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The American Interview | Aaron Watson
He's all about Texas!
Aaron Watson is quietly building a big following in Britain. Unlike many country musicians who head this way across the pond he's not a coulda-come-from-anywhere, one style suits all country-pop singer who's blanded out his roots for maximum appeal. He's not even what you might call 'generic Southern'. No sir, Aaron is a Texan, through and through. To kill any doubts he's from Amarillo, his band's called the Orphans of the Brazos (named for the river that flows for 1,280 miles, exclusively through the Lone Star State), he has one album called Texas Cafe and another, The Honky Tonk Kid, that was produced by Western Swing supremo Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel and featured Ray's buddy Willie Nelson as guest singer.
The American met up with Aaron before his recent headline tour and his biggest appearance in Britain so far where he headlined at The Long Road festival. He'd just flown in to London - literally, as he'd come off the plane after a ten hour flight direct to the interview.
So Aaron, thanks for doing this – how's the jetlag?
Oh, that's OK! We played a little rodeo in Arkansas once then went up to Ohio and we were on that bus for thirteen hours straight so this is fine.
You have the feel of Texas dirt about you – and I mean that in a good way! You've never thought of moving to Nashville or LA?
No, I'm from West Texas, the Panhandle. It's the most northern part of the state, but they don't call it North Texas, it's West Texas and I have no idea why! I grew up in Amarillo and had a wonderful childhood. My dad's a disabled veteran, he had a cleaning business and I was always with Dad, working. My mom's a school teacher. They've always been so supportive of me in any adventure, whether it was sports or music. I have to give Dad half the credit for the music, he has an incredible vinyl record collection. He raised me on Willie, Waylon, The Stones, The Beatles, Sinatra, Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills… My mom encouraged me to sing at church. No-one else played music much. When I went to college I started playing more, and I worked two jobs. I was working the grounds, mowing and such around the campus, and I was waiting tables at a restaurant. I got asked if I'd want to play music at a private party – they paid me 600 dollars and I played for thirty minutes. I'd have to work all month for $600, it was inside, it wasn't hot, I wasn't in the dirt… But the part of music I fell in love with was the songwriting. I don't even know what comes second.
I'm a good acoustic player but I've never really enjoyed the guitar. My oldest boy Jake, that kid plays circles around me already. He's playin' Mark Knopfler, some heavy stuff for a twelve year old! But he enjoys it. For me it's always been about the melody and the lyric.
The guitar's there to support the song, not the other way round?
Absolutely. Writing a song is my favorite thing. We live out in the middle of the country and there's a little lake behind the house. I wake up early in the morning and I get the yellows and oranges and reds of that West Texas sunrise reflecting off the lake. Just being there with my guitar, it's like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.
It took me a long time to get to where I am now. Our last three albums charted Top 10. The Underdog was the first independent album to chart Number 1 nationwide in the history of country music and our last record, Vaquero, outsold The Underdog. But I think the secret to my success for those there albums is that somewhere in the last three or four years I stopped chasing after that hit and I started chasing after my heart.
Despite social media and the internet the big record companies still have a lot of power. Why have you stuck to doing it as an independent?
Back in the beginning I had the opportunity to maybe go some different routes with some major labels but the stars never lined up, and also I never felt I could go that route and stay true to who I am. There's been a lot of discussions. I've written songs with a lot of great songwriters, and a lot of times people say, we need a hit, we need to write something like that song on the radio… I'm like, somebody already wrote that song! We need to write our song. The problem with writing the latest flavor of the month is that by the time you've finished the song and recorded it, that was the flavor of the month several months back. Staying independent has allowed me to stay true to my brand of country music. The goal is to make good music, and the flavors of our music is fiddles and steel guitar and Telecaster, but you can find so many different flavors within it. When I go in the studio I might go, “I don't want that real twangy Tele, I want that more gritty, Keith Richards Tele this time.”
I've always loved the independence of playing Texas music. For the longest time people tried to put me in a box because of that, so I was a regional act. Now when they do, I jokingly say yep, I am a regional act, in the region of our Solar System known as Earth. Music is universal – we've had a lot of success over here in the UK because people can identify with my songs. If it's a Texas boy writing a song from his heart about the girl he loves, it's the same feeling that a boy in London would feel about his girl. The songs I've written about loss and heartbreak, it's the same human emotions that we all have.
