"Honky tonk music may be my occupation, but I definitely don't live the lifestyle of a honky-tonker," says Aaron Watson, who's released eight albums so far without any help from Nashville. Along the way, he's recorded with Willie Nelson (who appears on Watson's 2004 album, The Honky Tonk Kid) and logged some 1,500 shows, which typically run more than two hours and are followed by autograph sessions that go just as long.
"If you treat your fans like family, then they'll do the same to you," says the Abilene, Texas artist. "I always tell people I use Jesus' business model, and they kind of laugh. But it sure does work. We independently sold enough copies of our last album to chart it at No. 27 on the Billboard country chart. I think people are going to be real surprised by what we accomplish all by ourselves."
While still an aspiring ballplayer, Watson enrolled in a beginner's guitar class at Abilene Christian University and, after hearing Clay Walker's Hypnotize the Moon album, was inspired to start writing songs. Among the most striking is "Barbed Wire Halo," a haunting ballad that originally appeared as the title track to his 2007 gospel album and is revisited on this year's Angels & Outlaws.
"Of all the songs that I have, that one is the most special," says Watson. "And for you to say it reminds you of Townes [Van Zandt] is a great compliment."
On the road, Watson says the utmost priority is to "make good clean music and give fans a good show."
"I'm a Christian, so in my opinion, you can't talk the talk and not walk the walk," he says. "I don't let my guys drink or anything. We're all about the music, and you know, I've fired many a good musician for drinking. And that's just how it is.
"We work hard and I pay these boys good money, and I expect the best out of them every night. You know, it's a real job, so treat it like a real job. Hey, they don't let you have a cold beer on your desk at the newspaper, do they?"
Whatever spirits are moving him these days, Watson's latest album produced by country-swing stalwart Ray Benson with backing by Texas greats like Lloyd Maines showcases some inspired writing. It also includes an unlikely pair of covers.
Replacing John Mayer's guitar parts with a pair of fiddles, says Watson, was pretty much all it took to turn "The Heart of Life" into a country song. Meanwhile, he enlisted his father's help to find a Waylon Jennings song that he thought "should have been a hit but wasn't."
"Waylon recorded 'Tulsa' in 1969 or '70, back before he found that backbeat, you know, that signature Waylon sound. So we kind of gave it that sound."
Watson's current tour includes stops at Waco's Heart O' Texas Coliseum and Oklahoma City's Wormy Dog Saloon, which he plays every few months. Why the Wormy Dog?
"I have no idea where the name comes from probably, I guess, a dog that didn't get its shots or something," ventures Watson. "I'll ask them for you next time I'm up there, and I'll call you and let you know."