Aaron Watson – Mercury Lounge, New York City – May 13, 2015
Last night, one of Texas’ finest entertainers brought his act to New York City for the very first time. Aaron Watson and his band put forth a spirited and active hour and a half set, full of stories and songs that showcase exactly who he is and where he comes from. As the title of his album, The Underdog, suggests, Aaron certainly has proved all of his naysayers wrong recently, by becoming the first independent artist in Billboard Chart history to have the #1 Country Album and headlining a show in the Big Apple. It was a special night capped by a phenomenal show.
It was my first ever Aaron Watson live concert experience despite listening to his songs for many years. I had the chance to interview Aaron last week (see: http://millertimemusicspot.com/whos-next-aaron-watson/) and he is easily one of the most humble and real artists I’ve ever met. His live show matched his personality as he was full of smiles and energy throughout. He spoke genuinely about the stories behind the songs he has written. Whether it was “That Look” that he wrote for his wife or “July in Cheyenne” after losing his baby daughter, the openness that he has with his fans is truly second to none.
More than anything, Aaron was born to perform. He was a true showman as he worked the stage, backed by his bombastic band highlighted by a very talented fiddler. Aaron posed for pictures, interacted with fans, and even stripped it down for an acoustic set full of deep cuts from his 10 plus years making music. A nice touch was the fact he was wearing a Babe Ruth shirt which kicked off some “let’s go Yankees” chants by the raucous Big Apple crowd.
And the set list jumped around without missing any era of his discography. Whether it was “Freight Train” or “Fencepost” from the new album or “Summertime Girl” or “Real Good Man” from his past, the crowd seemingly knew every word. Women were square dancing in the corner as the men raised their beers and whiskey during the Military Anthem “Raise Your Bottle”. As the night went on and Aaron sang song after song, it was clear that he had the New York City crowd in the palm of his hand.
There is something to be said for an artist who tries his hand at his dream and is told he cannot be something or should give up. That was exactly the case many years ago when Aaron went to Nashville, Tennessee. Lucky for all of us, Aaron bucked the odds and kept working at his craft. On “Fence Post” he described that very story and everyone in the crowded clapped and nodded along in approval. Aaron described that song as his “sticking it to the man” song and it was clear everyone in that building that night could relate to it somehow.
Aaron vowed to return to New York City again as it appeared that his set had to be cut short due to venue time restrictions. After the show he made good on his statement that he would wait out and meet every single fan who attended the show. Not many artists show the graciousness and respect he does to his fans. I hope this is just the beginning of Aaron Watson traveling out to the Northeast as everyone should rush out to see the Honky-Tonk-Kid with the Underdog Success Story.
I’ve been doing this segment I like to call “Who’s Next” for the past year with a plethora of up and coming country artists. I really debated calling this post by the same name because Aaron Watson is already an A-List name in the Texas music scene and already had the #1 album in country music earlier this year. But, after speaking to him, it is apparent that he is set to take over the national grid on a large scale. So, for those outside of Texas that do not know who he is quite yet, meet Aaron Watson and why he is “Who’s Next”:
MillertimeMusicSpot: I hear you started off playing guitar, but were primarily a baseball player. Is that accurate?
Aaron Watson: Yeah, baseball was my first love growing up. It was definitely my boyhood dream just like every American boy. I had some chances and went on to play baseball in college, but my career was cut short by an injury and that’s when I picked the old guitar up. So when one door closed another opened. But, what is cool is I played home run derby just yesterday with my two sons, Jake and Jack. And playing like this with my boys can rival anything those Major Leaguers are experiencing.
MTMS: Being from the tri-state area, where the country fed to us via radio is mainly pop based, I first heard of you when Real Good Time was released. Do you consider that album your national breakthrough moment?
Aaron Watson: I’ve tried real hard not to be concerned with the mainstream country world. I am just lost in my old little world here in Texas. You can literally play 150 shows a year and make a good living never leaving the state. About six years ago we decided to franchise outside of Texas, to the Midwest and West coast into the mountain states. And now we have our sites on heading out East. So, Real Good Time probably got my first national exposure that set the table for the success that The Underdog had.
MTMS: Willie Nelson, Pat Green, Elizabeth Cook, John Anderson, and more were featured on Real Good Time, what made you decide to go away from the collaboration aspect and just go straight solo in The Underdog?
Aaron Watson: I kind of had an idea that this one had something special on it and wanted to make a statement as an artist, songwriter and singer. I did not want people saying of course he did this because he had this guy helping him. I wanted to ride in solo on this one.
MTMS: Well, it certainly worked out for you. It hit #1 on the Billboard Country Charts. How did that news hit you and your family?
Aaron Watson: It was pretty cool. I try to stay even keel about music and try to get excited about family things. But, I had taken my kids to school and came home and got the phone call in the kitchen with my wife. I may have done a couple double back flips and spun her around with a big kiss. I cannot speak for half of the artists, but this is my job and how I take care of my kids. So, it was more special from a Daddy and Husband point of view.
MTMS: The Underdog speaks to me on so many levels from a songwriter and story point of view. I just had my first child this year and the song “The Underdog” has such a positive message to your children. Did you write that yourself?
Aaron Watson: Yes, all of the songs on the album except two were songs I wrote. That song I wrote for Jake and Jack. I have a little girl too and I’m working on her song. The princess gets her own song she won’t have to share. I’m trying to raise the two boys into good Christian men who will raise their families with good examples. I am trying to be the same kind of dad to them my dad was to me. Life is tough and maybe when they go to college and they will put on that song and finally get it or maybe after I’m gone. But, it was a special song.
