Photography: Joseph Llanes

No longer an underdog, this pioneering independent Texas country artist is creating his own path with his newest, Vaquero.

A dozen albums and some 20 years into his career, Aaron Watson had some pretty significant firsts with his 2015 album, The Underdog. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Country albums chart, the first of his records to reach beyond No. 9. It also marked the first time a male singer has ever debuted at the top spot on the country chart with a self-released and independently distributed and promoted album, and he’s only the second artist in history to do so, following Martina McBride with her Everlasting in 2014.

But to hear Watson tell it, outdoing The Underdog’s chart feat wasn’t on his mind when he set out to create its follow-up. Interrupting his shopping trip to buy baseball cleats for his sons, C&I caught up with him by phone earlier this month to discuss Vaquero, out February 24.

“It was a really special moment,” he says of the phone call from his manager two years ago giving him the good news. “I enjoyed the moment for a little while. Then I became so overwhelmed by the love and support from the fans and all the blessings God’s given me. Then it hit me, like, Wow, if I’m going to top this, I’ve got my work cut out for me. I started writing songs that very night. The challenge to make a better record than The Underdog is what fueled my next couple years.”

Watson says he wrote around 100 songs, approaching songwriting like both a job and a conjuring of the muse. He would wake up early and go to his office every morning to work on his product, but he would scribble down ideas whenever inspiration struck, whether it was in church or in the middle of the night.

He resisted suggestions to make his sound more mainstream, less Red Dirt. The result is a proudly, distinctly Texan country album reflective of all the musical influences the Lone Star State provides, melded together like a simmering pot of chili. And just as chili gets its kick from hot peppers, Vaquero’s musical ingredients include Tejano rhythms and accordion melodies.

“Any time we get to share a stage with a Tejano band, it just makes my day,” he says. “I’m a big fan of that genre of music. Just like you can’t talk about the American cowboy without mentioning the vaquero, you can’t talk about Texas music without talking about Tejano.

Watson enlisted Marshall Altman to coproduce Vaquero, and he says Altman pushed him to work the hardest ever has on a record.

“I told Marshall from the beginning that I don’t need help making a country album,” Watson says. “I can make country music all day long. What I need is a producer who is going to produce me to be the best singer, songwriter, performer, artist I can be.”

Watson jokingly compared the nine-month process to the joys and pains of pregnancy of childbirth. And like any loving parent, he’s proud of the result regardless of how successful it turns out to be.

“The day after the album comes out, if it just flops, there may be disappointment, but I’m going to sleep good that night because I’ll find comfort that I gave my very best effort,” he says. “That’s the same advice I gave my two little boys last fall when they were playing in their championship fall-ball game.”