Aaron Watson Talks Hitting #1 with “The Underdog”

aaron-watson-the-underdog“My name is Aaron Watson. I’m not played on country radio. And I have the #1 record in country music this week. I do exist.”

This was Aaron Watson’s reaction to the comments of Sony Records Nashville CEO Gary Overton, who said earlier this week, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” But overall the Texas country star took a much more humble, appreciative, and inclusive tone.

Whether it’s irony or poetry that an album titled The Underdog is the #1 album in all of country music right now, and #8 overall with 26,340 units sold, it’s certainly sweet news to the fans who’ve been with Aaron through 12 albums, 15 years, and over 2,000 shows, sticking with the more traditionally-oriented country star through thick and thin, and now finally emerging on top after all this time.

There was concern when Billboard changed its rules at the end of 2014 to include streaming numbers in the album chart formula that these album success stories would start to become fewer and more far between. But so far in 2015, it has been anything but from the strong showing by independent artists. From Blackberry Smoke claiming last week’s #1, to Sturgill Simpson cresting the 100,000 mark, and now Aaron Watson walking away with the top spot, independent music is on a winning streak.

To put the achievement in perspective, appreciate that The Underdog sold nearly 4-times the amount of albums as The Mavericks’ Mono album released by Big Machine Records on the same day, and from a sensational act that like many independent artists, relies on solid album sales. It’s not often we talk about an artist launching their career in earnest in their mid 30’s, but add Aaron Watson to a list that also includes Brandy Clark and Sturgill Simpson.

“I’m no rock star,” Aaron says humbly as he took some time to speak about his #1 achievement.

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What does it mean to you to have the #1 record in all of country music?

It’s kind of hard to put into words. I’m a little overwhelmed by the thought of that. I can say that I’m just incredibly thankful and gracious. It’s tough when you start thinking about how it’s taken me 15 years, 12 albums, and 2,000 shows to get here, it makes for a pretty neat story. What’s funny is, obviously I’m excited, but the part I’m most excited for is all the people around me who’ve been working so hard for all of these years. It’s a huge victory for them. Personally, I don’t really get too wrapped up in awards and chart positions and stuff like that. My award is being blessed with the opportunity to make a good living for my family. I love music. To be at the top of that list for one week, I feel incredibly blessed.

You get to live the dream a lot of people can’t, and so when you get one of these achievements, it’s something so many people share together. It’s not just you. It’s something a collective community that has coagulated around music or an artist gets to share in.

If you look at my career and the fact that I have no mainstream radio support, I can go on and on about how God has blessed me with the best fans in the world, and they take it personal to see me succeed. A lot of people can relate to me because I’m just a regular guy out there trying to make a living for my family. Mainstream music has never embraced me. It’s been a discouraging relationship, if you could even call it a relationship. But at the end of the day, like with anyone that has a dream, are you going to let someone’s discouragement be the obstacle that keeps you from going after your dream? I just look back at my career and see all the doors that God has opened, and all the different people he’s blessed me with, and who have taught me things along the way. And to be so deep into my career and feel like I’m just getting started, that is a great feeling. I feel the best is yet to come. I’m excited about this record, but I’ve kind of even more excited about the next record I’ve already started to write.

Getting to work with a guy like Keith Stegall. It was like getting my Master’s Degree in music. Getting to experience the way he makes music, I kind of feel like I was the young apprentice. Sometimes people think because I’m an independent artist from Texas that I’m anti Nashville, and I’m anti mainstream. But I was raised on a lot of George Strait records that were all made in Nashville, TN.  So was Keith Whitley, and so was Alan Jackson. I’m a big fan of Merle Haggard, and Willie and Waylon. Really, in the past it’s been Nashville hasn’t wanted much to do with me. I’ve never been the one out there throwing around fighting words.

My deal is I have to stay true to myself and my music, and through that I have these principles that I stand on. And when I’m making a record, I have to ask myself, “Am I staying true to my faith in God? Am I staying true to my family, and am I staying true to my fans?” If any decision I’m making betrays one of those pillars, then it’s not something that I should be doing. I want my music to be a positive influence on people, that helps people get through some tough times. That’s what I live for.

I had a kid come up to me last week in Lubbock, and we we’re doing all of these CD release signings in store and all of these CD release parties. He came up to me and said, “Hey, I got the record, and I just got to say that I listened to the title track ‘The Underdog’ and have been reading about your story. And I’ve been trying to get into medical school and keep getting turned down, and had kind of given up on my dream of being a doctor. But I’m not going to give up on that. This inspired me to get back in the game.”

That’s what this is really about. Everybody loves the underdog.

You said you receive no mainstream radio play, and a few days ago the CEO of Sony Music Nashville was quoted saying, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” As someone on the outside looking in to radio play, what do you think about that statement, especially sitting on the perch of your #1 album?

