Aaron Watson hasn’t been sleeping well for the past couple years.
But the Red Dirt country star doesn’t have chronic insomnia. He’s sleepless from songwriting.
The sleep deprivation began when he started trying to write songs on his Texas ranch, aiming at following up 2017’s “Vaquero” album.
“Getting up really early every morning before the kids get up, before my wife gets up, and writing, writing, writing. I don’t think I’ve slept that well for the last two years,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I’d wake up at 4 a.m. and go, ‘There’s a song in my head.’ I’ve kept that going. I’ve already written a bunch of new songs. I might never sleep right again.”
The first batch of songs Watson wrote make up “Red Bandana,” the album he released in June on his Big Label.
“I just kind of had this idea — 20 songs for 20 years I’ve been doing this,” he said.
“This is a way of saying thank you to the fans. I know everybody’s saying albums are a thing of the past and they’re putting out three-song EPs, five songs, singles. I just wanted to give my fans a bunch of music they can enjoy.”
“Red Bandana” opens with “Ghost of Guy Clark,” in which Watson imagines the legendary Texas songwriter evaluating Watson’s work — and not always in the most positive way.
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“He’s my hero,” Watson said. “I love (Paul) McCartney, John Lennon, (Bob) Dylan, (Bruce) Springsteen. But Guy Clark was the best. His songwriting is timeless. It doesn’t get old. Honestly, it’s like The Beatles — there’s something about Guy Clark’s songs. I’ve listened to them hundreds of times and they never get old, and it’s just a guy and his guitar.
“I share Guy with a lot of new songwriters when they ask me about how to write songs,” he added. “First of all, you need to write. Then you need to listen if you want to be a better songwriter — listen to their songs, pay attention to what they’re doing. I’ve gone to the school of Guy Clark, just by listening. He’s who I want to be when I grow up.”
“Ghost of Guy Clark,” however, isn’t really about Clark.
“That song is kind of a manifesto,” Watson said. “That’s a song I wrote, telling me I need to stick to myself, to what I do. Staying independent, there are a lot of perks and there are a lot of obstacles. It doesn’t matter how good the song is, if you’re not signed to a major label, you’ve decreased the odds of getting mainstream airplay about a million percent. But that song is about staying true to your brand, no matter what.”
Unusually structured — it doesn’t have a chorus — “Ghost of Guy Clark” starts an album that has instrumentals, fun little numbers, a tune about cowboy poet/singer Red Steagall, love songs and moments of self-reflection.
“I wanted to stay true to my brand of music, but I wanted to add different flavors,” Watson said of “Red Bandana.” I wanted to give them something better, to be honest. I really pushed myself to be a better writer.”
“Red Bandana,” which debuted at No. 7 on the country charts, accomplished that goal. It has some of the best songs Watson has written. But it’s caused him to look back at his earlier songs, including “Outta Style,” his Top 10 hit from “Vaquero.”
“I think those songs are still good. I’m so proud of them, but I see there’s fat that I could have trimmed off,” Watson said. “Maybe that’s the key to it, to write just what it needs to be. I wasn’t at that point in my career then. I think I’m getting there now.”
Watson credits that to his change in his songwriting philosophy: “You stop going after a hit and you start going after your heart,” he said.
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Then the songs start to appear more often, to the point where they can’t be turned off, he said.
“I can’t turn off my brain. I can’t even chill out,” Watson said. “But I love it. For me, the most satisfying thing is finishing that song. For those brief minutes after, my life is complete. Then I start on another one.”
Writing songs, not recording them, is what Watson wanted to do when he gave up baseball for guitar and started working under the influence of George Jones, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.
“My dream was never to be some big Nashville star,” he said. “That was never my dream. My career as an artist is much bigger than I ever expected it to be. I wanted to be a songwriter, that guy who lived out on a ranch and wrote songs and messed with his cows all day. But no one would cut my songs, so I had to.”
That started in 1999 with the appropriately titled “Singer/Songwriter” and has continued through 15 albums, including “The Underdog” in 2015, the first independent album to top the country charts.
Watson’s albums include live recordings with a live show that has built his audience outside of Texas and Oklahoma. He’ll bring it to the Wildwood Smokehouse & Saloon in Iowa City on Feb. 27.
“The live show is good,” he said. “I’m really starting to hit my stride as a performer and the band is great. I always say if they had a good singer, they could really go someplace.”
• What: Aaron Watson
• Where: Wildwood Smokehouse & Saloon, 4919 Walleye Dr. SE, Iowa City
• When: 8 p.m. Feb. 27; all-ages show
• Tickets: $25 general admission; Wildwoodsaloon.com
• Artist’s website: Aaronwatson.com