“Kris Kristofferson said, ‘Write a thousand songs, then throw them away. Now you’re ready to be a writer,'” Watson tells PEOPLE, recalling a quote from one of his songwriting icons. “I really feel like I’m just getting to that point in my career where I am really starting to hone in on my craft.”
Watson just released his 14th studio album titled Aaron Watson Live at the World’s Biggest Rodeo Show, which marks his first live album in nearly a decade. He recorded it while playing the Houston Rodeo in his hometown, and for him, performing there in front of 65,000 fans was “the greatest honor.”
“It’s like a golfer getting that green jacket from winning the Masters,” the “Outta Style” singer says. “It’s just such a big deal.”
However, Watson recorded the album prior to Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which devastated Houston and surrounding Texas cities, and there never felt like an appropriate time to release the record.
“Obviously when you’ve got millions of people going through such heartache and hardship that was dealt by Hurricane Harvey, our album just became very insignificant,” he says. “I honestly just thought that this was going to be an album that was never going to materialize.”
As time moved on and he got further and further away from the time he recorded the album, it began to feel like “yesterday’s news” to him and his crew. However, as more and more natural disasters hit the U.S. coasts and other stories had bigger impacts, he recognized that Hurricane Harvey was also being pushed out of the news cycle, despite the community still dealing with the crippling amounts of damage.
That’s when he decided to turn the album into a tribute album, and to donate $1.41 from each record sold to the Rebuild Texas Fund.
“Twelve months ago, it was the front page of every paper,” Watson says. “It was the headline on every channel. It was trending on socials, and 12 months later, nobody talks about it. The fact of the situation is that in 12 months, you can’t overcome $125 million in damage impacting 13 million people in 41 Texas counties. I mean, I’m pretty sure that 13 million people in 41 Texas counties is larger than a lot of states, and that’s just the south Texas coast.”
“Texas is home,” he adds. “The Texas music scene is my bread and butter and what’s taken care of me and my family for all these years.”
While the hurricane was hitting the south Texas coast, Watson was away on tour, but he was able to see the destruction it was causing and the way that Americans rallied to come together in the aftermath. All of the news coverage inspired him to write the song “Higher Ground,” which he later added to the album.
“What Hurricane Harvey showed me was just that there are so many good people out there,” Watson says. “Seeing the entire nation just drop what they were doing and drive to Texas to help out their fellow Americans — help out their neighbors — to see people of different races and colors, people with different political affiliations, people that go to different churches, seeing them all work together for the greater good of humanity, that really just inspired me.”
“Come hell or high water / Only love will find you higher ground,” Watson sings in the song’s chorus.
“People lost family members,” Watson tells PEOPLE. “People lost their homes, but I also think at the same time, a lot of those people set an example for the rest of the nation, for me and for all of us of how we should be treating each other.”
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Over the years, Watson has become known for his deeply personal songs and his unwillingness to shy away from singing about hard topics. He wrote the song “July in Cheyenne (Song for Lane’s Momma)” — which he recorded again for his latest live album — as a tribute to Lane Frost, a young bull rider who died. This was the first song Watson recorded after he and his wife, Kimberly, lost their daughter Julia Grace shortly after she was born.
“I’m able to use that song just as a way to share my faith, my love for Jesus, my love for family, and to really encourage people who are going through hard times to keep their chin up, to let them know that we love them,” Watson says. “I love the power of music and I really try to use my music as a platform to send out a positive message.”
However, not all of Watson’s songs on the record hold such a heavy weight, like “Fence Post” which is a more upbeat song he wrote in response to a record executive telling him he wasn’t good enough.
On his last album Vaquero, Watson wrote a fun song called “Run Wild Horses Run” for his wife to let her know that he still found her “sexy.” In July, Watson released the video. Instead of featuring an actor to play his girlfriend in the music video because he didn’t want his kids to see him loving on a girl that wasn’t their mom, he made Kimberly the star of the show.
“I wanted to write that song that put her up on a pedestal,” Watson says. “So many of these songs today are about that young love, like the passion you feel when you first meet that person that you fall in love with, but really, it’s not about that first moment. It’s how you grow together and how your love continues to grow year after year after year, so I really just wanted to write her a song that basically said, ‘Girl, you still got it.'”
Even though Watson is not a big fan of shooting music videos (“It feels cheesy and awkward and I don’t dig it.”) this one felt necessary and he was actually excited to get in front of the camera.
“I said, ‘Girl, you’ve got to be in my video. This song was written for you,'” Watson recalls. “We reenacted a moment that we’ve had in the past where I surprised her with a little setup out in the country. The romance happens after the song is over. During the song, that’s me just trying to woo her and make her feel special.”
Despite not enjoying music video production, Watson admits there will probably be a lot more videos and personal songs in his future.
“It’s taken me 20 years to get here,” he says. “I’m so excited because I really feel like as an artist and as a writer, as a singer, as a performer, I feel like I’m just catching my stride.”
Aaron Watson Live at the World’s Biggest Rodeo Show is available now.