Aaron Watson Describes Serving Up His Country Music Manifesto on 'Red Bandana'

Zack Massey
Aaron Watson

In a world dominated by all things fast and fleeting, Aaron Watson approached his new album, Red Bandana (out June 21 on his own Big Label Records), with an entirely different mindset.

“In a world full of EPs, I wanted to give my fans something that had quality and quantity,” Watson tells Billboard of the 20-song collection. “I wanted to give my fans something that they could live with for the longest time.”

The Texas-based singer/songwriter wrote every cut on his 16th album by himself, and the songs cover a variety of territory, from the eerie opener “Ghost of Guy Clark” to the poignant confessional “Trying Like the Devil” to the toe-tapping lead single “Kiss That Girl Goodbye.”

“I wanted to give my fans something super special because this year is the 20 year anniversary that I’ve been making records and playing shows,” Watson says. “I wanted there to be 20 songs for the 20 years that I’ve been making music. It was important to me that I wrote every song all by myself. I need my fans to listen to this album and know that every word came straight from inside my heart, straight out of my mind.”

For two decades, Watson has been steadily building a devoted audience. His last two albums, 2015’s Underdog and 2017’s Vaquero, debuted at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on Billboard’s Country Albums Chart. The single “Outta Style,” from Vaquero, hit the top 10 of the Country Airplay chart and his current single, “Kiss That Girl Goodbye” is bubbling under.

Despite his track record and recent successes, many still consider Watson a new contender. He’s hoping to change that perspective with Red Bandana. “I wanted to make a statement to the entire industry that while I’m flattered that they think I’m up-and-coming. I’m not up and coming, although I do feel like this is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Watson, who co-produced his new album with Jordan Lehning. “I do feel like, as an artist and writer, I’m catching my stride.”

He also bristles at being labeled a regional artist. “We played 42 states and 11 countries in the last three or four years, so if I am a regional artist, I guess it’s this region of the solar system called Earth because we’ve played everywhere,” he says with a laugh. “I think it’s silly to try to put music in a box and call it regional.”

Though he’s generated enough success for major labels to come calling, Watson plans to remain independent, sign other acts and grow his label. “I truly believe that our record label is going to grow into something that is a force to be reckoned with,” he says of the company, which is distributed by Warner-owned Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA). “With my experience of touring and being an independent artist for all these years, I think I can share a lot of things with younger artists that can make them better. I want to show them a business model where they can still achieve their dreams even if a major label doesn’t want anything to do with them. And I don’t have a problem with the major labels. For the longest time I wished someone would have called me, but I was independent the first 15 years out of survival because it’s what I had to do to continue to chase my dream. Now I’m independent by choice.”

He adds that the advantages to being independent are obvious. “All the proceeds from this record, every last penny, is going straight into my wife’s purse,” he laughs mischievously. “That is one of the benefits for being married to an independent artist.”

With Red Bandana, Watson has created a country music manifesto, a personal collection of songs that reflect both life on the road and life with his wife and kids on his ranch in Buffalo Gap, Texas. “I wanted fans to be able to look into the window of my soul and I wanted it to be cinematic,” the 41-year-old says. “I love Pink Floyd records [and] how they connect tracks, so the albums just continue to flow. The album is one giant continuous track. There’s segments known as songs, but it’s continuous. It’s the same thing that the Beach Boys did on Pet Sounds and the Beatles on Abbey Road where one song just flows into another. I wanted people to sit down with this record and next thing they know they are like, ‘Oh my word! I’m on track 14!’” 

Watson was adamant about staying true to himself while also capitalizing on inroads he made at country radio with the last album. “I wanted it to be western. I wanted it to be country. I wanted it to be cowboy, but at the same time there is stuff on there that is mainstream and can rival anything on country radio,” he says, “but we did it in a manner in which we still stay true to our brand.  I spent so much time with these songs. This is the first album in my career that I’ve released that is following up an album that had top 10 radio success. It was important to me that we put out something that would make a statement and something that would be bigger and better than anything I’ve ever done, and at the same time I wanted it to be unique and different.”

Red Bandana is definitely different, and Watson is proud of it. “I kick off the album with a song called ‘Ghost of Guy Clark,’ and it doesn’t even have a chorus, and the second song is an instrumental,” he says. “I want people to put in this record and go, ‘Wow! This is unique.’ I did little things, like I recorded my grandmother’s wind chimes. I recorded my dad’s old AM/FM radio that he and I listened to growing up. I recorded the train that passes by my ranch. I wanted this album to be home. I wanted it to be heart. I wanted it to be me.”

One of the songs that’s closest to him is “Riding with Red,” a tribute to singer/songwriter/cowboy poet Red Stegall. “Red is like John Wayne mixed with Johnny Cash mixed with Billy Graham mixed with all those good feelings you felt about your granddaddy. That’s Red,” he says of his friend. “I was on a horseback ride with Red two years ago and we were just riding through the hills of Montana, mountains in the background. The sun was setting. It was surreal. He was sharing story after story with me--some about music and love and faith, stories about life. We got back to the ranch house and I got out my pen and paper and I started working on this song.”

Watson closes the album with “58,” a salute to those who died in the 2017 Route 91 Harvest festival shooting in Las Vegas. “I wanted it to be a song that let all of the families of the victims know that it’s been a year and a half and that we still think about them. We still keep them in our thoughts and prayers,” he says. “And I wanted the song not to just be called ‘58,’ but I wanted the song to be just 58 seconds long, too.”

Mortality was on his mind, in more ways than one, as he recorded Red Bandana. “I made this record with the mindset of, 'What if this is the last one? What if?’” he says. “You don’t know what God has planned. You don’t know what tomorrow might hold. Life is fragile. Life is short. So I made this record with the mindset of, ‘If this is my last album I ever get to put out, the last album my fans will ever get from me, the last album my children will ever hear their father record, what am I going to say? What message am I going to leave behind?’ That really changed everything for me.”

Obviously, Watson is hoping for a strong reception, but is realistic about the life of an indie artist. “I really feel that it’s taking me a long time to feel where my place is in country music, but for me, I’m totally content, happy and so blessed,” he says. “I’m content with knowing I’ll probably never win any awards. I’ll probably never get recognized for certain things that certain artists get recognized for. I’m an independent artist and that’s just kind of the way the cookie crumbles, but I’m content with that because I feel like my calling is to make music that has meaning.”

Watson shares a story about a young man who came up to him after he performed on the Grand Ole Opry to tell him that he struggles with depression and PTSD. “He said, ‘I want you to know that your song "Trying Like the Devil" has really helped me out with some of my suicidal thoughts and some of the struggles that I’ve been having.’ Is that not better than winning any award?” Watson says. “People tell me, ‘Your music has been like physical therapy to me.’ I love country music fans. I love fans of all genres.  I love it when someone comes up to me and says, ‘I don’t really like country music but man, I love your music.’ I love the fans. I played so long without any that now that I have some I just can’t get enough of them and I just can’t love them enough.”