Aaron Watson wanted to offer up something extra special and personal to his fans to celebrate his 20 years of making music, so he set out to chronicle that journey with a set of self-penned songs that touch on every era of his life. The new 20-song collection, Red Bandana, is chock full of the places, faces, and nostalgic moments and feelings that inspire the Texas cowboy, and he opens up a vein musically and gives fans quite a ride on the new project, which releases today (June 21).
The self-professed sentimentalist and hopeless romantic sat down each morning on his ranch and painstakingly crafted the new collection of songs, then upped the memory ante on them by adding sonic touches from his past in their production, such as the opening track’s haunting wind chimes or the actual train that passes by his house each day. The touches give them a feeling of the comforting familiarity of home and makes them even more personal for Watson, who poured his heart into the entire endeavor.
“I’m very sentimental and nostalgic and emotional – I watch a movie and I tear up and my kids are laughing at me,” Watson tells MusicRow. “But I wanted to give fans a more mature album than anything I’ve ever put out this time and give them something that’s different but still my brand of music. The train in the song ‘Trying Like The Devil’ – that’s the train that passes right by my ranch, so I hear that train every day…I hear it in the middle of the night laying in bed. The wind chimes on the album’s leadoff song, ‘Ghost Of Guy Clark,’ were the chimes hanging outside on my grandmother’s back porch when I was a little kid growing up. You’re hearing the AM radio fuzz from my dad’s old radio he had wired to his cleaning cart when he was a custodian when I was growing up cleaning toilets with my dad. That’s the radio I was listening to a million hours of music on. And I just wanted there to be that feeling of home on the album, but at the same time I didn’t want this to be a record that sounds like something back in the day. This record sounds like nothing anyone’s ever heard.”
To help achieve that, Watson enlisted the help of rising producer Jordan Lehning to offer up a fresh twist on the followup to his successful previous projects, including The Underdog, (which was the first independent album to reach the top of the Billboard Country chart), and his last album Vaquero. He sought out Lehning, who worked on Rodney Crowell’s recent album, to help him mix things up a bit and found the two had an instant rapport in the studio.
“Obviously Jordan’s dad and his brother are both incredible producers, and he caught my ear when he did Rodney’s last album. I met with him and we just vibed and he has a little bit of that hipster edge to him, and I think he brought to the table some tools that helped make me a better artist and we enjoyed working together. I think he was shocked, like why would this West Texas cowboy want to work with me — I don’t even think the guy owns a pair of boots. But we bring different things to the table, and it really works. And he was just passionate about my music. And I needed somebody who was hungry like me. And Jordan is hungry. And being in his studio and singing on the last microphone that Ray Price sang on…him saying things like, ‘that guitar hanging right there, that was the guitar that Waylon Jennings played on Dreaming my Dreams With You when he recorded with my dad’ was just so great. So it just fit me.”
Watson also found some extra inspiration for the new record in an unlikely place: a Paul McCartney concert in the Midwest. He piled his family in the bus and trekked to see the Beatle perform, and was struck with how key a diverse playlist can be in capturing audiences.
“I put songs like ‘Blood Brothers’ and ‘Old Friend’ and ‘Live Or Die Trying’ that are very cutting edge on this album, but then I also have songs like ‘Riding With Red’ and ‘Red Bandana’ too. It’s one of those things I realize the importance of diversity, and when I saw Paul McCartney in Omaha NE awhile back, I took my whole family and we jumped in the tour bus and went to see him play. And one minute he’s playing ‘Blackbird.’ which I think everyone can acknowledge that’s one of the greatest singer/songwriter songs of all time. And then a few songs later, Paul plays ‘Baby You Can Drive My Car Beep Beep Beep Beep Yeah.’ And I loved both songs. So when you’ve got 20 songs on an album, you can’t have monotony — you’ve got to have cinematic moments, feelings, happy, sad, fast, slow, you’ve got to take the listener on a ride.”
It was just such a ride that inspired one of the tracks on the new project, “Riding With Red,” a song penned in tribute to Watson’s friend and mentor, cowboy poet Red Steagall, along with a few other men who had a profound influence on Watson’s life. Watson came up with the tune following a ride through the mountains with Steagall.
“I went on a vacation in Montana with Red and Reba, and Reba babysat my kids while I went on a horseback ride with Red through the mountains. And we just sat there just me and Red riding right next to each other, and he was passing down all kinds of knowledge and advice on life, and it was the most amazing thing. And when we got back I looked at my wife and she said how was it, and I said ‘I had the most amazing time riding with Red.’ I called him later and told him I wrote you a song but in the song you’re dead…I just wanted to say sorry about that. And he said, It’s alright partner…it makes for a better song me being dead and all.’ But that song is not just for Red, it’s about my granddaddy, my pawpaw, my John Pop and an old man named Mr. Pete — these four old men who have been in my life and had such a profound influence on me, the song is for them and for Red.”
