By Lynne Margolis
Aaron Watson’s a talker. During a 40-minute interview, he went pretty much a mile a minute the whole time in his charming Amarillo-honed accent, with which he declared straight out that he’s a good ol’ boy and likes hangin’ out with other good ol’ boys. In the best Texas tradition, of course. Whether it’s hip or not to admit that anymore, he doesn’t care. To him, it merely means friendly people who take care of their own. It’s the way he feels about his fans, too. He wants them as friends — as people who like him enough to come to his shows and chat awhile afterward, too. Who look forward to seeing him when he shows up, and vice versa — and who will understand when he steers the bus off the road semi-frequently to spend time with his wife and future baseball-star sons, Jake, 23 months, and Jack, 4 months.
Our interview tallied up at an incredible 4,700 words — one of my longest ever — and I asked about six questions the whole time. It’s great when an artist has lots to say (except when your fingers start to hurt from all that typing!). Then again, I’ve noticed talkin’ a lot is a Texas good ol’ boy thing. We started out discussing an itinerary that included six upcoming nights off, about which he declares, “I’m pretty excited. I’m goin’ home to see my baby boys.” His accent is on “baby” — the first syllable. It’s a colorful, musical way of talking. Just like Aaron, himself. I didn’t even need to wind him up. He just jumped in and, like the Energizer Bunny, kept on going and going.
“I always say I’m a part-time singer and a full-time daddy,” he explained. “I get to spend a lot of time with them; I actually turn down dozens of shows a month probably. … You have to have your priorities. I’ve only got 18 years with ’em at home. I can tour all I want once they’re gone. But I can’t have ‘em back once they’re gone. … Management and booking, they understand how adamant I am about my time at home. Sometimes it’s easier than others, but that’s definitely my No. 1 — the mama and the boys.”
How do the other band members feel about it? Do they feel like they need other gigs to survive or are they happy to get the time off?
I think they do quite well, actually. They don’t come with a small price tag. Don’t get me wrong, we still play 150 shows a year. That’s still more shows than most bands. But I think they like the full-time pay and the part-time hours.
Yeah, I would guess.
And they’re also very much family-oriented kind of guys. This band’s just absolutely incredible. I’d put this band up against anybody’s. Not only are they incredible musicians, but they’re great guys. They’re good human beings, good ol’ boys, and I’m proud to have ‘em. We all fit together real well.
Your second album, Honky-Tonk Kid — how did you get Willie involved? (They duet on the title song.)
I wrote the song with Willie in mind, with a guy named Chris Bergsnes. People started pinnin’ me as the honky-tonk kid before I wrote the song. And I guess it’s because — I think I’m startin’ to look a little older now, but five or six years ago I was 24, and when I’d get up onstage or we’d be at these honky-tonks, especially if I was freshly shaved — a lot of times I caught a little grief about whether I could get in the club or not. I’m like, “Man, I promise I’m over 21. I don’t have my wallet with me cause we’re fixin’ to play a show.” It took some convincing sometimes.
But me and Chris — Chris is a great songwriter. He’s had lots of cuts by major artists. My personal favorite, is “Dallas Days and Fort Worth Nights” for Chris LeDoux. And me being a big Chris LeDoux fan, of course, when I found out that he had written that song for LeDoux, I wanted to write with him. And we sat down and started writing “The Honky-tonk Kid,” and the first line that came out of my mouth was, “He’s wrinkled and gray, but he’s still got the fire.” Of course, we’re talkin’ about Willie. My dad raised me on just strictly Willie, Waylon and Merle.
So we wrote that song but we had trouble finishing the song. And a couple of weeks down the road from when we’d started, Johnny Cash passed away. And that’s when we came up with the last verse: “It won’t be long, the Lord take him away, he’ll have sung his last song, they’ll place a wreath on his grave. But he’ll pack ’em in just like he always did. One last goodbye for the honky-tonk kid.” I remember we were in Nashville that week, and folks came from all around for his funeral. Johnny Cash being such a strong, outspoken, Christian man, I’ve always appreciated him more for that than even his music. So that was kinda neat to include a little bit of him on that.
