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COVER STORY: Aaron Watson’s journey to the top

By on August 17, 2017 in ACU Today Magazine with 0 Comments

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Aaron Watson performs before a crowd of more than 50,000 people March 7, 2017, at the opening night of the 87th annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

©Photo by Bradford Coolidge

Kimberly (Calkins ’01) Watson is happily married to her college sweetheart, who says he is “not 
a big awards show guy.” 
That would be her husband, Aaron (’00), who usually declines ticket offers to the 
Academy of Country Music’s annual extravaganza and others like it, preferring to spend time on a rare open weekend with his young family at their West Texas country home.

This spring the ACM awards 
show was in Las Vegas – not exactly a destination city for most church-going folks from south Taylor County – but her husband thought it would be a well-deserved weekend getaway for the busy stay-at-home mom: sleep in, order room service, 
hit the spa, shop a little, see the show.

These days, Watson is riding a fast horse in the country music business, deftly using social media and racking up nearly half a million Facebook followers, bucking trends while carving a niche for himself, and eschewing the strategy on which Nashville has operated for decades.

“We each said, ‘I’ll go if you go,’” Aaron said. The couple – she in an electric blue dress and he in boots, jeans, a white shirt, black jacket and black Stetson – walked the red carpet April 2 while cameras flashed. Then they headed to their admittedly choice seats in T-Mobile Arena.

Aaron noticed a wireless microphone in front of them and wondered why. The show began with high energy and quickly had the audience on its feet for performances by Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and Carrie Underwood singing a medley of 
No. 1 hits.

As a spotlight settled directly in front of the Watsons, heartthrob Keith Urban stepped out of the shadows and readied his guitar for the concluding song. With a live national audience watching on CBS, and just before singing a few lines from his hit Wasted Time, he turned slightly to the right and rocked Kimberly’s world.

“Hey, what’s up, Aaron?” 
Urban asked while offering a quick handshake, then turning to the camera to perform.

“Now, I don’t know Keith, 
but she is a huge fan of his,” 
 said Aaron, who was nearly as incredulous as his star-struck wife, who exclaimed, “Oh. My. Goodness. Keith Urban knows you!”

“Of course, I tried to act cool like it was no big deal,” Aaron said, laughing.

*   *   *

Urban’s nod to Aaron on live network TV was unrehearsed and easy to miss in the telecast. Aaron received no awards on stage that night, but little else that weekend could have defined his recent rise in the music business. The hard-working son of a custodian father and schoolteacher mother feels blessed beyond measure, but he’s every bit of an 18-year overnight sensation, the kind of memorable line on which many a country music hit song has been strung.

Aaron was introduced on a recent national radio show as “an up-and-coming artist,” a sincere compliment that nearly put an unwelcome crease in his cowboy hat. “I was kind of flattered by those words,” he said. But he couldn’t help smiling wryly while reminding the live audience that if “up and coming” is how you define an artist after 18 years, 13 albums, 2,500 shows and an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, then those proverbial boots indeed fit his well-traveled feet.

These days, Watson is riding a fast horse in the country music business, deftly using social media and racking up nearly half a million Facebook followers, bucking trends while carving a niche for himself, and eschewing the strategy on which Nashville has operated for decades.

“The prayer I pray before each show is for God to give me courage so I can get up there and let my light shine and bring the audience joy.” – Aaron Watson

“Brad Paisley’s album last week [Love and War] debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. My latest [Vaquero] sold 45 percent more than his in its first week. Since 2015, country music record sales have dropped 40 percent. Ours are up 48 percent,” Aaron said. “People ask me, ‘How are you selling all those records?’ ”

His answer is quick, honest and often unexpected.

“I give all the glory to God. He has opened doors for me that were not possible otherwise,” Aaron said. “I try to treat everyone with love and kindness. When people stop me in the store, I talk to them. I show hospitality.”

In Abilene, his otherwise quick trips to the grocery story or gym can turn into long outings delayed by fan selfie requests and impromptu conversations that cause Kimberly to greet him with “Where have you been?” when he returns home.

Abilene, after all, can’t help that it’s a friendly place.

“I tell people that Abilene is where the West Texas plains and Hill Country meet,” said Aaron. I love the people, love being around ACU and its camps for kids, the sporting events. It’s home. The cost of living is low. I can drive to the airport and fly to DFW in less time than my friends there spend sitting in traffic on their way to the airport.”

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Aaron Watson family
(FROM LEFT) The Watsons: Jack, Jolee Kate, Aaron, Kimberly and Jake

©Photo by Lindsey Cotton

He is as unconventional as he is down-home. He wears a Jim Ned youth baseball team cap to network TV interviews. Using Facetime live, he sings songs joyfully with his daughter, Jolee Kate, and shares images of his sports-minded sons, Jack and Jake. He brags on and writes love songs to Kimberly. He asks online fans for advice about which Western shirt to wear at that night’s show. He performs a live acoustic cover for Facebook, at George Strait’s request, choosing a soulful Amarillo by Morning. And to answer fan inquiries about when he will finally sign with a really big record company, well, he started one.

The new enterprise is titled BIG Label Records. Seriously.

He performs in iconic Texas dance halls in places like Gruene and Luckenbach. He does concerts in hole-in-the-wall joints and revels in the good vibes they leave him, his six-piece band and his fans. His growing reputation has taken him to the Troubadour club in West Hollywood and twice to appearances on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. He just made his 10th trip to Europe to play for enthusiastic fans in Norway and Spain, who – like others in France, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and Germany – love his music.

