After 15 years, 12 records and more than 2,000 shows, Aaron Watson has amassed a massive fan base around the world — and he’s done it without the help of major record labels.
His last album, The Underdog, was his most successful release to date and became the first record by an independent male artist to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Albums chart for more than two weeks.
As the genre strays farther from its roots to chase more commercial trends, Watson sticks to tradition. He is a proud Texan and traditionalist, sporting the same outfit of a cowboy hat, pearl snaps, pressed jeans, belt buckle and boots that he wore when he started. It’s an approach that continually strikes a chord with fans.
I talked with Watson about the secret of his success, what he thinks of the mainstream and his rabid fanbase in Europe.
I saw this picture of you at Bob’s Fair in Italy, and it’s just a sea of cowboy hats. I thought that must’ve been some place in Texas.
Yeah, it’s crazy! That’s our sixth time over in Europe. And man, we really just fell in love with going over there and playing for people
They’re just starved for music. It’s amazing what it has turned into. In France, Italy and Spain there are these kind of like dance teams, and they love to just country dance, and there’s thousands of them. It’s kinda like their hobby and what they do when they get off work. It’s like rather than being on a bowling team they’re on a dance team.
They just love the music, and it’s just been fun to go back and be a part of that. Even our smaller shows were just packed, but that one was just off the hook.
You know it’s funny what social media has done for artists that someone like myself can interact with someone on the other side of the world. So when we come to town, these people drive 12 hours. It’s been a lot of fun.
Do you see that same kind of dedication from your fans to see live music when you’re in the States?
Yeah, I would say so. We make a living off my live shows. We’ve always had such a loyal fanbase. I mean that’s really the secret of my success. God blessed me with the best fans in the world.
And I definitely think that the fans in Europe, the fact that they only have the opportunity to see me once every year or every two years, they really take advantage of that, so maybe there’s a little more excitement.
But as far as loyalty and excitement… I just found out our show in Lubbock tonight is sold out. I can take you back to the same town 16 years ago when we played a little hole in the wall bar to about three people.
We’ve put in the time, and our focus is always on taking really good care of our fans. I never turn a fan down. They want a picture, they get a picture. They want an autograph, they get an autograph. The lines just continue to get longer, and I’m out there for hours and hours after every show.
I’ve had a lot of people say to me, “You know, at some point you’re gonna have to stop doing that,” and I say, “The rest of the world goes to work for eight plus hours a day. I can get out there and play an hour and a half set and sign autographs for as long as they need me.”
Just treat everybody with kindness. Run a good business. I’ve got good guys that work for me. I always make sure that my music has to stay true to my faith, my family and my fans. And I think that’s been my winning combination that’s given me such a loyal following.
Was there ever a point where a major label deal came your way, or that was the route you were trying to pursue?
You know we’ve had people flirt with us for a long time. I’ve never cared much with the fame side of things. There’ve been different times when we’ve been courted by major labels, and there’ve been mentions of fame, and that’s really not why we’re into it.
It sometimes goes hand in hand with the music business, but my number one concern was always that I want to make music for the rest of my life. I want to be in a band when I’m an old man.
I’ve always felt that staying independent will allow me to pursue my dream, and my dream is not to win awards, and it’s not to be on TV, and it doesn’t involve fame and fortune.
Do you consider yourself a Texas country artist?
Sure! I’m a Texas boy. I have some people tell me that I shouldn’t say that, but I’m from Texas, and I love country music. I mean, maybe my pride of being from Texas has been something that alienates some people from outside the state, but I don’t think so. I love everybody, but I’m proud to be from Texas.
Is that why you mentioned that some people have said you shouldn’t say that?
Yeah, I think so. I think that’s a big turn off to a lot of those guys in Nashville. But gosh, I grew up listening to Willie and Waylon. I guess I was brainwashed at a young age!
What do you think is the biggest difference between the Texas scene and what’s going on in Nashville?
I really can’t answer that question without just blowing a bunch of smoke. I can’t tell you much about Luke Bryan, because I’ve never walked in his shoes. I don’t know what he’s about. He’s actually opened a few shows for me back before he hit it big, and he was a really nice guy.
But, I think the part that I should probably speak of accurately is that when I make records here in Texas, as a Texas country artist, I’m thinking more about my fan base and making it an album that is a complete experience, something that they’re gonna just cherish. Something that they’re gonna put in their cd player and leave it in there for months. That’s what I’m thinking about.
I think a lot of these Nashville artists are thinking radio singles. Hits, hits, hits. Because that’s how they measure their success. You’re only as good as your latest single. I’ve heard that said time and time again. I’m making records for my fans, and they’re making records for radio.
I always just hope that this song will be a good song that can work on radio. If it is, it is. If it isn’t, it isn’t. It’s about the fans.
We had the number one record without any major support from radio. Radio should be about the fans. It should be about the people who support the genre of music.
That’s the biggest difference. They just have a different formula. They’re all about the latest trend. Somebody comes out, and they sound like this guy and three or four months later there are acts that sounds just like this guy. You just see that recurring time and time again.
For me, my image is what my image is. I could go back and show you an image of me from 15 years ago, and it’d be the exact same thing. Pearl snaps, blue jeans, belts and buckles. I’ve always said that trends come and go but cowboys are forever. We’re kinda sticking to that.
Did you have a mentor or did you learn all on your own?
Man, I had all sorts of mentors along the way. Larry Gatlin gave me advice. Gary P. Nunn. I made several records with Ray Benson. I just had so many people along the way just give me sound advice.
But you know the number one thing is that my mother and father have always supported me and given me such great guidance from when I was a toddler, to when I was a teenager, to when I went to college. I’m still learning things from my father today.
So you know, we work hard and we treat people [with love], we’re very loving. Every day I try to be better. I try to improve myself every day. It’s like that little snowball up across the mountain. 15 years ago it was a little snowball, and 15 years later it started to gather a little size and momentum.
You have another record in the works?
Hey, when you put out 12 albums over 15 years you always have a new record in the works.
I’m always writing, and I’ve already got started on a new record. I’m still kinda focusing on The Underdog. It’s still a little too early to start stirring the pot on the new record, but sure, we already have our sights set higher than we did for The Underdog. Who knows if we’ll hit those goals. We’re going to try our best. The game plan still hasn’t changed.
I’m recording a Christmas record with my entire family this fall. Jack, Jolie, Kate and I. I’m forcing my wife to sing a song with me. For me, music is not an industry, music is a family business. My kindred side, they really feel like they’re helping out the family.
Watson is currently on tour. He returns to Texas on March 4 for the Texas Birthday Bash in Navasota.