The Texas troubadour talks about his latest album, Red Bandana.
Red dirt artist Aaron Watson is delivering more of his signature sound with his latest, and greatest album yet, Red Bandana.
Recently, we talked with the West Texas native about the new record and translating stories into songs, including one about another of our favorites, cowboy poet Red Steagall.
Cowboys & Indians: Congrats on the release of Red Bandana. How has the audience response been so far?
Aaron Watson: Well, the response has been great from the fans and, you know, my fans are just so loving that I sometimes wonder that if I made a bad record, I think my fans would just lie to me because they wouldn’t want to hurt my feelings. I think I’m just blessed with the best fans in the world. They’ve been so kind to me for all these years, so, I mean, their response has been phenomenal. And, of course, you know, it puts me on cloud nine to hear the songs they love and why they love them, because I make these records for my fans. But the critics have loved the record, too, and even some really tough critics. There’s a couple of guys out there [who] don’t give anybody any positive reviews, and, boy, we’ve got some really good reviews. So that’s encouraging.
I wrote all 20 songs by myself, so I think I was a little bit nervous, hoping that people would like it. I’m always excited; I’m nervous. I kind of put myself through a rollercoaster full of emotions, you know? So I’m a bit of a basket case sometimes because I just want to make music that matters, music that people can enjoy. So there’s always a little bit of excitement, but there’s also a little bit of excitement with anxiety. It’s really been fun to take these songs out on the road and play them live and just see people singing along.
C&I: You and your band are currently on tour. Has there been a song from Red Bandana that audiences have been really responsive to?
Watson: They love, of course, the single “Kiss That Girl Goodbye,” but they’ve really been wanting to hear “Dark Horse” and “Old Friend” and “Country Radio” and “Try Like the Devil.” It’s really interesting how people seem to be picking out their different favorites, which is cool.
C&I: How do you think this work compares to your last album, Vaquero, and the one before that, The Underdog?
Watson: I think with all three records there’s similarities. There’s some continuity there, but I think also, while I say there’s similarities, there’s lots of differences, lots of different flavors. And I try to always push the envelope, record songs that people think that I would never record. I try to put a wide variety of songs on the record, just to keep it entertaining and fun. But I think, you know, being that I write my songs, there’s always going to be that certain something that kind of ties all these songs together. As a producer, I try to approach songs differently with every record, just to keep it fun. I mean, I’ve been doing it for 20 years, now. Got to keep it fresh.
C&I: It seems like all of your albums have an underlying theme. What would you say the theme is for Red Bandana?
Watson: Gosh, I think my heart and soul. I think just following your heart. I just wanted these songs to be real. Some of the songs are pretty deep, but then there’s also some very lighthearted fun songs. … I wanted this album to be more like a movie soundtrack.
C&I: You wrote a song about one of our favorite cowboy poets, Red Steagall, titled “Riding With Red.” Can you tell us more about how you came up with that song? What was his response when he first heard it?
Watson: Oh, gosh. Red’s my hero. Two summers ago, Red and I were on a little trail ride and there I am, just literally riding with Red. And we’re up in the mountains of Montana and Red is sharing story after story with me and telling me lessons of life. It was just almost surreal and I was hanging on his every word. Red is full of wisdom and there’s so much you can learn from someone like Red. So I got back to the ranch house and I started writing down some ideas for the song “Riding With Red.” First of all, I loved the name or the sound of the song, ‘Riding With Red.’ It just sounds perfect, sounds like a great song already.
I wanted to write a song that would honor Red and all of those cowboys from his generation that have been such positive influences on all of us. And “Riding With Red” goes into the title track, “Red Bandana,” which is really a cowboy poem that stuck to the end of “Riding With Red.” I wanted there to be a poem there because Red’s so famous for all his poetry.
It was fun because when I sent it to Red, I said, “Red, now here’s this song I wrote you, but, Red, in the song you’re dead and I just wanted to apologize.” And he said, “No, that’s OK. That makes for a better song.” He’s just the best. He’s my hero, and when I grow up, I want to be like Red.
C&I: When you were writing the songs on this album, did you approach them differently than you normally would?
