With Red Bandana, the Texas troubadour is still marching to his own beat, this time writing all 20 songs by himself

By Nancy Kruh
June 21, 2019 08:10 PM
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Credit: Joseph Llanes

On his new album Red Bandana, Aaron Watson has included a touching song in memory of fellow Texas troubadour Red Steagall. There’s just one thing: Steagall isn’t dead.

“Yeah, I called Red and I apologized,” Watson, 41, tells PEOPLE. “I said, ‘Red, I wrote you a song, a tribute to you. But I’m sorry … In the song, you’re dead.’”

To his credit, the 80-year-old Steagall instantly understood the pathos that his premature demise added to the lyrics. “That’s all right, pardner,” he said, according to Watson’s recollection. “That makes for a much better song.”

Indeed, Watson has always been willing to do whatever it takes for the sake of his music. For 20 years, he’s forged a successful career the hard way — building a large, avid fan base and charting songs, including top 10 hit “Outta Style” as an independent artist. For Red Bandana, he chose the road less traveled once again, writing all 20 songs by himself, the first mainstream country artist to do so since Alan Jackson solo-penned Good Time in 2008.

“The beauty of it is that, because I’m an independent artist and I own my own label, I can do whatever I want to do,” says Watson. “If I was on a major label, they’d have me doing all these co-writes, with all these different writers.”

And that, obviously, would put a crimp in the songwriting routine that Watson has come to savor on his 400-acre spread outside the tiny central Texas town of Buffalo Gap. When he’s off the road, most mornings he gets up early to watch the sunrise, drink coffee and grab his favorite guitar, the one he bought at a pawn shop when he was 18 years old.

“I just love when the world’s quiet and I can just sit there with an old guitar and my notepad and a pen,” he says.

Aaron Watson’s Red Bandana
| Credit: Courtesy

Watson set a tall order for the new album, writing it from “the mindset of this could be the last one.”

“Now I have no plans of it being the last one,” he quickly adds. “But when you go about something thinking this could be the last time I get to do this, you put more into it. It’s like living every day as if it might be your last. … If this is the last album I’m ever going to make, what’s the legacy I want to leave behind? That mindset really helped me dial in and be the writer that I needed to be.”

Watson calls Red Bandana “all heart,” and the tracks reflect his description, from “Blood Brothers,” inspired by childhood friendships, to “Home Sweet Home,” a love letter to the life he’s built with his wife, Kimberly, and their three children, Jake, 13, Jack, 11, and Jolee, 9.

“Trying Like the Devil” was stirred as Watson grappled with the suicide of a young man in his community; “58” is a 58-second elegy to the country fans who lost their lives in the Route 91 massacre in 2017. Four songs, “Country Radio,” “Legends,” “Ghost of Guy Clark” and the Steagall tribute, “Riding with Red,” are all testament to Watson’s abiding love for traditional country music, though some of the namechecks in “Legends” — Kurt Cobain, Frank Sinatra and John Lennon, among them — also reveal his eclectic tastes.

Surely no song is more personal than “Live or Die Trying,” which draws from Watson’s improbable career and includes his father’s fateful advice, “If it was easy, everyone would do it.”

Watson says his dad, a Vietnam-era disabled veteran who supported his family working as a janitor, “taught me the importance of hard work.” It was a difficult lesson for Watson, growing up in Amarillo, Texas, when he had to help his father scrub restrooms instead of hang out with his buddies.

“I remember one time — I was probably 10 or 11 years old — and I was just complaining about it,” Watson recalls. “Dad kind of leaned around and looked into my stall. He said, ‘Hey, do you think that when I was a little boy your age that I wanted to grow up to clean toilets for a living?’ I didn’t say anything. He said, ‘Listen, I got hurt in the war. It wasn’t my plan, but it just is what it is, and God has blessed me with this job so that I can take care of my family. You can bet that I’m gonna show how thankful I am for this job, and I’m going to do the best job I can do.’”

Watson says he now weaves that same attitude of gratitude through his career, pushing himself to be “the best writer that I can be, the best performer I can be.”

“I push myself after every show,” he says. “I might be exhausted, tired, cranky, but my fans deserve something better. So if I sign autographs and take selfies till 3 a.m., you know what? How blessed am I to have fans who would wait in line for that long for me.”

Watson pushed himself with the recording of Red Bandana, as well, laying down his vocals in a marathon session over a few short days. “We got in there and we fired away,” he says, admitting that “I was hoarse and my voice was killing me.”

He went ahead and worked with what he had. “I’m not one of those touring artists who can take four months off,” he says. “I’ve been touring every month for the last 20 years. I may not get a chance for my voice to rest up until January. I don’t have till January.”

Aaron Watson
| Credit: CK Dirks Photography

Watson admits he’s driven, “but I don’t compare myself to other artists. I’m competitive with myself. I look at who I was yesterday and I’m like, okay, I need to be better than that guy.”

Though he has racked up career achievements that prove otherwise, he still thrives on his image as an “underdog” (the name of his 2015 album).

“I’m still an up-and-comer,” he says. “And what I love about the path that God’s put me on is I have a great appreciation for the moments that I’m being blessed with, because I didn’t have them the first 15 to 17 years of my career. So, gosh, getting these opportunities, I don’t think, well, it’s about dang time. I think, oh man, what a blessing.”