After years of hitting the concert circuit hard and making his music, Watson reached stardom while staying true to himself — and keeping it all very country.
The name of Aaron Watson’s latest album, The Underdog, will never again apply to the West Texas native after that record landed at No. 1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart this past February. The unexpected commercial splash gave Watson a new title: the first independent male artist to ever land a Billboard No. 1 Country Album. It’s not that Watson was a fresh-faced new artist just surging out of the gate on the strength of a hit single that took the country by storm, mind you. He’s been a pretty big deal to many for years now.
“I’m just very thankful,” Watson says after hitting the gym during a rare day off from the touring circuit. “It’s one of those things where I was affected the most not as an artist, but as a daddy and a husband. Music is the family business, and having a No. 1 country record is really good for the family, and that’s really the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news about the album.”
And as celebrated as Watson’s brand of uptempo traditional country music is in Texas and surrounding areas — in the previous couple of months, Watson has played in 10 different states — he’s long been a musical hero on the rodeo circuit. And the admiration is certainly mutual.
“We play tons of rodeos throughout the year,” he says. “And we love being surrounded by good people. These cowboys and cowgirls are first class people, and I’m proud to be associated with them, and honored that so many of them have supported my career for so many years.”
Watson didn’t grow up on the back of a bull, as he focused on baseball during his younger days in Amarillo, but he’s as country as they come these days. A standard day off for him often requires the bottle-feeding of a pygmy goat and making sure the horses on his property are properly fed. Unlike so many Top 40 pop-country acts, Watson backs up every word when he uses his favored hashtag of #PuttingCowboyBackInCountry when taking to social media outlets.
It’s hard to imagine the skinny jean-wearing, hip-hop loving stars of mainstream country radio knowing who the legendary Lane Frost is. But Watson is not only familiar with the epic legacy of one of the greatest rodeo cowboys in history, he has written arguably his greatest song, “July in Cheyenne (Song for Lane’s Momma),” about the near-mythical Frost, who died in the ring after being hit by a bull he had just triumphantly rode in 1989.
In one of his greatest career highlights, Watson performed the song during his set in the NFR opening ceremonies in 2013 in front of Lane’s parents, Elsie and Clyde. The song is a sweeping, gut-wrenching, and beautiful ode. And as it happens, it means more to Watson than is apparent from the surface. The creation and inspiration of this stellar song helped Watson get back up on his musical horse again after the death of his prematurely born daughter, Julia Grace, mere hours after her birth in 2011.
“That song has become an anthem, especially when we play it at the NFR,” Watson says. “For so many people, that song is only about Lane Frost, but for me, it has a little different meaning. It’s the first song I wrote after my wife and I lost our little girl Julia Grace. The song was an answered prayer because I was struggling and heartbroken and homesick. I couldn’t write a song to save my life, and after months of going through all of that, I hung my guitar up on the wall, and I said a simple prayer. ‘God, if this is what you want me to do, then I sure could use some help.’ Not long after that I heard some things about what Lane’s momma said about him, and how he accepted Jesus into his life a year before he died, and it refocused my eyes on my own faith, and I was able to write that song for Lane’s momma right then and there.”
For now, as Watson gets ready to play his much-anticipated show at this year’s NFR in Las Vegas — a trip he and his wife take together as a sort of “annual honeymoon” — he’s not worried about being an underdog, or climbing the ladder of country music stardom. He’s already working on his next album and making sure he stays true to his country roots.
“I’m not paying attention to what anyone else is doing around me anymore,” he says confidently. “I’m really cutting my own path now after all of these years.”