. "It got me focused on melody and pushed me to keep thinking outside the box. That's why I wanted to work with Marshall Altman. He's the furthest thing from being a country boy. He's a city boy from Manhattan, wearing his fancy little lace-up booties! But he's an incredible producer who had a vision."
Several weeks later, in a studio on the edge of town, Altman takes a look at his "booties" – a pair of well-kept Red Wings – and laughs. He and Watson have made a healthy habit of teasing one another. It's a brotherly dynamic that began taking shape last year, when Altman flew to Abilene and paid his first visit to Watson's ranch. The two had planned on spending the afternoon outside, enjoying the landscape and talking about music before heading to Watson's gig later that evening. Things took an unexpected turn when they accidentally set fire to Watson's truck.
"It had just rained a ton," Watson remembers. "My truck got stuck in the mud and we had to hike all the way back to the front gate to get my other truck, so we could drive it down to the mud and pull the first truck out. We don't know what happened, but one of the trucks caught on fire during the process and literally burned to the ground. Bless Marshall's heart. I don't think the city boy had ever been in a position like that: stuck in the mud on a Texas ranch, burning the truck down. I told him, 'Well, this is what happens out here.' And he was like, 'What?'"
They became fast friends. Even so, their lighthearted jabs grew more pointed in the recording studio, where the two waged war over issues like the widespread presence of fiddle (the winner: Watson, who insisted on adding the instrument to every song). The environment was edgy but infinitely productive. Today, with those disagreements long behind them, Watson and Altman credit the tension with strengthening Vaquero's punch.
"Great music is not made by holding hands and singing 'Kumbuya,'" Altman points out. "Great music needs a battle sometimes. Maybe it's a fight against the world around you. Maybe it's an internal fight. Maybe it's a fight with your producer. But I think you need some sort of tension, in the same way that music itself needs tension and release." Then, to illustrate his point, he grabs an acoustic guitar and strums a C chord, followed by a D. After letting the notes hang in the air, he resolves the progression with a G chord. Tension. Release. Resolution.
Back in his Nashville hotel room, Watson is gearing up for tonight's performance on the Grand Ole Opry. Millions will be listening to the radio broadcast. Back in 1999, he might've viewed this as an opportunity to edge his way into a major-label's good graces, but those days are over. He's playing music for himself now. For his fans, too. The industry will just have to catch up.
"I don't know if I'll ever sign a record deal," he says. "I don't need to. People still call us a regional act, but if that's the case, then we're a regional act that can sell out shows in 40 states and 10 countries. A regional act with an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame. I've grown my business over the last 18 years, so now when people ask me if I'm on a major label, I can say, 'Well, I am the label. I'm the CEO and the custodian. I'm the receptionist.' We're just going to continue doing what we've always done, and that's what Vaquero is: a continuation. We don't chase phases, stages or flavors of the month. We stay true to our brand, we work hard and we ride a horse named hustle."