BY MATT ALPERT Wide Open Country
Earlier this year, former Sony Nashville CEO Gary Overton infamously declared “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” This year, independent country artist Aaron Watson showed just how wrong he was.
Watson has been in the business of touring and recording for more than 15 years, but his most recent album, The Underdog, is easily his biggest breakthrough to date. In February, he became the first independent artist to debut at No. 1 on the Hot Country Albums chart, the start of a handful of rising independent artists hold top spots on the chart this year.
The success of the The Underdog helped expose Watson’s brand of traditional Texas country music to a wider national audience. It also shows that country music fans across the nation still have an appetite for traditional styles, even though mainstream country radio doesn’t.
I caught up with Aaron to recap his highlights from this year and discuss his success could mean for other Texas artists.
WOC: 2015 was a great year for you. What’s next?
AW: Thank you, we feel really blessed with all that has happened this year, and I’m even more excited for the future. We’re heading over to Europe in January and will play the UK, Italy and France, and also have a great tour lined out in the US. I’m really excited to be on some big festivals like Stagecoach and Country Jam (and a few others I can’t mention quite yet) along with our own headlining dates. I’ve already started writing for the new record and am even more excited about this one than ‘The Underdog,’ so at some point, we’ll probably be heading into the studio in the New Year.
WOC: You’ve been at this for more than 15 years. What pieces came together to open up such a breakthrough year for you in 2015?
AW: Yes, it’s definitely been a long road. I like to say we’re not up-and-coming or brand new but slow and steady. I think we had a lot of successes that we’ve captured the past few years moving our touring more and more across the country and meeting a lot of supporters then the rodeo community has been great to embrace me and really everything just came together to make a big splash with the release of the new record. We’ve just kind of been out there doing our thing trying to work hard, treat our fans like friends and push ourselves to be the best and it was really cool that it all came together on the release to make so much noise a lot more people starting paying attention.
"At the end of the day, I’m a dad who does this to provide for my family, and to know that that was possible was just awesome."
WOC: The Underdog didn’t get much love from country radio, but it debuted at No. 1, and was loved by both fans and critics. Do you think country radio is out of touch?
AW: Oh man, I think I already got caught in the radio debate earlier this year with some press, but at the end of the day I think everyone is just doing the best job they can to run successful companies and provide for their families. I do my thing and other guys do their thing. None is right or wrong. I’ve said the world would be really boring if there was just one type of jelly. Of course, we’d love to have country radio get behind a single and there’s definitely a ton of markets where we have real fans that show up in piles to our shows but if it doesn’t work for them that’s ok, I don’t harbor any ill will. I just try to make the best music I can that I believe in and find some way to get it in front of as many people as possible.
WOC: Do you think your success with The Underdog signals more opportunities for other Texas artists to reach wider audiences?
AW: I think Texans have always reached wider audiences, from Willie Nelson finally breaking out to George Strait and then Pat Green had a great era, and now guys like Granger Smith are really seeing some huge success. I love being from Texas, and am humbled that it feels like my record gave people some encouragement and motivation that there are no boundaries, and if that can help other people get some extra looks as well, I think that’s fantastic.
WOC: What can other Texas artists learn from your success and ability to bring Texas country music to the non-Texan country fans?
AW: Really you can be in control of your dreams and ambitions. We’ve had a lot of no’s told to us through the years, but just kept trying to push the ball forward. Probably summed up in the title track “Always believe in the underdog”– applies to everyone, just not me.
WOC: Do you think mainstream fans are eager for country music to return to its traditional roots?
I’d definitely say that whether we’re in California or Columbus, Ohio or Texas and see rooms sold out and people excited about the music that there is a huge desire for traditional country music. I don’t know if it’s a return or if it ever really went away, but people definitely still want it.
WOC: How has the rodeo contributed your success?
AW: The rodeo community is awesome, and I love everyone in it. They’ve been a huge contributor to our success and growth and those are definitely our kind of people. The buckle I wear is an NFR buckle that my friend Shane Hanchey gave to me that I wear every day. The hat I wear Tuff Hedeman gave to me. “July In Cheyenne” was about Lane Frost, the Babe Ruth of rodeo, and those fans definitely spread the word and really set up the success of The Underdog. This year I had coffee with the head honchos at PRCA and PBR. Everyone’s just great in that world, I’m grateful for all their support.
WOC: What was your favorite experience this year?
AW: Wow, there was a lot. I got to play The Ryman for the first time, The Opry, had a historic no. 1 record. I think we played like 37 states and sold out a ton of shows, got to see my name in places like Rolling Stone and the New York Times. Honestly, it was a lot to take in and crazy that we’ve gotten to where we are by keeping our head down and just hustling. But probably I’d have to say when my manager called me to let me officially know the record was No. 1, we had a good feeling but wanted to actually see it, I was at home with my wife and got off the phone and just danced around the kitchen with her. We’d had that goal, but we achieved it. At the end of the day, I’m a dad who does this to provide for my family and to know that that was possible was just awesome.
Aaron Watson will perform two free shows at Austin’s Lake Hill Church in Texas on Wed., Dec. 23 at 5 and 7 PM.