But back to how Willie got involved. Ray Benson, he’s produced — this is my fourth album with Ray. Ray apparently was over at Willie’s place, hangin’ out. I think they were shootin’ pool, and Ray said, “Man, you gotta hear this song.” And Willie, just bein’ a good old boy, he’s just always all about helpin’ other people out. It says a lot about Willie that he would take time out of his busy schedule to sing with some no-name, young punk. If you think about that, Willie’s probably busier than the president. For him to take time to do that with me, it really says a lot about him. I told people that I could be Country Music Artist of the Year or the Decade some day, Lord willing, but that won’t compare to the excitement that I had when I got to sing with Willie. I think it’s a career-defining moment for me, because here I am, 30 years old, married, I have two little boys, and every night, I get onstage, some radio DJ wherever we’re at says “Y’all give it up, ladies and gentlemen, for the honky-tonk kid” and I get up onstage and I’m like, “In 10 years, I’ll be 40, will I still be the honky-tonk kid?” And I believe I will be. I think it’s a cool thing.
Well, look at Rodney Crowell. He’s still the Houston kid, isn’t he?
I think it can stick.
I wouldn’t mind it at all.
So tell me a bit more about the Ray Benson connection.
Well, The Honky Tonk Kid was Ray’s first album that we worked on together, and since then we’ve done San Angelo, we’ve done Barbed Wire Halo, and of course, the new album, Angels and Outlaws. We had plans for a different producer for The Honky-tonk Kid. And, for just personal indifferences, me and that producer — I mean we’re still good friends — you know, it just wasn’t his cup o’ tea. And what he was doin’ wasn’t my cup of tea. So we just thought, “Hey, let’s not even mess around with this,” ’cause that just wasn’t what was best for the music, so a guy that I’m friends with worked with Asleep at the Wheel for a while, doing a lot of their booking, his name’s Scotty Galloway, and Scotty made the suggestion.
So we went by, and I sang Ray some of the songs, and I was a little bit nervous because I’d always been a big fan of Bob Wills and Texas swing, and if you like Bob Wills and Texas swing, you’re gonna like Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel. But Ray has really taken me under his wing and he’s taught me a lot. The stuff that I’ve learned from him is absolutely priceless. I mean, I really look up to him and I’m proud to call him my friend. He’s a great guy. He sends my baby boys Christmas presents. That’s how awesome he is. I mean, I’ll brag about Ray all day. What was super to me about this album was not only did I produce the new album with Ray, I also produced it with his oldest boy, Sam “Lightning” Siefert. That’s what we call him. Ray’s boy is incredible. He’s a very talented engineer, and he recorded the album and mixed the album and also produced. When we began, I didn’t intend on him bein’ a producer. But he had such a huge impact on the album that he was, he was one of the producers.
I know you’re trying to expand outside of the Texas market. What are you doing to make that happen?
We’re doing a lot of things through Myspace, Facebook, our Web site, we’re doing a lot of promotions through that. One thing that’s really just been incredible is that we’ve been doing the free online music giveaway. We’ve been giving away 15 of our best songs for free. All you have to do is go to AaronWatson.com and click on the free music banner and put in your e-mail address and your zip code. And it takes you to lonestartunes.com and you get to download 15 of our best songs, no gimmicks, no strings attached. That’s just one of the many, many advantages of being an independent artist. I’m the boss and I own my music and what I want is what I get. And I don’t have a problem with giving away free music. It’s like if you went to a restaurant and got a free appetizer, a promotional deal, you know. I just give ’em a little appetizer, and if my music is worthy of their appreciation or listening, then they’ll want more.
Are people buying or are they showing up at the shows? What’s the effect?
It’s been packed. …We have a very universal style of music. We tend to blend in with folks that like Texas swing, folks that like the red dirt, folks that like Nashville style. … I’ve got a rockin’ guitar player and we can really turn it up a notch with him. And on the other side, we’ve got the steel and the twin fiddles. So we’re really not a one-trick pony; we really have a lot of tricks up our sleeve.
Now some people do the Nashville thing and some people stay in Texas. How have you decided that this is where you need to be?
We sell enough records and we sell enough tickets that I’m sure if we wanted the Nashville thing, that would be an option. There’s a lot of factors that have kept me here. A, I love being the boss. I can’t help it. That’s just how I am. I like being the general. I wouldn’t be opposed to a deal in Nashville, but here’s the thing: We make good money here. And when I make more money selling 50,000 records a year in Texas than these Nashsville artists make when they’re selling 1 million or 2 million albums, there’s just something wrong with that business model. And what it comes down to is, I’m a businessman first and a musician second. Obviously, there’s a lot of things goin’ on with the music industry that aren’t good right now because all I hear is that the business is suffering. Well, I can tell you that every year for the past five, my business has doubled and tripled.
