Legacies of Texas: The Wit, Grit, and Wisdom of Aaron Watson
By: Samantha Latta
Working in the music industry, many would find it easy to get caught up in the glamorous charm of fame, favor, and fascination. In pursuit of that neon dream, some would even risk it all in exchange for a small taste of stardom. However, in eyes of Texas country music artist Aaron Watson, the life that glittered hardly seemed made of gold. When Nashville slammed the door in his face, Watson created his own window of opportunity. Going against the grain and against all odds, he faced his adversities with perseverance and a head-strong mentality, a mindset that would appear to be a pattern throughout the course of his life and career.
These Old Boots Have Roots
With character that beams a bright reflection of the land that built him, Watson is undeniably and unapologetically Texan. Born and raised in Amarillo, Watson was “raised on Willie and Waylon” and has always stayed true to family values. A product of two native Texans, one hailing from Houston and the other from Midland, Watson’s parents met somewhere near the middle at Abilene Christian University – a love story that would coincidentally repeat itself in the lives of Watson and his own wife, Kimberly years later. Despite experiencing the world in 41 states and ten countries, his home in Texas truly is his castle. Like Watson says himself, "I could go fish for king salmon in Alaska but I’d rather go home to Buffalo Gap, Texas and fish for channel cat out of our muddy tank.” Near his wife and children is exactly where he wants to be.
Off the Record Label
As an artist, Watson’s journey to bright lights and big stages definitely broke the mold in comparison to most in the industry. At age 20, Watson had the opportunity to meet with one of the largest record executives in the Music City; but when his performance failed to impress, he found himself heading back to Amarillo with Nashville in his rearview. “I sang him some songs, and he told me I didn’t have what it takes; and that shattered me pretty good,” Watson said.
As if it were yesterday, Watson remembers sitting at the kitchen table with his dad to share his news. Upon hearing the story of Watson’s unfortunate luck, his father’s response was one that resonated in the moment, and then stuck with him for years to come. “Dad said ‘That’s alright; that’s the same thing they said to Willie for all those years; he didn’t make it until he was 45,’” Watson recalls. “I said, ‘Are you telling me I’m going to have to grind it out for the next 25 years if I’m going to make it?’ And dad said, ‘Yeah, if you want it bad enough.’” From that moment on, Watson’s tenacious pursuit and commitment to success was no longer questionable. Although he began with a seemingly unfavorable start, Watson chose to remain optimistic. “You can either sit there and you can cry about it, or you can let that fuel your fire and you can overcome adversity,” Watson said. “There’s nothing sweeter than showing somebody who said you couldn’t, that you could.”
Instead of throwing in the towel, Watson created his own independent label instead, reshaping the business model of country music in the process. He made his dreams happen by taking a seemingly unconventional, yet successful, route that led his last three records to charting top ten, The Underdog being number 1, all while competing against some of the biggest artists in country music. His most recent record, Vaquero, has shown no sign of deviation from the pattern. In awe, Watson said “We’re competing against all the majors. Vaquero sold more records than [Brad] Paisley and Brett Eldredge, all these guys that have number 1 songs on the radio. Vaquero is our first top 20 single nationwide, and what’s cool is that we’re doing it our way. I’m not just the singer, I’m the songwriter, I’m the publisher, I’m the CEO, and the custodian. I do all these things.”
Watson certainly has a knack for creating success in the country music scene. As he says himself, “music’s not an industry, it’s the family business” – and a business that Watson deeply understands at that. “There’s a lot of talented artists out there on major labels that have their hands tied, because they’re not the boss,” Watson explained. “So we’ve earned the right to be that – 18 years later when we come out with a new record and sell them like hot cakes, we’re growing the business.” And as the business grows, Watson continues to do things that have never been done before.
Watson’s fiery spirit has certainly caused him to become a force to be reckoned with, and his accolades prove it to be true. The Underdog became the first independent album to chart number 1 in the history of country music, a moment so groundbreaking that the Country Music Hall of Fame even did an exhibit in Watson’s honor. While the industry was impressed, many also encouraged him to capitalize on his success by doing away with his “cowboy, Texas thing,” in order to expand his audience. Disagreeing entirely, Watson responded with Vaquero. The title translates to “cowboy” in Spanish, and the album cover features a painted Texas flag on a brick wall as a backdrop for Watson, who rebelliously held up his guitar in defiance. “Don’t tell me not to touch the stove, because I’m probably going to go touch the stove,” Watson said. “That’s just what happens when you’re a hard-headed Texas boy.”