I think that’s A: It’s a very inaccurate statement. And B: I think Gary Overton is saying that because this week is the big CRS week in Nashville, so maybe he was saying that because every country radio show has shown up in Nashville this week. But I would also say, “My name is Aaron Watson. I’m not played on country radio. And I have the #1 record in country music this week. I do exist. And I also run a multi-million dollar business that employs up to 20 people.” And I would also say that for a little family in Abilene, TX, they think their daddy is the best country singer since Hank Williams. So I do exist. I just think that’s a very narrow-minded way of looking at things.

If you look at the chart right now, you seem me, and then you see a guy like Sam Hunt. Now a lot of people would assume that a traditionalist like me would not like Sam Hunt. But I’m going to surprise you. I have his record, it has some really cool moments, there’s some really good songwriting in that record. It’s also the most un-country record I’ve ever heard—I’ll be honest about that. But if Sam Hunt is making the music inside Sam Hunt’s heart, then who am I to say whether it’s good or not? So I think it’s cool that there can be a guy like Sam Hunt, and a guy like Aaron Watson, a guy like Luke Bryan, a guy like Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell. It doesn’t mean I’m listening to Sam hunt in my truck. But I try to just stay away from the me vs. them. I took this record and I let every label in town have an opportunity to listen to it, and it wasn’t their cup of tea.

I’ve never been able to depend on the mainstream, and I am very content with where I’m at. But I’ll also say that I’m running a business here, and how awesome would it be to be able to share my music with a bigger audience? Now if you tell me that for me to have those opportunities that I’m going to have to change myself, then I’m not interested in that. It’s not about a record deal, it’s about the record. It’s about the music.

Even though you don’t have a lot of mainstream radio support, you do have a lot of support on Texas radio.

Absolutely. Texas radio has been huge for us. What’s been cool is because of Texas radio jumping on board, there are stations around the entire country that are digging what we’re doing. From coast to coast, we have these stations that are going above and beyond to support my music. Those are the people I’m most excited for this record. Maybe they’re not those Top 40 guys. That mentality is why I have the #1 record in country this week. It’s the same mentality all the fans have. They take it personal to see that I succeed. I’m not a rock star. I hang out after every show, and hug, shake hands, and thank fans for supporting me. I think I have such a great appreciation for for my fans and the radio stations that play me because I understand how blessed I am to have them because I understand how hard they are to come by. If I was 20-years-old, and someone gave me a record deal, two tour buses, and I instantly had hits, how can that person appreciate the situation compared to me, who it’s taken 15 years? Right now, I just wish I could hug everybody.

We’ll you have hugged everybody, and you have shaken their hands. It was just vice versa.

You know what, they’re hugging me back. This week, all my fans and the radio stations that play me, they’re hugging me back.

And you know, I’ll say some things. I’ll put some hashtags where I’m like “Put cowboy back in country music” or “say no to skinny jeans.” Those things I say out of fun. I don’t have anything against the Bro-Country thing. Some of those songs are pretty cool. I think I wish the mainstream music world would be a little more open-minded to artists that have different styles. If I was to critique the mainstream scene it would be, “You know guys, it’s pretty narrow minded to expect every artist to write that kind of song, or sing that way, or dress that kind of way.” I’m mean do we really just want one flavor of jelly here? Can we have a few other favors?

It’s always been a fight more for diversity and balance, because it can swing the other way too. If you all you had was really hardline traditional country music on mainstream radio, that’s not going to get the job done either.

Absolutely, you hit the nail on the head. If every artist was like Sturgill Simpson, would Sturgill be doing what he’s doing right now? All these artists in the end are just out there trying to provide for their families, and pay off their wife’s credit card just like me.

How much has the rodeo community played into your success?

It’s been huge. I love the rodeo and I have lots of friends on that circuit. At the National Finals Rodeo in Vegas, I play there every year, so you have hundreds of thousands of people who come in from all around the country and they get to hear me play, and then they go back to their corners of the worlds, and that’s helping me plant seeds in other regions. Plus there’s nothing more fun than fairs and rodeos.

Over the last 15 years, have many times have you pondered quitting music, at least as a full time pursuit?

Never. It’s what I do. I’m a country singer. You can tell me that I’m not good enough for the mainstream, but you can’t tell me that I’m not a country music singer. About 3 1/2 years ago, my wife and I, we lost a little girl shortly after she was born. That knocked my feet out from under me for a while, just because I was heartbroken and homesick, and getting up on a stage and singing to people having fun, it was a struggle. But one night I just said a little prayer. I said, “God, if this is what you want me to do for a living, I could sure use your help.” Honestly, from that moment on I felt a huge difference in my attitude. We’ve had a lot of success since then. You do it because you love it. You don’t do it to get rich or famous. You do it because you have to, because it’s part of you. I’m just thankful that God has blessed me with the opportunity to do something that I love, and I will never ever ever take that for granted. I will never take my fans for granted, and I will never take one single spin on radio for granted.