Aaron Watson Interview: ‘Red Bandana’ Is His ‘Best Effort,’ But He’s Still Improving 20 Years In
Over the last 20 years, Aaron Watson has built a country music career that thrives decidedly outside of the mainstream. In 2015, Watson made history when his independently produced and released album The Underdog hit No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, cementing his status as the next big thing to come out of Texas.
Now, Watson is back with what he describes as his best album yet, Red Bandana. Released on Friday (June 21), the record is intensely personal, written entirely by Watson, and a pure expression of his traditional country ethos.
Prior to Red Bandana's release, The Boot sat down with Watson to talk about how he’s changed over the past two decades, what fuels him to keep growing as an artist, and the song that lays out his new album's “manifesto.” Read on for the singer-songwriter's thoughts on his newest, 20-track project.
The Boot: When you announced the release of Red Bandana, you said that you approached making this record like it could be your last. How did that change your perspective on the creative process? Is it actually possible that album No. 18 is the last?
Aaron Watson: I hope it's not my last, but I went into making this album with the mentality that this might be the last. I think that changes everything in life. If you live every day as if it's your last, I think you don't take things for granted. If you knew you were never going to get to see a sunrise again, you might pay a little more attention to the one you're watching.
This is a very special record for me for several reasons. I've been doing this for 20 years now, and this is the first album I've ever released after having Top 40 success on radio [with "Outta Style" and "Run Wild Horses," both from 2017's Vaquero]. I just really wanted to give my fans something special for their undying dedication and support.
If you live every day as if it's your last, I think you don't take things for granted. If you knew you were never going to get to see a sunrise again, you might pay a little more attention to the one you're watching.
If this was your last record, could you walk away and be satisfied with what you’ve done?
Yeah, I could. I do think I have a better album in me, so I've already started writing songs for the next record.
Before I record an album, I go back in and listen to every album I've ever made. There's like 18 albums now, and I will say that every album I've ever made has been my best effort. Sometimes I was hindered by finances; I just couldn't afford to do what I wanted. When you don't have time to sing overdubs, when you only get to sing a song once or twice, it is what it is.
Sometimes I was hindered by my own talent. It was as good as I could do; those were the best songs I could write. Maybe those songs were average, but it was always the best I could do.
I feel like I'm coming into my own as a songwriter and as a singer. My voice is better right now than it was when I sang this album back in the fall. I really feel like my songwriting is really improving, and I push myself to be the best that I can be.
Twenty years of making music is an accomplishment by any measure. How do you feel about where you are versus when you first got started?
I'm a one-man wrecking machine now: I can write 'em, I can sing 'em, I can produce 'em, and you ought to see the show. I'm here to play ball, and I'm here to win. I'm here to compete. I'm not going to go away.
This record right here, I want people to listen to it and say, "Oh man, he's getting good.” I also want people to know that it only took me 20 years to get this kind of confidence in myself. It's not arrogance or cockiness; it's confidence.
I'm still not satisfied with myself. I still have a long way to go. I love going to Nashville and listening to the most talented songwriters in the world; it's like going to school.
I'm here to compete. I'm trying to be the best I can be, to be better every day, to put on a better show. I can't control certain things within the industry, but I can control myself. I can get up every night and give that crowd the best dang concert they've ever seen. I can wake up early every morning and be dedicated to my songwriting and pour my heart and soul into every line. This isn't me versus my buddy Cody Johnson or my buddy Granger Smith. This is Aaron Watson vs. Aaron Watson, competing to be better tomorrow than I was yesterday.
Not only is Red Bandana 20 songs long, but you also wrote every track on this record. Why was it important for this album to be entirely written in your voice?
I’ve been told that this is the first country album since Alan Jackson’s Like a Rose to be solely written by the artist, and as much as I find that to be a compliment, the flipside is that if the album is terrible, it’s all my fault.
I’m hungrier than ever, and because I’ve chosen to remain independent, there are serious obstacles for me to get around when it comes to the mainstream industry. That there are people out there in the country music industry, in radio, that still don’t think I can belong, fuels my fire. I’m not angry at anybody, but I’m out to prove ‘em wrong.
My children are watching me, and I want to not just inspire them with my words, but also with my actions and my work ethic. All three of them love music, so I've started taking voice lessons with my daughter every other Tuesday. That has started to push me to be a better vocalist. I've always enjoyed singing a traditional country song, and now, I'm enjoying singing other songs with her, whatever she wants to sing. I'm having fun enjoying music with my children.
Speaking of those in the industry who may not think you belong there, it seems like the album’s first track “Ghost of Guy Clark” is directly pointed at mainstream country. Is it?
This song is directed to myself, and it’s the manifesto of the album. I started writing it after giving up on writing a song that sounded more like “a hit.” I was sitting in my office, out in the middle of the country where we live, and I asked myself: What would Guy Clark, my songwriting hero, think if he could hear this song I was trying to write?
I put it right up front to hold myself accountable. This song’s message is a message that is only for me. It’s me telling myself to remember who I am, to focus on myself, to focus on my faith and my family, my fans. To stay true to my kind of country music. To not be like a cookie cutter trying to sound like someone else.
How are you approaching country radio now?
If I never have another hit on mainstream radio, I guess I'll just keep doing what I've been doing my whole career. I managed to put out the first independent album to go No. 1 in the history of country music -- we did that without radio.
It sure is sweet and such a blessing to get played on country radio. I fell in love with country music listening to country radio. It took me 18 years to get my first Top 10 hit. To me, it wasn't Top 10, it was a straight-up No. 1. In my house, it was a really big deal. But rain or shine, I'm going to keep making music for my fans since they've been taking care of me since the '90s.
Why did you choose “Red Bandana” as the title track for this album?
It’s a cowboy poem, and I liked the idea of my title track being an actual poem. I got the idea for "Riding With Red" when I was out on a trail ride with Red Steagall. He's one of my favorite cowboy poets, and I wanted to write a song for Red, and for all of the old men in my life who have had such a big influence on me. There's a theme on Red Bandana, where it goes from "Trying Like the Devil" to "Riding With Red" to "Red Bandana."
The red bandanna signifies a lot of things for me. It's hard work, heritage, blood, sweat and tears. The bandanna I wear around my neck every night is my dad's old red bandanna, and it's very special. It signifies who I am and where I came from. And it's pretty dang cool that all my fans are showing up at shows wearing red bandannas. That makes my day.
Red Bandana closes out with “58,” a song in tribute to the victims of the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting in Las Vegas in 2017. What moved you to write this song?
I wrote that song a week after that tragedy. I played that festival the year before, and I was down there watching Brad Paisley one year before, and a year later, I would've been right there. I had friends who were there; people who work with me were there. And country music fans, which are family, they were there.
The world moves on, but not for those who lost loved ones. They woke up this morning still heartbroken. I just wanted to write a sweet, simple song that just let all those people know that we're still thinking about them and praying for them; our hearts still ache for them.
I like the idea that the song is called "58," and the song is 58 seconds long. Music lives on, and it was just in my heart to write this song. I felt like they deserved to have the last words on my album. This song is for them; it’s just a tribute.
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