'The Cowboy Is Timeless': Country Singer-Songwriter Aaron Watson on Staying True to Himself With New Album 'Vaquero'

Aaron Watson performs during the Watershed Music Festival at Gorge Amphitheatre on July 31, 2016 in George, Wash.
Mat Hayward/Getty Images

Aaron Watson performs during the Watershed Music Festival at Gorge Amphitheatre on July 31, 2016 in George, Wash. 

It was two years ago this month when Aaron Watson made musical history. His release The Underdog became the first album by a male artist to debut at the top of the Country Album charts with a self-released and independently distributed and promoted LP. Selling over 26,000 copies in just its first week, the feat made headlines across the country. Watson recalls to Billboard that he can still remember where he was when he got the news.

“I was just taking the kids to school, and was back home. I was sitting at the kitchen table, and my wife was cooking breakfast. My manager calls me and says ‘Are you sitting down?’ He said, 'Congratulations, your album just charted number one in Billboard.' I remember being in shock. I was speechless, and at the same time, I was completely humbled by the amount of support my fans have shown me all these years.”

Now, Watson is back with Vaquero, the album's much-anticipated follow-up -- and once again, he’s doing it all on his own. One might have thought that his phone would have rang off the hook with offers following his historic chart feat. Think again.

“I can tell you that not one label has called me in spite of all the albums and tickets that we’re selling,” he reports. “I don’t know if it’s ignorance or arrogance, or what it is. If I was running a record label, and some kid from Texas had a career that was self-sufficient and profitable, and was doing things that I couldn’t do with other artists on my label, I would call my pilot, and I’d say ‘Fire up the jet. We’re going to Texas.’ But we didn’t get a text message or a tweet.”

Despite the continued lack of interest from Music Row, Watson says he’s happy to be continuing to make his music his way. “I have to stay true to who I am, or I’m not going to do it. It’s ingrained to me. I’m not chasing fame or fortune. Music is my passion. I feel like God has blessed me with this incredible fan base, and I’m not going to let them down.”

But, Watson has seen many positives over the past two years. “I am so grateful that because of the exposure, I have had the opportunity to share my story with a bigger audience, from getting to play Live Nation events to headlining the Houston Rodeo in a month in front of 70,000 people. That’s like winning a green jacket.”

He says that he received plenty of advice from his friends about how to take his music to the next level, but his aim has always been to stay true to himself. “When The Underdog went number one, we had a lot of friends in the mainstream music industry who said that to break out, I had to get away from the Texas thing. I disagree... It’s not like I’m beating people above the head with songs about Texas, but to make my point that we’re going to stand firm and stick to our brand, we painted a Texas flag on an old brick wall, and I held my guitar up in a very rebellious stance, because I believe in what we’re doing, and it’s been working for a long time. This is who I am, and the music that I make. Trends come and go, but the cowboy is timeless.”

Vaquero is definitely Watson’s most varied musical project, with a wide mixture of sounds. He says that he did stretch himself in the studio, thanks to a new co-producer. “I give a lot of credit to Marshall Altman, who I co-produce the album with. He is a city boy from Manhattan, and does a lot of pop records. I don’t need a country boy to help me make a Country record. I know how to do that. I needed someone who was going to push me to be a better songwriter, and singer. Marshall had that drive to get to know me as a person, as well as my family and my music. It was a lot of fun.”

That’s not to say they didn’t have a few disagreements in the studio. “There were some times that Marshall and I didn’t see eye to eye. He’d tell me that he didn’t hear fiddle on a certain song. I told him, ‘I don’t ever want to hear you say that again. There’s fiddle on all of my songs – always. Do you like peanut butter and jelly? Have you ever tried it without the jelly? This is just part of the ingredients of what makes my music."

Also important to Watson is the messages that he sends with his music. He takes pride in positive love songs such as “Be My Girl” and the sentimental gleam of “Diamonds and Daughters.” He feels the country audience needs to hear songs such as those.

“I’m a husband and a dad. I love my two boys, but I’m very protective of my little girl. In this day and age, there’s a lot of boys singing about meeting a girl at a party, and taking her down to the river. There’s a lot of boys -- regardless of what their age is -- I call them boys singing songs about sex. We don’t need any more of those. It’s important for me to put songs on a record about a man loving his wife; loving the woman who has given him four babies, and put up with his crap for fourteen years.”

Watson hopes he can set an example for his kids with the way he sings about his marriage. “I want my little girl -- as well as my boys -- to hear these songs, and have them serve as a reminder of how much their daddy loves their mama. I also want the girls that are coming to these shows to hear the songs that I’m writing for my wife, and I want them to think, ‘I want that kind of love. I want a man who cherishes and respects me more than just for my exterior, but for my heart.’ It’s very important that I write these songs... Don’t ever just meet some punk at a party, and let him take you down to the river. My daughter will know better."

One track from Vaquero that is rather timely is “Clear Isabel,” of which he says “It’s a story song, and a little political. At the time, it’s very much cultural. It’s a song about a dad who lives in Mexico, and he wants to give his daughter a better life. So, they cross the border into Texas, and they make great sacrifices to do so. She falls in love with a boy, and they are living on his ranch. The dad eventually gets caught by the border patrol, and gets sent back, where he gets shot. But, the daughter marries the American boy, and they have a son – so she becomes an American.”

He knows that many will have their opinions about the song, and he’s fine with that. “Right now in politics, one of the big controversies is the wall. I don’t know how I feel about the wall. I’m not a politician. I do know there needs to be accountability along the border, but at the same time, I’ll tell you that if I was living across the border in Mexico, and my family was suffering, I would pack my bags and come to Texas. There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do for my children. I think any good dad would do the same thing. People need to remember that we need to treat each other with kindness and love."

Watson knows that all eyes will be on how this album performs. If it hits the top of the charts or not, he’s content that he gave it his best.  “I never prayed for number one records. My prayer has always been simple – ‘Give me courage to get up and share my faith on stage. Please use my music as an instrument to bring others joy.’ What’s greater than that? From the perspective of a singer-songwriter, when you have someone come up to you after a show, and they tell you that your music has gotten them through a rough time, there’s nothing more rewarding than that... We were so blessed long before The Underdog went number one. We’re just going to stay true to our brand, work hard, and ride a horse named Hustle.”

Vaquero will be released on February 24.