“We are playing a lot fewer bars and honky tonks and more fairs, festivals and theatres,” Aaron said.

He recently was the opening-night headliner at the 87th annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, singing for more than 50,000 people in NRG Stadium on a stage fit for a remake of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

How big was that gig? For starters, it meant Alan Jackson, Willie Nelson, Paisley, Bryan and other stars followed him on subsequent nights. Or to put it another way, next year, Garth Brooks will nab the coveted top spot Aaron filled in 2017.

Aaron Watson is singing and laughing all the way to the big time, however you choose to define or measure it.

*   *   *

What gives Aaron the biggest rush, however, is also what endears him to his growing legion of fans: He stays true to his roots. Few roots grow deeper than the ones the Watsons have at Abilene Christian.

“ACU alumni show up wherever I play,” Aaron said. “It’s incredible the amount of support I get. Last night [at a show in Charleston, South Carolina] an older man with an ACU cap showed up and I thought, ‘Man, that is so cool!’ But it happens regularly and always amazes me.”

A native of Amarillo, he transferred to ACU after playing baseball in junior college for two years. An injury ended his dreams in the sport, and he began to pursue a career in music while finishing a composite interdisciplinary major.

His Department of Music education didn’t start so well, although instructor Dan Mitchell became his guitar-playing mentor.

He thought his first vocals class would be one-on-one with a professor. Instead, he walked into a room to find 12 women; he was the only guy. “We sure didn’t sing George Strait songs,” Aaron recalled. “It was all classical, ‘fa-la-la-la-la’ material and I thought, ‘Whoa! This is not what I signed up for.’ ”

“ACU alumni show up wherever I play. It’s incredible the amount of support I get. Last night [at a show in Charleston, South Carolina] an older man with an ACU cap showed up and I thought, ‘Man, that is so cool!’ But it happens regularly and always amazes me.” – Aaron Watson

Mitchell asked Aaron why he enrolled in a class for guitar lessons. Aaron explained that he wanted to be a country singer-songwriter one day. “All right then,” Aaron recalled Mitchell saying. “We have a lot of work to do.”

“He believed in me and became a musical hero to me,” Aaron said. “I don’t think I could have found another Dan Mitchell anywhere else in the world besides ACU.”

Aaron’s first live performances took place as a student at the Hardwood Cafe outside the McGlothlin Campus Center’s World Famous Bean, where he relied on the three guitar chords he knew to play from a notebook of 100 songs. Fellow student and country music fan Robert Reid (’67), who was slowed by cerebral palsy, liked to pull himself in a wheelchair alongside Aaron to watch him play. The two became fast friends.

“Robert encouraged me to get out in the world and spread the good news of Jesus while singing country music,” Aaron said. Other faculty members did the same.

“I was concerned I would be a black sheep in the ACU family, making a living playing music in bars and honky tonks,” Aaron said. His campus mentors convinced him those were genuine mission fields, places where people need to know about Jesus and might hear his call where a minister or missionary
would never be given the time of day.

“There couldn’t have been a better place in the whole wide world to prepare me for the music industry than ACU,” Aaron said. “Yet, God had more in mind than that. He opened up my mind and heart and made me realize I could do what
I love but share my love for Jesus at the same time.”

Aaron said he is awed about the opportunity. “The prayer I pray before each show,” he said, “is for God to give me courage so I can get up there and let my light shine and bring the audience joy.”

And put on one great show.

*   *   *

Strong-minded and admittedly stubborn by nature, he is determined to build a music career without the benefit of a major record label.

“When I first went to Nashville in 2001, the door was slammed in my face over and over again. I came home and told my dad, ‘They didn’t like me and didn’t think I could sing a lick.’ ”

He set out to prove them wrong.

Redemption took a while but in February 2015, his album The Underdog lived up to its name – becoming the first by an independent artist to debut at No. 1 on Billboard Country Album charts.

As an independent artist without the financial backing of a major label, it means a lot to Aaron to own the rights to his music – he writes most of the songs he records – but he also has to work harder for the exposure that fuels record sales.

As an independent artist without the financial backing of a major label, it means a lot to Aaron to own the rights to his music – he writes most of the songs he records – but he also has to work harder for the exposure that fuels record sales.

“The issue for independent country artists is really about how to break through the ceiling of country radio,” said James Hodgin, an artist manager for Be Music and Entertainment in Nashville, a leading agency whose president and founder is ACU alum Michael Blanton (’73).

Hodgin said mainstream country music is “predominantly controlled by the major labels and still has a bit of the old system in place – not exactly pay-for-play, but leveraged.”

Getting the right management team and venture capital in place takes time and requires a nimble artist poised to take advantage of the right opportunities when they arise.

“What Aaron has done with his team over the years is a study in consistent build,” Hodgin said. “He’s built a fan base that will help him with the radio impact in each market.”

Hodgin said Aaron’s fans get a kick out of rallying around an underdog artist whose music sounds great and message speaks to them.

“Without question, Aaron is exhibiting the best of the new independent artist who is not only a fabulous artist, he’s also the CEO of his own entertainment company,” said Blanton, an award-winning producer who has for decades guided the careers of many successful artists. “I’m so very proud of what he does every day for his fans and his music, and his business.”


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Ron Hadfield

About the Author

About the Author: Ron Hadfield is editor of ACU Today magazine and assistant vice president for university communication at Abilene Christian, where he began work in 1983 overseeing Creative Services at his alma mater.
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