Aaron Watson has released 13 albums since 1999. The 12th of those albums, 2016’s tongue-in-cheek titled “The Underdog,” became the first independently released album from a solo male artist to debut at No. 1 on Billboard’s U.S. Country chart.
Over the course of those 13 albums, Watson has established himself as an everyman in the vein of Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Tim McGraw, so-called “hat acts” that straddle the line between contemporary and country. A listen to his latest album, “Vaquero,” showcases this ability the most. The grooves of “Run Wild Horses” are situated next to the contemporary sounds of “Outta Style” and the dancehall stomps of “These Old Boots Have Roots.”
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Watson’s garnered a lot of good will from his fans over the years as well, those diehards who were there from the beginning, who bought the “Singer/Songwriter” album and who showed up to many of the thousands of gigs Watson has played in his time. Those fans have stuck with him from thick and thin. That support seems to have emboldened Watson, knowing that he can try different things throughout a show and his fans will happily go along for the ride.
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For instance, Watson and his five-piece band took the stage Saturday night at ACL Live to Halsey’s cover of “I Walk The Line,” and nobody in the audience batted an eye — they cheered.
Consider that Watson’s live show is equal parts concert and conversation, where probably a good third of the show is Watson telling the audience tales of the stories behind his songs, tales of his home life wth his wife and kids, snippets of life lessons he’s learned (“If you have a dream, you gotta get after it”) and advice to members of the audience “Listen up, young cowboys — if a woman ever comes up to you and asks you ‘Hey, remember me?’ The answer is always ‘Yes. Yes, I do.’”).
Ponder that one of the biggest crowd moments of Saturday’s show was when the audience sang along to “Wildfire,” a John Mayer cover that Watson recorded on “Underdog” and initially appeared on Mayer’s “Paradise valley” album.
Or think about the fact that the man who has said that his political beliefs boil down to “We need to love each other and make the world a better place” can also just as easily rile up a crowd with songs about American veterans and crowd lines about American exceptionalism.
Finally, contemplate that Watson worked in testimony to the saving grace of Jesus Christ and his own faith life in his Saturday night show, also imploring his audience to drive safe that night and to go to church the next morning. After introducing his song “Bluebonnets,” dedicated to his daughter Julia, who died at birth due to a chromosomal abnormality, he asked the audience to hold up their cell phone flashlights in honor of anyone who has died, and also talked about how that earth-shattering life event impacted his faith. Then he encouraged anyone who has been going through a rough time to come talk to him at the merch booth.
Whether you believe in Christianity or not, hearing those earnest words from any musical stage is rare.
All of that is to say, Watson clearly loves his audience, and his audience will clearly listen to anything he does. His earnesty may feel inauthentic to some, but like fellow Texas artist Cody Johnson, he has built a brand off of fans knowing who and what they will get at every show — a throwback to a “simpler” time, where the values of the cowboy remain timeless and a country star can still remain an everyman.
Watson said near the end of his Saturday set that for him, music “is not an industry, but a family business.” With his blend of traditional/contemporary country and down-home Texas living, Saturday’s show was an invitation for his family, real and fan-made, to lovingly take part in a shared vision of Texas life, if only for a night.
“These Old Boots Have Roots”
“Real Good Time”
“Raise Your Bottle”
“That’s Why God Loves Cowboys”
“Take You Home Tonight”
“Run Wild Horses”
“July In Cheyenne”
“Wildfire” (John Mayer cover)
“Off The Record”
“Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song)”
“Amarillo By Morning” (George Strait cover)/Band introduction medley
“Barbed Wire Halo”
“Wild and Reckless”