[TEXAS MONTHLY] The Underdog’s on Top

It’s a miserable night in Columbus, Ohio. The temperature is hovering just above freezing, and a bone-soaking rain falls continuously. College students are going out for the first Saturday night of the spring semester, emerging from stately brick houses and old shiplap homes, and congregating in loud masses at the bars and nightclubs along High Street across from the Ohio State University campus. The street food vendors are heating up their flattops, and cabs are beginning to flip on their lights. Meanwhile, seemingly every Stetson wearer in central Ohio is heading to the Newport Music Hall to see Aaron Watson, the latest country music phenomenon to emerge from the Texas Panhandle—and an upstart one at that. His 2015 album debuted at number one on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart; he’s the first male country singer to have a number one record without a major label. The album is titled, appropriately enough, The Underdog. For years, Watson had been turned away by Nashville recording executives, who all said he’d have to change his sound if he ever wanted to succeed outside Texas. And yet here he is, with a number one album to his name, about to play to a packed house on a cold, wet night in the Midwest.

Before the show, Watson lounges in the back of his tour bus, his boots up on a seat, a grapefruit LaCroix in hand, ball cap askew because of his propensity to pull it off and rub his head while he talks. He’s relaxed. He’s not worried whether he plays tonight for two thousand or twenty; he just wants to play a good show, and if he does, he knows the word will spread. “Whoever shows up tonight,” he says, “they’re gonna go home and they’re gonna tweet, they’re gonna Instagram, they’re gonna Facebook: ‘Man, we had a blast at the Aaron Watson show tonight, and he hung out with us afterward.’ ” He remembers a show, years ago, in Ardmore, Oklahoma. He was about to hit the stage, and he texted his friend, business partner, and manager Gino Genaro: “What if no one shows up?” Genaro thought Watson was just having preshow jitters and tried to encourage him. But Watson wasn’t kidding. That night, only one person showed up. Rather than play to her in an empty theater, they walked her to the bus, climbed aboard, and played a private acoustic set. Doesn’t matter how many show up, he says, always give them your best.

There may be no more genuine singer-songwriter at the moment than Watson. He leaves no confusion about who he is: He loves Texas. He’s a man of the cloth—denim—spreading the 5X-beaver-felt-and-barbed-wire gospel to the world. He likes writing songs about two-steppin’ and wholesome good times, and he’s not going to abandon that ethos for any quick shot at stardom by betraying his fans and deviating from his brand of country music. He didn’t do it at 24, even when the music executives told him what it would take to be a star: sign on the line, agree to the terms, and we’ll put the Nashville machine to work for you. Watson didn’t want to achieve success that way—stardom isn’t what he’s after, anyway—so Nashville wished him good luck and sent him on his way back to Texas.

For the past eighteen years, he’s picked away at his craft, recording albums at a furious pace—thirteen so far—on which he’s written nearly all the songs. In that time, he’s played 2,500 shows. On most days, he rises at 5 a.m. to write. He stays hours after performances to talk to every lingering fan. In short, he works like it’s his job. “We work hard, and we ride a horse named Hustle,” he says. When he discusses artists he admires, he often talks about their journeyman years. It’s about putting in the effort, appreciating steady growth, and always making fans feel like part of the family. Meanwhile, his aim is to keep plugging away, keep building, have faith, and when he meets with success, try not to let it go to his head. So far, so good.

The vibe on the tour bus, as the freezing drizzle outside begins to pick up, can best be described as friendly and professional. The small traveling team that runs Aaron Watson the brand has been together for close to a decade, some for nearly fifteen years. While they prepare for the show, the lighting tech, sound guy, musicians, and manager chat, tell jokes, and watch football. They’re happy to have the submarinelike bunks crammed into the 45-by-9-foot tour bus. After all, it’s better than the Ford Excursion they took to their early gigs together, in tiny venues that paid a total of $250. They’ve come a long way since then. When he leaves Columbus in the morning, Watson will head back to Texas to prepare for his ninth European tour.

Read the full interview at texasmonthly.com