Watson pays tribute to another one of his heroes on the opener, “Ghost Of Guy Clark.” Hauntingly eerie wind chimes set the tone for the dream sequence song where Watson receives writing advice from the late legend. “I wanted to make a statement with the first song, it’s the manifesto. And there are a few artists who are just adored by both Nashville and Texas, guys like George Strait, and then guys like Guy Clark… and he is just my hero. When I grow up I want to be just like him. When people say what do I have envisioned for my career, I see me as an old man sitting on my stool playing my songs. So the first song is a manifesto, I mean who puts out an album after having Top 40 radio success that the first song doesn’t even have a chorus? And the second song is an instrumental that I wrote, “El Comienzo Del Viaje.”
Other songs get a bit more autobiographical, like the inspiring message of never giving up in “Dark Horse.” For an indie artist who has enjoyed big success, Watson still occasionally feels as though he’s knocking on the door of the industry at times, trying to get a ticket in.
“Without a doubt, you would think honestly if there’s an indie artist who put out a number one album and sold half a millions tickets touring, that the gates of country music would open for him…but it’s not that way. We have so many obstacles because I’ve chosen to be independent, but I’ve chosen it for the love. Our Real Good Time charted Top 10 on Billboard, no one wanted anything to do with us, Underdog charted No 1, no one wanted anything to do with us, Vaquero sold more copies than the Underdog and had mainstream radio success, a Top 10. We’ve had so many obstacles, and ‘Dark Horse’ is that message to my children and all the fans out there who are working hard to chase their dream. To not let discouragement be something that makes you give up on yourself — you take that discouragement, and turn it into fuel for your fire.”
He uplifts the loved ones who suffered losses in the horrible Route 91 festival shooting in ’58,’ a song fans encouraged him to write. “I played the Route 91 festival the year before the tragedy and when it happened it turned into a big political mess and that made me sad, because people just lost the loves of their lives — sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, and the media was making it out to be some sort of political agenda. I wrote the song because I had a person who was severely injured at Route 91 and came to one of my shows months later and told me they loved my song ‘Bluebonnets,’ a song I wrote for my daughter who passed away 7 years ago.
“They told me I needed to write a tribute for the Route 91 victims and their families, and I wanted to write something that was simple and sincere and uplifting, and it’s only 58 seconds long and the last song on the record because they deserve to have the last song on the record. Because a year and a half later we’ve all moved on because that’s just the world, that’s just the way it is. But those people who lost loved ones they woke up this morning still feeling that heartache, so it’s important to let them know we still think about them and we’re still praying for them.”
There are nods to the ones he loves on the album as well, from “Heartstrings,” which came out of a songwriting lesson with his little girl, to “Country Song,” a love song for his parents, and even “Old Friend,” which he was moved to pen in tribute after Tom Petty died. The collection is eclectic, personal and heartfelt – a fitting thank you to his loyal fans who fuel his passion. The cowboy and family man knows he is often pegged as looking like the perfect husband and father, and in “Trying Like The Devil” he comes clean about the fact that his life is just as messy and imperfect as anybody’s.
“We’re a very unforgiving society today…somebody makes a mistake, and we’re ready to make ’em walk the plank into the shark infested waters,” said Watson about the current Instagram and Twitter-fueled world. “And when you think about Johnny Cash, he was such a great man. I read one of his books about the Apostle Paul, and in the beginning of the book Johnny shares a lot of his struggles. And had there been Twitter and Instagram back then, gosh, some of the mistakes he made — but guess what, he’s just a man, he’s not perfect. And you know what else I love Johnny Cash and I love Billy Graham, but I relate a lot more to Johnny because of the struggles he had. And the reason I look up to Johnny Cash so much is he needed Jesus because of his many imperfections, and that’s me. People think that well, he’s a Christian he’s got it all together. No, I need Jesus because I’m more messed up than most.
“And ‘Trying Like The Devil’ it’s just… I don’t go into the details too much because some things are just my business, but that’s me baring my heart and soul and saying you know what sometimes I’m not the man I should be — I fail as a father, a husband, I let people down, but you know when I get down I’m gonna pick myself back up and brush myself off because I know that God’s love is bigger than any mistake I could ever make. And that’s what that song is about. I want people if they battle with addiction, or depression, or any type of struggle whatever it may be, I want them to hear that song and say hey I got this, I’m gonna push through this, I’m gonna keep moving forward. And the line in there “So beware of broken glass should you stare into the window of my soul and judge me not, I only bare it all so you know that you are not alone.” And that’s the thing — if I can share my heart, and share my imperfections, and help somebody get through some of their struggles I feel like that’s my duty as a songwriter and an artist is to make music with meaning.”
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