You’ve got to give it up for Aaron Watson. Throughout his long and storied career as a Texas country chart topper, he’s always managed to stay true to himself. Standing in stark contrast to Texas country’s rowdier, more party-driven elements, Watson has carved himself out a unique niche. In the last few years, though, that niche has started to get bigger and bigger. Without a doubt, Watson is Texas country’s most underrated mainstream success in recent years.
This year, Watson’s The Underdog shot up the Billboard Hot Country chart to debut at No. 1 with no major label support or significant radio airtime. Critics appreciated Watson’s stoic approach to his signature sound, which remains as Texan as ever. Still, for whatever reason, Watson has captivated mainstream country fans who other artists from Texas have really struggled to keep interested. Now he's looking to take his show, and therefore Texas country music, to Europe.
This week, Watson announced he would return (yes, return) to Europe in 2016, with dates in the U.K., France and Italy. Perhaps most notably, Watson will play the inaugural Billy Bob’s Texas Country Fair in Padua, Italy. Your eyes do not deceive you; Watson will headline a festival in Italy that is sponsored by Fort Worth’s most famous honky-tonk. That certainly sounds bizarre, but it speaks to the growing popularity of country music in Europe, partly driven by Watson himself.
Over the past five years, Watson has been touring and shoring up a “loyal and passionate” fan base in Europe. While in England, he’ll be presented a gold record alongside Universal Belgium recording artist (and Belgian The Voice contestant) Robby Longo for the duo’s recording of Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues.” He’ll also play five mid-sized clubs and theaters and make two festival appearances. To say that fans are enjoying his traditional sound is a given, but Texas' part in the growing European interest in country music could mean big things for the genre.
It’s worth noting that Europe has enjoyed country music for years, in particular a grittier, more traditional sound. In the 1990s, mainstream pop-country artists made their way to Europe, perhaps paving the way for the genre to see broader popularity there, but fans (and local musicians) quickly wanted something that sounded more like the old-school, Willie-Waylon-and-Cash style country tunes they’d grown up on.
As a result, homegrown traditional country artists are starting to gain traction in Holland, the U.K. and France, but country music’s presence in Europe has always been niche, and frequently appears in the more rebellious European subcultures. In Czechoslovakia, bluegrass was used by musicians in rebellion against communism. To that end, Texas country’s own subversive nature — namely staying almost entirely separate from Nashville — makes perfect sense, not to mention the traditional aesthetic and sound.
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Some Texas artists have also seen success in Europe, and the music of our home state has always been popular abroad. In 2013, Pat Green toured through Switzerland and Italy. The Dixie Chicks are headed to Ireland and the U.K. next year, and Kacey Musgraves was abroad earlier this year on her Pageant Material tour. Before that, Townes Van Zandt cultivated a great deal of popularity in France. Even before that, western swing legends such as Bob Wills found an audience in Germany. Even artists who never played a show in Europe have a lingering influence.
And really, there couldn’t be a better ambassador for our homegrown genre than Aaron Watson. He’s a stand-up guy, and his music is solid. Most important, though, Watson has this uncanny ability to cultivate a following, a fact that Grady Smith noted at The Guardian earlier this year. “Watson is that rare kind of artist, like Macklemore, who builds up enough notoriety as an independent entity that the public is forced to take notice,” Smith wrote.
Clearly there is demand for Watson across the pond, but what could popularity in Europe mean for Texas country as a genre? For starters, it means an entirely new audience for artists who are struggling to find their place outside of Texas. It also provides young artists with a place to go and hone their skills in front of more diverse audiences than the ones in Texas’ honky-tonks and college bars, perhaps also encouraging diversity of sound. It could go a long way to repair Texas’ “totally Texas,” as the Danes would say, reputation in Europe, too. It would be nice to be known for something other than being batshit crazy.