The Underdog: Aaron Watson on the Good and Bad of Being an Independent Artist
There's a song called "Fence Post" on Aaron Watson's new The Underdog album that may give you the wrong impression of the Texas-bred singer. Or, it may be more autobiographical than he knows.
"Fence Post" is a story — his story — about a meeting-gone-wrong in Nashville. It's somewhat unfair to paraphrase a five-minute-long work of nonfiction in a sentence or two, but essentially the track is a message for underdogs everywhere to stay true to their dreams, even if some expensive suit in a Music Row office building tells you that you'll never make it.
That's what happened to Watson, but he's not bitter.
At the end of the day, I have a dream. If you aren’t going to be a player, then I had to figure out another way to skin that cat.
“Since having that guy pretty much stomp on my dreams, we’ve created this multi-million dollar business,” he tells Taste of Country. The track — a last-minute addition to The Underdog — has received most of the press leading up Tuesday's (Feb. 17) album release. The circumstances he describes began over a decade ago, before he'd released the majority of his 12 studio albums. Watson says he's not upset or bitter. But it's hard to ignore the chip on his shoulder.
"I’ve never thrown out any fightin’ words," the 37-year-old father of three adds. "At the end of the day, I have a dream. If you aren’t going to be a player, then I had to figure out another way to skin that cat.”
Watson remains an independent artist — by choice. When forced to decide between bending his sound to fit mainstream values and ideals and staying true to his faith, family and fans (his three Fs), he decided on the latter.
As for that chip? It may be more of a badge, one any independent artist who survives in today's musical landscape wears with pride. In addition to writing and recording the songs, touring and doing interviews, artists like Watson have one other job: everything else.
“We’ve been promoting this record, and we’ve been going hardcore where maybe the major label artist has a lot of people posting pictures and posting comments," Watson says. "That’s me. That’s me this morning waking up seeing that my record is No. 2 on the iTunes country chart, taking a screen shot of that and posting and thanking God for blessing me.”
“From day one it was like, guess who came up with the album art cover? Me. Guess who wrote 12 out of the 14 songs? Me. I’m sitting there unwrapping CDs at 2 o’clock in the morning and signing them.”
His creative spirit never hits snooze, either. Song and lyric ideas are perpetually scrolling through Watson's mind like some sort of old movie reel. The Underdog is out, but he's already got the concept for the next album. Currently he's looking for days a year away to figure out when to record.
“It really is always about the next one," he says in a voice that sounds both overly-caffeinated and careful. "Especially if you’re an independent artist, you’re only as good as your next record. That’s the truth. We live and die by putting out quality records.”
Watson says he's not bitter, but will admit he has scars. If everyone wasn't talking about "Fence Post" they'd be talking about "Bluebonnets." The song's second verse pays tribute to his late daughter, Julia Grace, whom he and his wife lost in 2011. His tone changes when he talks about her, his family and that song.
“Not long after losing Julia, we took some Easter pictures of our other three kids,"he says, explaining the poetic metaphor without prompting. "We went to the cemetery where she’s buried, kind of up in the hills near the town of Buffalo Gap."
“There were all these bluebonnet flowers and I’m staring at my three kids and they’re sitting in this field of bluebonnets and in the background I can see where we buried my daughter. It was a feeling I’ll never forget," the singer says, "Like ‘Wow, life is so fragile.’”
“We went back to the cemetery a few weeks later and the temperature had gotten hot enough that the bluebonnets had all died.”
So pack light and love heavy / Give it all your heart and soul / So in the end you won’t regret one thing / Life is like bluebonnets in the spring
The song's brilliance lies in what it's not. "Bluebonnets" isn't so personal to Watson that any country fan can't wear it as his or her own. The first verse will recall images and memories of a lost grandparent. His chorus will undress the most guarded heart.
"That Look" (about his wife) and "Getaway Truck" add some levity to the album. As a whole, The Underdog isn't nearly the roller coaster the two most memorable songs indicate. "Wildfire" may be the best song. It's certainly the one with the most commercial appeal, and no, not just because it's a John Mayer cover.
“I thought ‘I could make that one of the countriest-sounding songs you’ve ever heard,” he says.
Add Sam Hunt to the list of unexpected artists this traditional cowboy appreciates and you find a man with complexities, not a caricature. You won't find him in skinny jeans or a backwards baseball cap like Hunt or Luke Bryan, but that doesn't mean he's judging.
“Luke Bryan pulls off the skinny jeans. I don’t," Watson says. "To each his own.”
“It’d be sad if there was just one type of jelly."