Are British audiences different to American ones?
Without a doubt they're as competitive as any audience. The appreciation for the songs, it really blows me away. I'm always shocked at how in depth they are – they ask me about “in the second verse when you said this..”. In the States we get a little spoiled 'cos there's so much live music. Maybe it's more of a treat here? In the UK they might almost scoff at pop-country. There's a real appreciation for tradition and I think that's one reason we fit in well here. It's like Dale Watson – he and I aren't related – he comes over here and does great things. He's so traditional, he's got that Merle Haggard thing going' on. He's one of the greatest vocalists of all time. I think he was born about twenty years too late! I like the passion for the real thing that we find over here.
There's such a Transatlantic thing in music – a lot of American blues rock guys say that Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton are big influences. Would you say country music's the same way? A lot of it's based on old English, Scottish and European folk tunes.
Oh, absolutely, and I'm sure it's like a broken record with people talking about The Beatles, but my dad's given me all his old vinyl Beatles records. What is it about that 50 year old music that my little boys, ten and twelve years old, can put the records on and it still gets to them? That was a special time in music where there was a lot to sing about, a lot to be discovered. I got so inspired when I went and saw Sir Paul McCartney play in Omaha, Nebraska. Just the diversity of his songs. I kind of got into this thing where everything I was writing had lots of depth, very heavy, and Paul has a lot of that, but then he has the fun stuff too. If you wanna have a wonderful dinner, you gotta have all different flavors in there – you can't just have steak, and more steak, and more steak. It's neat how artists are inspired by each other.
And The Beatles were inspired by the blues and rock & roll, and country – they did Buck Owens tunes…
And Buddy Holly, yeah, these boys from the UK inspired by kids from over in the States and then bouncing stuff back across the pond. That's a great example that music is universal, that heart and soul, you can't put that in a box.
So let's say you're universal, but grounded in Texas?
I like that!
And you're donating $1.41 from every sale of the new album to the Hurricane Harvey appeal, supporting the Rebuild Texas fund? [The $.41 represents the 41 counties that were most affected - ed]
Yes sir. My mom's from Houston and we grew up going there every summer, we spent a lot of time along the Texas coast. That's the region that got hit so hard, there was billions of dollars of damage, millions of people affected, you're not going to recover from that in just one year. We recorded the live album, Live at the World's Biggest Rodeo Show at the Houston Rodeo. Music's a wonderful platform to do good things with, and God's blessed me with this opportunity where I can give back. And really, it's effortless. We play charity shows and people are thanking me so much – I'm kinda like, no, thank you for the opportunity – I just get up there and sing a few songs. So many of those people have done so much for me, I owe it to them.
Is this similar to what JJ Watts is doing?
Yeah, except for I think he's raised about ten billion dollars! [laughs] It's coming from the same place – I think what he's done for Texas is amazing. He's an honorary Texan if there ever was one. He is just a great human being. And I'm sure the team is glad to have him back!
You've said that you're influenced by classic country singers like George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson, but you've also worked with Willie, quite early in your career – how did that happen?
Oh yeah! I was working with Ray Benson from Asleep at the Wheel, and I wrote this song, 'Honky Tonk Kid' and Ray said boy, this reminds me of an old Willie Nelson song. A few weeks later he was at Willie's house and they were shooting pool – I don't know what that means, it might be a code word for somethin'! - and Ray said that he'd brought the rough demos that we had cut at his studio, They were listening to my record, and the record played two or three times over, and Willie said he liked that song. Ray told me that he said, “If you like it so much you should sing on it” and Willie agreed to it. I'll never be able to thank Willie enough – I've told him thanks several times but I'll never be able to repay him for that. What a dream come true. We didn't record it in the studio at the same time – I don't think I could have handled that, you know. But my dad is a huge Willie fan. He used to go see Willie before he was 'Willie', back when he had short hair. When Willie played on that song I drove five hours to my mom and dad's just so I could play it to him. I said dad, you gotta sit down and listen to this. I'll never forget that moment – he put his arm around me, he was so proud and it made me feel so good. My mom and dad have always been so supportive of me and my music. Now that I'm a father I think I know how my dad felt.
