Aaron Watson is celebrating two decades worth of material with the release of his brand new studio album, Red Bandana. The lengthy project, which drops today (June 21) via Watson’s own BIG Label Records, is a true labor of love. So much so that he self-penned all 20 songs that appear on the record. The last time an artist accomplished this feat on a mainstream country album was Alan Jackson with 2008’s Good Time.
Watson wasn’t exactly looking to break any records with Red Bandana. Instead, he wanted to mark his 20th year of being a self-made music man with a product that not only highlights his personal life experiences but also entertains his loyal fans who keep returning to his concerts, while he continues to buck the system as an independent artist.
“It was important for me to give the fans something extra special. So I wanted twenty songs for twenty years,” Watson, 41, told Country Now of the ambitious undertaking, which features a photo of a simple, red bandana folded into a diamond shape as its cover art – a look Watson, says represents: “heritage” “hard work” “blood” “sweat” and “tears.”
For fans, Watson’s bold new collection, co-produced with Jordan Lehning (Rodney Crowell and Kacey Musgraves), plays out like an experiment, as it walks the listener through an incredible journey from beginning to end. When it came to making the transitions on the album, Watson got creative, and incorporated homemade sounds onto the record with the use of his Grandmothers wind chimes, his dad’s old AM radio and sounds from a train that passes by his ranch.
“I wrote the entire album by myself,” he explained. “So when you’re doing that, you’re able to think a step ahead. I wanted songs to transition. I wanted the listener to put in this album and then all of the sudden go, “Oh wow I’m on track 14.” You know, I wanted it to flow. I’ve always enjoyed those albums that have that kind of feel to them.”
Right away, fans will hear the eerie opener, “Ghost of Guy Clark,” which brings to life a late legend who gives Watson some songwriting advice. Fans get to soak in the first track’s important message while listening to the second number – a cinematic, instrumental offering titled “El Comienzo Del Viaje.” From there, Watson shares an equal balance of slow and up-tempo tunes that are both lyrically thoughtful and sonically diverse.
“Dark Horse,” “Live Or Die Trying” and “Legends” all fall into the up-tempo category with Watson speaking out his lines rather than singing them along to the accompaniment of a driving beat. Similar to “Legends,” “Am I Amarillo,” and previously released tracks “Riding With Red” and “Old Friend” all pay tribute to Watson’s many personal heroes who are either gone or still living today. The rock-inflected “Old Friend,” inspired by the passing of Tom Petty, came about after Watson caught two of his buddies arguing over politics in the midst of the 2017 Route 91 Harvest Festival tragedy, which took the innocent lives of 58.
“It made me sad because, like, this is not really the time to be discussing politics, people just lost loved ones,” Watson, who also closes out the record by honoring the victims of the shooting, said. “The next day Tom Petty passed away, and the same two guys that were going after each other’s throats, posted, basically, the same exact statements on Facebook. They were like, “Tom Petty’s music means so much to me. It changed my life. It’s helped me get through some hard times.” And that’s where I was like, ‘that’s what music is about.’ That’s when I wrote ‘Old Friend.’”
On the project, Watson weaves in lighthearted cuts like the lead single, “Kiss That Girl Goodbye” and the melodic “Heartstrings.” Both tunes were partly inspired by the proud father of three’s daughter, Jolee, whom he says is a “little diva” with a big voice.
“I wanted to write a song that empowered the girl,” Watson explained. “I’ve got a little girl, and I’m always letting her know like, ‘Girl, you’re the boss, so act like it.’ And she is. I want her to know she can do anything, achieve anything. She’s just gotta be willing to get out there and work hard and earn it. And I wanted it to be a song that empowered the girl. Where it’s like, ‘You can tell him that he can kiss you goodbye, ‘cause you’re gone. He’s not the one that gets to leave you. You’re dumping him. And everybody knows that.’ That’s where it’s just been fun. It’s a fun song to play live.”
As for “Heartstrings,” Watson says, “I actually wrote ‘Heartstrings’ with my daughter next to me, trying to teach her how to write a song. It’s so sweet. She was looking at me and we were talking about songwriting. And I was like, ‘Princess, if I wrote a song about you I would talk about the way you always like tug on my heart.’”
Prior to the release of Red Bandana, Watson shook up the country radio world with his two albums, Vaquero and The Underdog. The latter of the two charted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, while Vaquero spawned a record-breaking Top 10 with the catchy single, “Outta Style.”
“My career has just been kind of like that little snowball at the top of the mountain. In the beginning, it’s small and it’s moving slow, but after it works its way down that mountain, it starts to gain in size and momentum. And, I think that’s my career. We’re gaining some serious momentum,” Watson said with excitement. “I’ve been working on this album for two years. I’m really excited for my fans to get to enjoy it. I make music for my fans. What a blessing it is for me to get up on stage, and be able to sing my songs and do what I love. I’m really looking forward to just getting out there and working hard.”
Watson will bring new tunes to the stage when he begins his 2019 headlining tour, the Red Bandana Tour. The trek kicks off on June 28 in his hometown of Abilene, Texas, and currently runs through October.