At the end of the day, Watson’s main goal as an artist is to simply be the best version possible of himself, and he feels Texas is the best place to do it. “Texas is the size of France and it's one of the largest economies in the world, so it's a great place to not only start a business, but franchise a business.” Wherever he goes, Watson finds joy in waving the flag for Texas music around the world. Despite the outside forces that try to influence him, Watson has an unwavering sense of faithfulness that always keeps him grounded and true to the fundamentals of his brand. “People are always telling me not to sell out, and I’m like, for the love – 20 years, thirteen albums, and 2,500 shows; I don't think I'm going to sell out at this point,” Watson said. “I am the record label, I don't need a record deal.”
Songwriting That’s Gonna Leave a Mark
Before becoming the nationally-known Honky Tonk Kid, Watson found initial interest in music by studying lyrics, rhyme schemes, and listening to music that he learned from some of his favorites, such as the Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and Frank Sinatra. Watson really studied his musical role models and soon found a knack for writing poems. In college, Watson learned a great deal from his guitar teacher and a talented family friend, who both spent time teaching him the structure, and process of crafting a song – something he takes great pride in. “As an artist, I would not enjoy singing someone else’s songs,” Watson said. “I have to sing my songs, I’m a songwriter first.”
As a songwriter, Watson treats his creative process like a job, forcing himself to sit down a couple times a day to go over songs and truly study them. “When I write I want it to be perfect, because once it’s down it’s there forever,” Watson said. Writing lyrics that resonate with his fans, Watson shared that “over the last two or three years, one thing that I’ve really learned is that people don’t really want hit songs, they just want heart, and honesty, and soul.” As he works on his upcoming album, Watson admits that “there are some songs on there that I’m not holding anything back, I’m just going to give you all my dirty laundry, and people need to see stuff like that that’s real.” Whether he is pulling over on the side of the road to write down an idea, or sitting at his desk to crank out a perfect chorus, Watson is truly infatuated with his many blessings and draws ideas from all parts of life. “I might be driving around at the ranch, I might be in a deer blind, I might be sitting in a pew at church – the preacher says something and I have to write something down without my wife seeing me,” Watson said. “Life is inspiring.”
Though most of his fans have been thoroughly impressed with his songs to date, Watson did run into a few complaints about one of his songwriting inspirations. When his youngest daughter, Jolee Kate, heard that her dad’s hit song, The Underdog, was written for her two older brothers, she had a few suggestions to make for his next album. “She sat me down and she told me that on the next [album] she wanted her song, and not a song that’s hers and her brothers, just hers.” With the pressure on, Watson spent some time finding the perfect song idea to fulfill his daughter’s wishes. “I would put her to bed, and I would read her books, say her prayers, and then after I would do all that with her I would just go into my office and write down how I felt,” Watson explained. “And sometimes I’m sitting there sobbing like a baby thinking about this little girl and how much I love her, but I just poured my heart out into that song.” While she is still little, Watson was inspired to write a song that he and Jolee could dance to at her wedding someday, and came up with Diamonds & Daughters, a song that illustrates the bond and love between a father and daughter, and his promise to always be there for her. “I wanted that to be a song that girls of all ages could listen to and would make them feel special and beautiful,” Watson said.
As an artist and dedicated father, Watson has been able to use his musical freedom and songwriting talent to commemorate his family and life experiences, including his song Bluebonnets. Also known as Julia’s Song, Bluebonnets was written and dedicated to his late daughter, Julia Grace, whom Watson and his wife lost at birth due to a condition called Trisomy 18 back in 2011. In reflection of this life-changing experience, Watson aims to share more of his family’s journey with Julia through a book he and his wife will be releasing in 2018. “[Kimberly] and I have been working on it for a while, [the book] is going to be called Giving Julia Back,” Watson shared. “It’s just the hardships and the blessings and the triumphs and the tragedies through the whole process.” He added, “This life is full of heartache, but you know what, put one foot in front of the other. God is good all the time; this world is not our home. It’s really a story about life, and how precious life is.”
