For an artist who has accomplished so much, Aaron Watson isn't done proving people wrong. The Amarillo native's wide smile and country-boy charm imbues his catchy, earnest songs about loving his wife, his state and his Lord. But you'd be mistaken if you think there's not a fierce edge and steely-eyed drive propelling even his most sunny songs.
With the eagerly-awaited release of the confident, impeccably produced Vaquero on March 25, Watson returns to hopefully make history again. His 2015 record, the appropriately-titled The Underdog, made headlines and ruffled some Music Row suits when it debuted at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Country Album sales chart, making it the first ever release from an independent male artist to do so.
And just in case you wonder how historic of an achievement that is, there's an exhibit in the Country Music Hall of Fame to prove it.
The gratitude he expresses towards his family and fans when discussing his news-making days is real, but those outside that circle probably don't see the full picture. Even now, industry types seem to still have an incomplete view of Watson's successful career as a veteran performer.
"I still hear people call me an 'up and coming artist,'" Watson says with a slight laugh.
"It's funny that after 17 years, 13 albums and 2,500 shows I can still be considered an up and comer. I guess I'm doing pretty well for an up and comer."
If he seems at once annoyed, amused and appreciative, it's not an inferiority complex. It's the manifestation of the mentality Watson employs in order to rise above the often humdrum nature of the Texas country scene. Calling him an up-and-comer is one thing, but backhanded compliments such as calling him a "solid regional artist" is another thing entirely, if you ask him.
"I've been selling out shows for 10 years in a state that's bigger than France," Watson says.
"Forty states and 10 countries in the past year or two, but I still get called a 'regional artist.' Maybe that's true if you want to count England, Ireland and Scotland as one region. I play in as many regions as I can."
One of this region's grandest country music traditions is the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Each March, the biggest names in not only country but also pop and Tejano music take the stage inside the massive NRG Stadium, site of this year's Super Bowl, for a three-week line-up of top-notch talent. On March 7, Watson will fulfill a dream, and again make history, by kicking off the event as the first ever independent artist to take the famed rotating stage on opening night.
Following him over the course of the rodeo in Houston will be major-label powerhouses such as Chris Stapleton, Willie Nelson, Luke Bryan, Blink-182, Alicia Keys and even the Chainsmokers. Watson could be a label-mate to one of these marquee names, as the phone calls from Nashville have been coming in for years already, but he thinks he's better suited to run a label rather than be kept under one's thumb.
"I know that I could instantly take over a major label and make it more successful overnight," Watson says. "I understand the business because on my label, I'm the CEO and the custodian, the record producer and the receptionist. The first thing I would do as the head of a major label would be to go into the parking garage, look around and fire everyone with a car that costs over $100,000, because what we're after is heart and soul."
In making Vaquero, Watson took a measured approach and didn't stray too far from the formula that's proven to be a winner. The album is a cohesive, enjoyable and sparkling modern country record packed with the indelible hooks Watson has built his career on.
For longtime fans, 'Vaquero' will feel instantly familiar because it's not that much different from 'The Underdog' or the couple of albums that came before it.
And Watson, who believes in keeping his musical focus on his personal "brand of country music," has plenty of reasons to feel great about what he's doing and how he's doing it, after all.
"We really ruffled some feathers in Nashville when The Underdog came out," he adds with another knowing chuckle. "And I may not fit the mold of what Nashville tells you an outlaw should look or sound like, and you won't find women, whiskey and weed on my bus, but I promise you that the way I go about my business is more outlaw than anyone you'll find out there. By turning down things that so many others would sign in a heartbeat, I get to keep my focus where it belongs: on my faith, my family and my fans."
Aaron Watson will appear at an album release "sign and drive" event on Friday, Feb. 24 at Globe Life Park, 1000 Ballpark Way, Arlington, Lot F. He performs March 24 at Billy Bob's Texas, 2520 Rodeo Plaza, Fort Worth.