Maybe your boy will play with Mark Knopfler.
Most likely, yeah. I'll probably be opening up for him in a few years!
There's another influence in your life, the church, which gave you a lot of your musical background as well as personal.
Yessir. I give dad half the credit, with his wide variety of records, and then mom always encouraged me to sing in church. Singing those old gospel songs, they're so well written with such great melodies and there's a lot of soul in those songs. It gave me a great foundation. At the time I don't know what it was doing for me but looking back it had a great influence on who I am today. And using my music to bring some joy into some people's lives… there's a lot of people out there having hard times. Maybe by me sharing my story, some of my heartache and struggles, and my faith and how my love for Jesus helped me get through some really tough times, I might say something that helps somebody get over their hard times. I try to give back to these fans 'cos they're taking care of me.
People in the UK don't talk about religion a lot – it's like Prime Minister Tony Blair's adviser told him, “we don't do God”.
Well we do God. I don't talk much about politics, I never run down my country. I always tell people I'd rather talk about Jesus or baseball! Things that are important to me. I'll share my love for God on stage. At one of our first shows in Manchester I was talking about how me and my wife lost a little girl shortly after she was born. After the show an older man came up and told me that he'd had a really bad experience at the Catholic church that he went to and that had turned him away from God. I said, don't let some man turn you away from God. He was in tears, and I just gave him a big ol' hug, I just loved on him.
Your song 'That's Why God Loves Cowboys' [1.6m YouTube views and counting – ed], a lot of people would make it ironic, but not you – it sounds like it's from your heart.
Yeah, and after I finish that song I always say, “God loves everybody”.
Now, you mentioned your wife, Kimberly.
Yep, the boss!
She's in the video for your new single, 'Run Wild Horses'. There's two things about this. You mentioned 'pop country' - and the song feels kinda pop but still 'real country', which is a good trick to pull off.
Well here's the origin of that song. I came up with a little guitar riff, then I got this idea for the song, and I was working on it late one night . The next morning I was taking the kids to school and Kimberly was in the kitchen making breakfast. I said, I wrote you a song, would you like to hear it? I sang it to her and she loved it but she was a little embarrassed – she said 'it seems a little graphic', and I said there's all these young stars singing about how they love this girl or that girl at a party. I'm singing about a real woman who's put up with me for 15 years and given birth to all my kids. You need a love song that puts you on a pedestal,that lets the whole world know that you've still got it, you're amazing! It's not the typical song I write – it has two chords! - and I did not like the first way we cut it when we went in the studio. We cut it again the next day and I had my guys listen to The Rolling Stones' 'Miss You', you know that “doo, oooh oooh oooh” part, we got that soulful bluesy thing going… We were playing it in Baltimore and one of the program directors there said he liked it, that it had a new thing going on, but an old school thing too, and then there were these two huge bouncers, big ol' black dudes who looked like they played football for one of the colleges around there, and they could not get enough of this song. I loved that the old white guy liked it and these two young stud football players liked it!
I guess you've already explained this, but in the video, you don't have a bunch of young models dancing around, Kimberly's in it, because it's all about her.
The guy who did the video had a couple different storylines that were so complicated, with this girl and a guy… I said, on our ten year anniversary I set up this little area on our ranch, and it surprised her, so we re-enacted that – we shot it at this little restaurant near our ranch, we eat there all the time, and I just called them and asked if we could shoot it at their place. I'd been playing somewhere in Pennsylvania on a Sunday night and I flew back to Texas early in the morning, I hardly slept at all. I got home just in time to get the kids at school, then I took Jake, Jack and Jolee Kate home, had a snack, got the boys ready for their baseball games, watched the games, came home, ate dinner, got ready – I'd slept maybe two hours – and my wife and I went to the restaurant and shot the video from 8pm to like 6am the next morning. We were delirious, but we had so much fun. I was so tired I literally couldn't strum the guitar in time.
So that soulful look on your face was actually…
Complete exhaustion, yeah! But what's funny is that it made us act a little more silly. Kimberly's story is so much better than mine – somehow that girl has 100,000 followers on Instagram, and she just posts mom stuff. People just love her – in fact I say that people like me because they love Kimberly!