My No. 1 priority is taking care of my organization. And what I consider my organization is my band, my musicians, my sound guys, the guy who runs my merchandise, my manager, my booking agent, and more importantly, the Aaron Watson family. Cause here’s the deal. I know that if Aaron Watson runs his business like it needs to be run, that we will only continue to grow and get bigger and bigger and bigger. And I know that I will be able to take care of my family, my wife, my boys, and I’m in control of my own destiny. Until someone comes to me and tells me that they believe in me enough that they think I’m the best thing since sliced bread, and they can guarantee me this, this and this and that I can make my music … you know, it’s nothin’ personal, I don’t have anything against ‘em, I don’t care if they’re from Nashville or New York or L.A., but it’s a business decision and its one of those things. I love music and I just couldn’t love it if it wasn’t my music.
I was just asking because, for some people, that’s the goal. They want to live in Nashville or they find they could have a great songwriting career there or whatever. But more and more, I’m hearing exactly what you’re telling me.
I’m an Abilene, Texas boy. I’m not a Nashville, Tenn. guy. I’ve got a great little church that I attend every Sunday. And there’s great school districts in our town, and you know, Abilene has just that old-timey feeling. And I’m gonna be honest with ya, At the end of my road, when I’m on my death bed, do you think I’m gonna be thinking of how many records I’ve sold? Honestly, my legacy is my music, my legacy is the life that I live and it’s through my boys, the kind of men that they become. So I’m more worried about raising good Christian men than I am about becomin’ famous worldwide. My philosophy is that I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. I truly believe that. We don’t drink and we don’t act like rock stars. I run a Christian organization. I’m all about wherever I go, me and my boys tryin’ to be a positive influence on whomever we’re in contact with. It’s really just about lovin’ everybody. What we’ve done in five years, it’s just absolutely unheard of and it’s phenomenal. And that’s because we’ve got a lot of folks prayin’ for us, and a lot of folks wantin’ to see us succeed. And we work really hard. So I’m absolutely just thrilled. Thrilled and so thankful that I can make music that I like and that people like it enough to buy it. I mean, think about how crazy that is.
Oh, I know. You’re lucky you can do it.
You know, I’ve got a bus and it was bought and paid for and I’ve had it for 4½ years and there’s still not a night, once I’m done with my show and I’ve signed autographs and sold merchandise for two hours, that I don’t climb up onto that bus and crawl into my bunk and I’m just like, how thankful am I to have this bus? For that first 700 shows, 800 shows, I was openin’ the doors to this old, nasty van.
We’re very, very thankful for the opportunity that our fans give us. And that’s my No. 1 priority every night. I truly don’t want fans, I just want friends. Because I’ve found that friends are loyal customers. I‘ve got a buddy who helps me with my yard work at home because I’ve got three acres of Bermuda grass and it takes me forever to mow. I choose him to help me because if I’m gonna be puttin’ money into somebody’s pocket I want it to be somebody that I like, that I know that money’s goin’ toward helping pay for their diapers and stuff like that. It’s the same thing with the guy who comes over and sprays my house for bugs. I use him because he’s a good old boy. And it’s just a real common type of business model. I try to be the hometown business.
Everybody wants to help out the hometown boy, and I try to be the hometown boy wherever I go. I’ve found that we have more friends than we’ve got fans. And it’s really awesome. You know, we haven’t been doing this very long and our San Angelo album sold enough copies to chart nationwide on Billboard. I’m very proud but I never will ever, ever forget who’s puttin’ food on my table. And that’s the folks that are buying tickets and the folks that are buyin’ CDs and T-shirts and stickers and koozies and ringtones.
Let’s talk about the new album. You’ve got a John Mayer song on here. What made you decide you wanted to record that?
Well, you know, I really enjoy all kinds of music. And in college I had a lot of buddies who loved John Mayer. That’s how I got introduced to him. I’ve always appreciated his music and it’s a different style of songwriting and I’m always about educating myself with different styles of music. You know, it’s kind of funny, you really can’t put your thumb on this album. I wrote most of the songs, but two of the songs that I didn’t write, one of ’em is an old Waylon tune from, like, 1970, called “Tulsa,” that not many people are familiar with. And then the other one is a very modern, current tune written by John Mayer. And it’s kinda cool because I make a Waylon Jennings tune from 1970 and a John Mayer tune from 2006 or ’07 go hand in hand together. And really, I can just about turn any kind of song into a country song. All I do is take out that rock ‘n’ roll guitar and replace it with twin fiddles and steel, and hey, there you go, you’ve got your country song. The song’s called “The Heart of Life,” and it’s just a beautiful song. I love the message. It has a beautiful message behind it. I thought that’d be kind of fun.
Did you ever get an opportunity to talk to him about using it?
