Aaron Watson isn’t changing his tune anytime soon. The West Texas native has been nothing if not persistent in his 20-year climb to country music hit-maker, a fact that began to pay off when 2015’s The Underdog made him the first solo male performer since the dawn of the Nielsen Music Era in 1991 to earn a Number One country album without the help of a major label. Staying the independent course isn’t just practical — for Watson, it’s principle.
“A lot of people tell me if I’m going to capitalize off this mainstream success, I need to get away from this regional sound they call ‘Texas music,'” Watson says over the phone from Abilene, where he was raised and now lives with his wife and three children. “You’re telling me, after this album that’s done something that’s never been done before, that I need to change what I just did? I go, ‘Man, I’m thinking I need to do more of that kind of thing.'”
There’s certainly more, and plenty of it, on Watson’s latest LP, Red Bandana, a sprawling, 20-song opus with an hour-plus runtime released on his own Big Label Records imprint. From love songs to instrumentals to heavy reflections on Watson’s sense of self-worth, the album doesn’t feel like a lazy attempt to cash in on the success of The Underdog or its 2017 follow-up Vaquero, which cracked the Top 10 of the Billboard 200. If anything, it sees him doubling down.
“I needed to write this whole album by myself. It’s the first album I’ve ever released after having mainstream radio success,” Watson says, alluding to his Top 10 country single “Outta Style” from Vaquero, and the fact that he’s the sole songwriter on Red Bandana. “I might be a complete idiot. Who has Top 40 success after 18 years of doing it and puts out an album where the first song doesn’t have a chorus and the second song is an instrumental?”
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Watson has made his rejection from the Music Row establishment a mission statement, but with a little bit of distance — and likely a growing sense of validation — he admits his path was one of necessity. “The first 10 to 15 years of my career, I was independent out of survival. No labels wanted anything to do with me,” he says. “Maybe those guys were all right at those major labels. Maybe I wasn’t good enough. Maybe their honest words pushed me to become a better artist.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t still a chip on Watson’s shoulder. A pretty big one, in fact, which he sings about on Red Bandana‘s third track, “Dark Horse,” a fist-pumping call to arms in which he delivers a hearty “I told you so” to those naysaying Nashville execs. “There’s total defiance in me,” Watson says, with discernible relish. “I’m not bitter or angry, but when you have story after story of major labels telling you that you don’t have what it takes, you’re always going to carry a healthy chip on your shoulder.”
If that were all Watson had to say on Red Bandana, the message would feel a little stale. With its pseudo-concept album feel, thanks to the instrumental interludes and flowing transitions between songs, it could also seem self-indulgent. (Included on the album are field recordings of his grandmother’s wind chime and trains passing by his ranch.) But Watson navigates those pitfalls by turning a critical eye inwards, and doing so right off the bat on opener “Ghost of Guy Clark,” in which he imagines his songwriting hero dissing his work.
“A lot of things on this record are really just me saying, ‘Man, I need to write songs that are real.’ Not that my songs in the past weren’t real, I just feel that I’m maturing into the songwriter I’ve always wanted to be,” Watson says. That shouldn’t be a surprising goal, either: His first album, all the way back in 1999, was called Singer/Songwriter. But it’s meant pushing himself outside his comfort zone. “It makes me uncomfortable sometimes to sing about my flaws and imperfections. It’s so easy, right, to sing about how bad to the bone you are,” he says.
Such personal material isn’t entirely new in Watson’s catalog. He points to “Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song),” a track from The Underdog about the death of his infant daughter, as a past precedent. On Red Bandana, his discomfort often comes from comparing himself to the people he admires most. The centerpiece of the album is a three-song sequence consisting of “Riding With Red” — so named for fellow Lone Star performer Red Steagall — “Red Bandana,” and “Trying Like the Devil.” If this somber, reflective stretch is any indication, Watson doesn’t seem to feel he measures up.
“I’m not just talking about Red, I’m talking about my dad and granddad — these mountains of men, great men who’ve been in my life, and what they’ve all taught me,” Watson says, pointing out that the red bandana he wears during his shows was given to him by his father, a disabled Vietnam vet. He pauses, his voice briefly sounding hoarse as he works through his thoughts. “It’s just me being real honest and letting you know that, man, sometimes I feel like I’ve fallen short of the man I’m supposed to be, or the man people think I am.”
Yet if there’s anything to take away from Watson’s story thus far, it’s that there’s always time to become the person whom you want to be. Now two decades into his career, it’s still the thing he’s banking on most. “As an artist and a songwriter, personally, I feel like I’m catching my stride right now. [And] that’s OK,” he says. “I didn’t show up late to the game, my game’s just a little different than most.”