Watson: I think I was more dedicated to writing than I’ve ever been. Waking up early every morning before sunrise and before my kids got up, before my wife got up, those peaceful early mornings. I was waking up at that time every day and sitting down and working on my songs and rewriting the songs and rewriting the songs and just not being content with them, just continuously pushing myself to be a better writer. So I think over the years, I just keep pushing myself to be a better writer, a better entertainer, a better singer. I think I’m really starting to catch my stride as an artist.
C&I: Got any good back stories about other songs on the album?
Watson: Oh, yeah. You know, every song has a story. Like “Trying Like the Devil” — there was a local boy from our community that committed suicide. He was a great kid and no one knew that he was having such struggles on the inside. On the outside everything appeared to be fine. After the boy passed away, his dad came out and said, “I wish people would be more real on social media, especially celebrities, singers, actors. They always portray perfection and these kids, they don’t feel like they can live up to those standards. They feel like they’re failures.” And so I wrote “Trying Like the Devil,” which was basically a song where I just kind of expose my flaws and imperfections. ...
“Country Radio” is really a love story. It’s on Mom and Dad’s love story. It’s me being a little kid, peeking through the crack of the door and seeing them dancing in the living room to songs playing on the Grand Ole Opry.
“To Be the Moon” — I wrote that song for a little boy that I’m friends with who’s handicapped. He lives his life in a wheelchair and I wrote it from my perspective as well, where I was at the Country Music Awards and I had a situation where I kind of got treated a bit unfairly. The next day, that little boy said, “I saw you on the Country Music Awards. I want to be a star like you someday,” and I said, “Well, I’m not a star. I was around a bunch of stars, but I’m not a star.” And he said, “Well, explain. If you’re not a star, then what are you?” I said, “Well, I guess I’m more like the moon.” And at first I was just kind of being silly with him, but that idea turned into a song. You know, everybody wants to be a star, but we’re not all stars. And you know what, that’s okay. God made us all different and we’re unique. Rather than focus on what we’re not, we should focus on what we are. I think that’s a song where I wrote it for myself and anybody and everybody who has ever felt like they’re different or they don’t belong. I don’t want them to think of themselves as different. I want them to think of themselves as unique.
C&I: Was it difficult for you to translate those subjects into songs?
Watson: Oh yeah, it’s always a challenge. It’s a challenge to write a chapter in three minutes. Or really, it’s a challenge to write a book in under three minutes.
C&I: Are there any songs that didn’t make it on the album that we can expect to hear maybe on another album sometime soon?
Watson: Oh, man, there’s so many ideas that they just didn’t materialize and I’m already working on them now, because I’m planning on going to the studio the first part of this next year, January 2020. I’m already ready to go record another record. I’m always writing. It’s my passion and it’s my hobby.
C&I: We loved your Christmas album, An Aaron Watson Family Christmas, which featured your kids. Can we expect that family collaboration again sometime soon?
Watson: We’re going to do a Volume II, but we’re not going to do it this year. I am out of gas. But that was the best time. Recording that album with the family … it’s an album I’ll cherish for forever. It was just a real treat. They had so much fun.
C&I: Can we expect to hear them, maybe, on an album that’s not a Christmas album?
Watson: They all love music, and I try not to put any expectations on my children as far as what career path they’re going to take. Right now, I tell them their No. 1 job is to be my babies until they’re grown up. They’re always going to be my babies, but right now it’s my time to get to enjoy them. I do see them being a part of more music projects in the future. So it’s just fun. Music is the family business, so it’s fun that they are getting to enjoy that side of my business.
C&I: What can we expect from the live shows during your tour?
Watson: It’s a whole new show. There’s more energy, more songs — many songs off Red Bandana. Those songs just go over so good live. So it’s definitely an upgrade from our shows in the past. The band and myself, we’re constantly sitting down and going, “What can we do to make this a better experience for the fans?” The dance moves aren’t any better, but we’re not really into the dance moves side of things.
C&I: What can we expect next?
Watson: I’m telling you, I’m ready to put [another album] out sooner than later. I know this one just came out, but I already have a concept for the next one. I think the fans deserve songs. I don’t like making them wait every two years for a record. I want it to be a quicker turnaround. I think as I get further into my career, I’m going to be putting out more records more regularly.
Photography: (Lead Image) Joseph Llanes, (Second Image) Jimmy Fisco