MTMS: How did you get the idea to take that approach for the song?
Aaron Watson: My middle boy Jack was upset because he was never winning races he had at school. So, after school we would run sprints in the backyard from the porch to the fence. And one day he came home like he won Game 7 of the World Series. And that taught him if he wants something he has to go earn it and that is how my career has been. No one has handed me anything on a silver platter. There’s been more discouragement than anything, but it just fuels my fire.
MTMS: Was the process in making the record different than the others especially with a new producer and from the indie aspect?
Aaron Watson: Originally the first song on the record was going to be “Freight Train” and one day, it hit me that that wasn’t supposed to be the first song. Along the way leading up to this album, we had some interest from some labels, but ultimately I told my wife that we were going to leave this album in God’s hands. I should have put all the Glory in his Hands because this went number one and I think I am the first artist ever to hit number one from an independent stand point.
MTMS: Sonically, the song “The Prayer” is as good as any I’ve heard thus far in 2015. And it is a deep song, what can you tell us about that track?
Aaron Watson: I wanted the first song to sum up what I’m about. And I read this book by Johnny Cash called “The Man In White” and it’s an obscure hard to find book he came out with in the 70’s. He takes Biblical accounts of the Apostle Paul and makes up stories around those. And Johnny Cash one year was having a bad year and went into a cave near his house trying to kill himself. So, I made “The Prayer” as if it was something Johnny would say in the cave from the point of view Johnny was doing in the book.
MTMS: With that being the first song on the album, the last one is “Fence Post”. I was a song that when I heard it, I just smiled and said this guy is enjoying with what he is doing. Is that also from a true story?
Aaron Watson: Totally. It’s about sticking it to the man. I wrote that song while driving to a political gig in Austin. I’m not a political guy, I have my beliefs, but will argue baseball, not politics. And I drove to this gig at night in my Jeep by myself and wrote it then. I finally finished it when I was doing edits for the album with a young engineer at Keith Stegall’s studio at 2 in the morning. I said “hey man, set me up with a microphone”. He did not want to because he said Keith wouldn’t like it. I told him he wouldn’t lose his job and he set up a microphone. I sang it twice that night and sent it to a buddy in East Texas to play a little guitar and fiddle on it to make it sound like we were messing around on the porch. It’s just a fun song and I’ve enjoyed how people relate it whether you are from Texas or not. Everyone has their fence post moment. No one should give up or be discouraged, it really has that Underdog message in it.
MTMS: Despite Nashville not opening its doors to you, I know the Grand Ole Opry did a few weeks ago. How was that experience for you?
Aaron Watson: I am always playing shows and take them day to day. I never try to think about the next one and did not really realize the extent of the opportunity that the Opry was for me. We got out there and I had my wife with me. My parents were celebrating their 40th Anniversary and I could see them. It was a magical night for me and I was very nervous. But, when I got on that stage I just flicked the switch and played ball. What added a few butterflies was seeing Steven Tyler and Charlie Daniels on the side of the stage watching me. It was incredible.
MTMS: How is your relationship with Nashville today?
Aaron Watson: The thing is I have not rejected Nashville, its Nashville that hasn’t accepted us. And I am not mad about it because maybe this is what God has planned for me. Maybe Nashville will come around and I won’t have a problem working with them. I have great friends and allies in Nashville like my booking agency and distribution agency. But, I will never ever ever ever sign a record deal who betrays who I am. Every song and decision I make, I will make sure I stay true to my Faith, Family, and Fans. I may have been born thirty or forty years too late though. If you watched the ACM’s a few weeks ago you did not see many cowboy hats in the crowd. And I think Nashville knows we are a force to be reckoned with. They can’t say I am not a country singer. We had the #1 record in the nation and I had Nashville executives tell me that was impossible.
MTMS: What I love about your music is the attention to songwriting and actual real life moments, not just a party with a truck and beer.
Aaron Watson: Exactly. The song “Bluebonnets” is about how my wife and I lost a little girl. That’s the song I wrote for her after she passed away. People deal with heartaches. I can write about my situation and how I got through it and maybe it will help someone. Music helps me and is therapeutic. And I’m making a new album now and it needs to be different that my past albums. Songs should be little movies, like little short flicks. That is what brought me to music, guys like Guy Clark. And while I write this record, I will not listen to mainstream country radio. I want no influence. I do not care if I get played on the radio and will keep working as hard as I can for my fans.
MTMS: And your fan base is growing bigger and bigger by the minute these days, no?
Aaron Watson: I have the best fans in the world and I try to treat them like a million bucks. After every show I stay to meet every single one of them. And they know when they buy an Aaron Watson album they are buying my little girl a pair of shoes, or a new baseball bat for Jake Watson. Or my wife, who shops online and has a serious spending problem, so they help me pay off her credit cards each month. But, my fans love my wife who is obviously my better half. It’s almost like we have a Mom and Pop Diner and we have fans who are loyal to come support our family business.
MTMS: I’ll be reviewing your show in New York City next Wednesday at the Mercury Lounge. Is this your first New York City gig?
Aaron Watson: You bet it is.
MTMS: What does playing New York City mean to you?
Aaron Watson: Well, I’ve already been informed by my boys that I have to pick up something New York Yankees for them. But, they like the old Yankees not the new Yankees as much. We are talking Mantle, Ruth, Berra, and DiMaggio. And I am just excited for New York overall. I mean, I am from Amarillo, Texas so I am excited. It is an honor.