Autonomy is as important as a big hook to Aaron Watson. The prolific country singer-songwriter, who typically releases an album every other year, has his own record company, Big Label.
Watson, 42, who will perform Thursday at the Knitting Factory, often steps out beyond his genre. The Amarillo, Texas, native, who hit the top of the country album charts in 2015 with “The Underdog,” reveals, while checking in from Indianapolis, what it was like growing up in a house that played country icons and what his first career choice was while coming of age during the 1980s.
Congratulations on “Red Bandana.” It’s a 20-song album. Nobody makes 70-minute albums anymore. It’s a world of singles and perhaps EPs with a single and four songs that sound like the single. And then you go and release a long, eclectic album. Why did you go in that direction?
Yes, it was definitely an ambitious project, but it was my 20th year making music, and I wanted to give the fans something special. I have always been a lover of albums. I know the way people are putting them out is different nowadays, but I really feel my fans love albums and continue to spend time with them and grow to love the full body of work.
You go from rock to Tejano to country to rockabilly. How much fun was it for you to make such an old school record?
This record was a lot of fun. It was a concept record. I really spent a lot of time thinking of how each song would play off the other. I have so many influences from Willie Nelson to the Beatles, George Strait to David Bowie. I also am always trying to grow as a songwriter and make the songs interesting in the studio, but they all have to work together, too.
How much of it is inspired by the old school records created by your heroes?
Inspiration is everywhere. Of course, there are the heroes you grew up on, but there is also everyday life. And then there is you as an artist wanting to stand out on your own. I think an album is a portrait of a moment in time, so I took all of that and put it into “Red Bandana.”
Speaking of old heroes, what inspired “The Ghost of Guy Clark”?
We had some commercial success with some songs at radio, and that was great, and I’ll take that all day long. But I was really thinking about legacy and what songs really affected people in what ways. That was just a challenge to myself to chase after hearts instead of hits and set the tone for this album.
What was it like working with Willie Nelson years ago?
It was a dream, still one of my career highlights. When I’m an old man, I can still say Willie Nelson sang on a song with me.
Does “Red Bandana” take you back to the records you listened to as a kid in Texas?
From the album and concept standpoint, definitely. That was kind of the point of what I was trying to accomplish, to have that full body of work you put in, hit play and just get lost in a whole project.
It should be no surprise to fans that you’re veering in different directions. I remember when “Angels and Outlaws” dropped in 2008, you morphed, but the cool thing was that you didn’t leave your Texas roots behind. Tell me about that.
I think it’s just the constant evolution of being the best artist that you can be at that time. That’s a bit way back now, but I’m pretty sure at that time we started getting out of Texas touring, so I was just seeing more things. Also, as our business was growing, ambitions get bigger. But you always want to stay true to who you are, and I am and will always be a Texas artist, so those roots are firmly planted.
How difficult is it to put a setlist together when you have such a canon of songs?
It can be challenging, but you always have those songs you know the fans want to hear. You have the new songs you want to play, so the show is different. I have a great band that has been with me forever, so we’re always talking and tinkering with the setlist. We can always call an audible in a show to throw a song in if we feel like it or the crowd wants it.
Do you ever get tired of playing the old hits, like “Off the Record”?
I make music for my fans, and if there is a hit, no matter how old it is, and they want to hear it, how can you be mad at that? Honestly, there are songs I have been playing for over a decade, and those are blessings. You can never get tired of that.
Your wife is from Seattle. Do you have any other Washington state connections?
I love that part of the country. The fans are amazing. The Knitting Factory is a top-notch venue that is always packed. I’m definitely excited when I see it on my tour schedule
You grew up in a house listening to Willie, Merle and George. What kind of impact did that have on you?
It was everything being a boy surrounded by music, and Texas has shaped me into the man and artist that I am today. They also each had really strong identities to the artists that they were individually, and I think that has carried into my career
You work so hard. You release practically an album a year. How and why are you so prolific? Do you ever rest?
I’m probably not too good at just resting. Honestly, I love music, and I love writing songs, and I’m always working at it. That doesn’t mean that songs are just pouring out, but I’m trying every day, and when I get hot and on a good batch of music, I definitely am eager to get into the studio on another project.
Is there a new album on the horizon?
I was actually in the studio last week recording some new songs I’m really excited about – I’m sure we’ll be putting out some information soon on those to the fans.
What do you do for fun? Is there time for fun?
Well, my No. 1 job is being a dad! So anything with the kids is fun for me. I love being involved in their sports, school and activities. Family is very important.
You played junior college baseball. Dennis DeYoung of Styx fame told me that he’s convinced that if Bruce Springsteen could throw a 95-mph fastball, he never would have become a singer-songwriter. What’s your take, and would you have gone the baseball route if there was an opportunity?
Baseball was definitely my love while I played, and my dream was always to play shortstop for the Houston Astros. God had other plans for me. If I hadn’t gotten hurt (playing baseball), I would have never learned to play the guitar, and look at what music has blessed me and my family with – so I kinda feel like it all worked out in the end.
Tell me something about Aaron Watson that we don’t know.
I’m a pretty much what you see is what you get kinda guy, but you might not know I have an old early ’80s Corvette, and I love those cars.
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