Love like it’s Going Outta Style
While his family is one of Watson’s most precious gifts in life, he admits that in the beginning, he was thinking more about impressing girls than becoming a family man. However, he has truly given his best effort over the years to balance his family and business, always putting family first above all else. Now that he is a husband and father, Watson’s dream-career has come with its fair share of unexpected obstacles. “It's things you don't think about when you're young,” Watson said. At 20, he was not thinking, “I'm going to have kids, and every time I miss a game or ballet, it's going to really bother me.” Despite his desire to somehow be in two places at once, he also feels a deep gratitude for being blessed with a career that allows his wife to stay at home with his children. “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing,” Watson shared. “Being a mom is the most important job in the world, because that’s the love inside a home.”
Envying her for her patience, Watson calls his wife’s loving nature a constant reminder of what their home is supposed to be, and applauds her for being the exceptional mother that she is. Watson confessed, “Even if I was the best dad in the world I think I would still feel like I’m just not good enough for them, and the same thing with my wife – no one’s perfect, you just have to keep trying, and I do realize that the best thing that I can do for my kids is love their mama.”
As the spotlight found its way into his personal life, people began to put a stamp of perceived perfection on the Watsons’ relationship. Claiming to be just like everyone else, Watson says the only considerable difference is that he is not a quitter. “It's important to me that I let a lot of the kids out there and the young couples know that it's not about perfection, it's about persistence,” Watson said. “One of the worst things you can do in this day and age is give this false sense of perfection on social media, because there are people that follow us, and if they’re comparing themselves to something that we’re not really, I think that would hinder them and discourage them.” Though he is a self-proclaimed work-in-progress, he always makes time for what matters most. When not on tour, he wholeheartedly belongs to his family, and is radiantly proud of them all. “I can’t imagine my life without my wife and kids; it’s amazing,” Watson said.
Legacy of the Honky Tonk Kid
Watson’s unprecedented brand has given him an 18-year career boasting a dozen albums and more than 2,500 shows across the U.S and Europe without him ever handing the reins over to someone else. Watson says that the label “does not chase phases, stages, or flavors of the month. We stay true to our brand, we work hard, and we ride a horse named hustle.” Looking back over the course of his career, Watson reflects on a moment with his father when he was eleven, a moment he feels has defined him as a person since childhood.
Working in the custodial business, Watson’s father asked him for help cleaning a church one summer day. Despite his plans to go swimming with friends, Watson reluctantly and unenthusiastically agreed to the task. “We were sitting there at the church, and I was cleaning these toilets; I had on those yellow gloves, and I was in a stall and my dad was in the stall next to me,” Watson described. “I was really complaining a lot about it, and finally my dad came around the corner and said ‘Hey, do you think that when I was a little boy that I wanted to grow up and clean toilets?’” Responding respectfully with “no sir,” his father went on to explain a life lesson that Watson admires. After being hurt in the war, Watson’s father said that God blessed him with that job; and because of that job, he was able to provide for his family. Therefore, his father showed God his gratitude by making those toilets the cleanest in town. The naïve, young Watson may have been embarrassed that his father was a custodian at the time, but as a grown man all these years later, he could not be more proud that his dad was willing to do whatever it took to take care of his family.
“There’s a lot more to say for that person who was willing to swallow pride to do what they have to do to take care of their loved ones,” Watson said. “And that taught me so much, that in everything you do, do it to the best of your ability and be the best that you can be. Even when I sign my name, I sign my name nicely – because that’s my name.”
Watson’s tenacious efforts as a musician, husband, father, and person have played a vital role in his successful journey of becoming the Honky Tonk Kid of Texas country music. Though he admits to passing up opportunities that could have advanced his career even further, he looks back with no regrets, knowing that he would have made unwanted sacrifices to do so. Watson’s advice is to “get out there and earn it yourself, because the world does not owe us anything.” Though no one’s experience is quite the same, in Watson’s opinion, it is the perspective that makes the world of difference. “Not everything is always going to be equal for everyone.” Watson said. “I can look at that and I could fret over it, or I can focus on the great opportunities I have been blessed with.”
With the next album already in the works, Watson’s living legacy will continue to thrive through his music and his example, though he views his lasting image as something bigger than concerts and country music. “I would just want people to know that I was a very average guy, but I worked hard, loved my wife and my kids, loved Jesus, and just that I was real,” Watson stated simply. “I think my legacy is bigger than the music – it’s my children; the things that they do with their lives because of me will affect far more people than my music does.”