When Aaron Watson’s “Outta Style” peaked at No. 10 on the Country Airplay chart dated Dec. 30, 2017, its 50-week climb set a record for the slowest trip to the upper tier. The pace was emblematic of Watson’s longtime persistence as an artist: He might have been a newcomer to mainstream country radio last year, but he’d built a solid touring base on his Texas foundation after releasing his debut album in 1999.
“In the history of country music, I don’t think there’s ever been an artist who has been so excited about having a top 10 single,” says Watson. “We celebrated more over my top 10 single that took me 20 years to get than any artist celebrated a No. 1 hit this year, I guarantee it. I mean, we’re talking Blue Bell Ice Cream — it got crazy at the Watson house.”
“Run Wild Horses,” his follow-up single, owes its existence to another form of crazy at the Watson house. It’s a thinly veiled celebration of sex for a couple that has, like Watson’s career, stayed committed over the long haul.
“It’s not about sex,” he insists. “It’s about making love.”
“Run Wild Horses” dates to the late spring or early summer of 2015, barely two months after Watson’s The Underdog debuted at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart dated March 7, 2015. Recognizing that his career had hit a new peak, he was inspired to capitalize and went on a focused songwriting tear. During that stretch, he took his wife of nearly 15 years, Kimberly, to their favorite restaurant — the Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap, Texas (a visit to that eatery similarly inspired “Outta Style”) — and the personal time helped them rekindle some of the passion that typically takes a backseat to their three children, ages 8-11.
“There’s not a lot of time for the more intimate side of the relationship,” he says. “We’ve got baseball, we’ve got ballet, we’ve got church — it’s like every night there’s something. Every once in a while, I have to go, ‘Time out.’ I call my mom and my dad, like, ‘Hey, can you watch the kids? I need to take Kimberly out on a hot date.’ ”
The night after their celebration, he recounted it in a solo songwriting session, turning the Perini ranchland setting into a metaphor for the romance they’d experienced: “Somewhere on a nowhere road, I hear you whisper this/Slow that Mustang down, come on and steal my kiss.”
He kept the musical undercurrent simple: just two alternating chords and a Motown-inspired guitar riff.
“They say that country music is three chords and the truth, but ‘Run Wild Horses’ is just two chords and sexy,” says Watson with a laugh. “My wife rolls her eyes when she hears me say that.”
A week or so later, on May 26, 2015, Watson played the historic Troubadour in Los Angeles, and he spent some time hanging out in the city with his band. The women were living up to Brian Wilson’s “I wish they all could be California girls” portrait of Hollywood, yet Watson felt all their packaging fell short of the standards his wife had set back home.
“I’m looking at all these girls, and you know every one of them took four hours to get ready,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘Those girls don’t have anything on my girl.’ Kimberly wakes up in the morning, and she looks amazing to me.”
That inspired the song’s Sunset Strip-centered second verse. Finally, he added a bridge that momentarily changed the chord progression and slowed the phrasing to a languid pace before kicking back into its soaring chorus one last time.
“The first verse is how it was when we first met: that passion, young lovers out on a dirt road, not a care in the world,” says Watson. “The second verse is all the distractions that I have around me, but nothing compares to her. And then that bridge, it’s like, ‘Let’s make time for each other.’ It’s definitely a love-making song.”
When he began working on his follow-up album, Vaquero, Watson played “Horses” in June 2016 for producer Marshall Altman (Frankie Ballard, Eric Paslay), who immediately identified with its hooky chorus and raw emotion.
“He wanted this to feel sexy and a little bit reckless and a little bit dangerous,” says Altman. “Those were all the elements that we focused on in this song.”
Altman mixed veteran studio musicians — fiddler Glen Duncan, steel guitarist Russ Pahl, guitarist Pat McGrath and keyboard player Tony Harrell — with a trio of newer studio cats: guitarist Rob McNelley, drummer Jerry Roe and bass player Tony Lucido. On day one, they tracked “They Don’t Make ’Em Like They Used To,” then turned their attention to “Run Wild Horses,” cutting it at 93 beats per minute. But it felt a little too pop, and the crew adjourned, knowing that it hadn’t really hooked the song.
Watson chewed on it repeatedly at his Nashville hotel room that night, listening for a time to The Rolling Stones and connecting dots between “Run Wild Horses” and All the Pretty Horses, which features a soundtrack produced by Marty Stuart.
“The opening scene of that movie has these wild horses running, and there’s these flashes of light, and it’s just a beautiful scene,” says Watson. “It’s like you see a horse saddled, but it’s nothing compared to when they’re just free together.”
At the next day’s session, they pulled the tempo back one bpm, and Watson asked McNelley to channel Keith Richards. With those changes, “Horses” took on a grittier, more driving tone with a lengthy guitar solo that stretched the track to more than five minutes.
“The groove on that song is deep, and when Rob started on that solo, it just felt like magic,” says Altman. “Why stop him? So we waved him on. Aaron and I looked at each other, and we were like, ‘Keep going! Let’s just keep going!’ ”
Duncan’s fiddle created a sundown atmosphere, and Altman later stacked harmonies underneath to create a richer feel.
“Right out of the gate, ‘Horses’ was a strong contender for us,” says CDA Entertainment president Gino Genaro, who manages Watson. “We thought it was a really special song, and even when we played it for different people before the record was out, it was one that people really, really gravitated toward.”
A simple edit pared the intro from 30 seconds to 10 and snipped McNelley’s vamp, bringing the radio version in at 3:12. Big Label sent it to broadcasters via PlayMPE on Jan. 10, and it debuted at No. 60 on the Country Airplay chart dated March 4. Despite its adult subject matter, “Horses” is family friendly: Watson’s daughter interprets it as a song about kissing.
“I tried to write this song with some kind of code language so if a mom is taking her kids to school and ‘Run Wild Horses’ comes on the radio, she doesn’t have to explain certain lyrics to her second grader,” says Watson. “They think it’s a song about horses running, but the mom, she totally knows what the song is about.”
It has Kimberly Watson’s approval, but she’s not the only female who appreciates its slightly disguised message.
“All year long, I’ve had high school girls, college girls, moms, grandmas, tell me that my next single needs to be ‘Run Wild Horses,’ ” says Watson. “And everybody knows that women are always right. Right?”