No I haven’t. He needs to give me a call; we’ll chit-chat. But you know – I wouldn’t want to admit this to my buddies, but I like a killer chick song. And that definitely has that kind of appeal. I think we’re known for having a lot of songs that kind of kick it in the butt. And we’re also known for what I call chick songs. You’ve gotta have both. I don’t want to be known as the chick song guy ….
Neither does he, actually.
But I truly enjoy having 80 percent of my crowd being girls. It’s a lot easier for me to sing to girls than it would be just a bunch of guys.
Why do you think that is?
Well, maybe because it’s a lot more pleasant to stare at cowgirls than it is to stare at cowboys. We’d better just leave it at that because I’m sure my wife will read this article and I don’t want to get in trouble.
I guess you’re still allowed to look.
She trusts me. She knows I’m a good boy. ‘Cause I wouldn’t do anything in the whole wide world to mess up the good thing that I’ve got.
So … the album’s just – I’m so excited. ‘Cause I’m always very critical of myself, you know, like, “Gosh, is this one as good as the last one? I mean, does it suck? Is it great?” I kinda get a little bit mental on myself, and then finally I just have to say, “Hey, you’ve worked hard on this for a year, and you’ve given it the best that you’ve got. And that’s all you can do.” And you know, I finally got to hear a finished, mastered copy, and me and Jacob, little Jacob was kinda bein’ a stinker one day, and I said, “Man, we gotta get out of the house or your momma’s gonna end up whippin’ your little butt,” so we went out and we were drivin’ out in the country, and it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and we just had the windows down, and we had that music crankin’, and my little man was keepin’ beat on his leg, and I was just fired up because the album just turned out wonderful. It’s gonna be tough for me to top this one. So I’m already hard at the next one!
What’s your favorite song on the album? Do you have one?
I have two. One of ’em is called “Sweet Contradiction.” It’s kind of a neat song. It’s a little bit different from what I usually do. I wrote it thinkin’ about my wife. And just trying to write down everything that I feel about her. The whole contradiction of it is that she can make me and she can break me. It’s a really cool tune. One of my other favorites is — I like truck-drivin’ songs. And we took an old Jerry Reed instrumental and changed it up some and put some of his killer guitar riffs in it and it’s called “Breaker Breaker 1-9,” and it goes about a million miles an hour. So that’s gonna be a fun one. I’d have to say right now, today, those are my two favorites, but I’m thrilled about the whole album. We had a gospel album out a year ago called Barbed Wire Halo. We put that title track on this album, too, just because of all the songs I’ve written, it’s my absolute most special song to me. Because I wrote it with my granddad in mind, with both of my granddads in mind. It’s a song that reflects my faith in Jesus. And it’s a song that I sing my little boys before we go to bed. It has such a meaning to me, and the gospel album, we put it out, and it was just kind of an underground success. But I wanted that song to have a — it’s become a crowd favorite and we sing it every night. They go as crazy for that song as they do for our songs that have been bigger hits from the radio. So we’re gonna give it a chance to keep on keepin’ on.
… I know I speak on behalf of all the Texa/Red Dirt artists when I say how appreciative we are to have such great fans that support us. I mean, we’ve created our own genre of music. But you can’t continue to make music, really, unless you have folks that are willin’ to purchase it. …This year we’re gonna be hittin’ the West Coast, the Midwest, East Coast. My manager and booking agent flew up to Chicago to speak with a guy who’s interested in doing some shows with us up there, and I told him that he needed to look on the Cubs’ schedule and book me shows on the days they’re playing the Houston Astros.
Oh, that’s great.
I hope to be touring all over the nation playing towns that have a major league baseball team
You can call it the baseball tour. Put me in, coach.
I love it. I love baseball.
You never played pro, but you played college ball?
I would have played pro if I’d have been a little taller. And a little faster and a little better, maybe. I love baseball. I’ve always loved baseball. There’s nothin’ better than baseball. Football’s great; basketballs great. I played it all, but you know, there’s nothin’ better than hittin’ a home run or turnin’ a double play. I think I actually like turnin’ double plays better.
What position did you play ?
I played a lot of middle infield. But I’m not a player anymore. I’m actually lookin’ forward to becomin’ a coach. Here in about, let’s see, Jake’s 2, so here in about four years, when he kicks off his little league career, I will probably be taking off a good portion of the spring and summer because I can’t miss practice and I can’t miss games, ‘cause coaches are not allowed to miss practices or games. So when you go to AaronWatson.com, backslash, tour dates, there’ll be a schedule there for a little league baseball team instead of my shows.
Have you signed up already to be a coach? What if somebody already has the job?
That’s my job. Pretty soon I’m gonna own the Little League team, so hey, I’ll be the owner and the manager. I’ll buy the whole league if that’s what I have to do.