Right now the number one album on the country chart is called The Underdog. That’s a fitting name for Aaron Watson’s twelfth album, which the Abilene singer-songwriter self-released last week. Perhaps only in a culture as regimented as that of Nashville country music is a guy like Watson—a good-looking white fella with a big voice who likes to sing about loving God and America—truly an “underdog.” But in a world where Gary Overton, the CEO and chairman of Sony Music Nashville, recently declared that “if you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist,” the apparently nonexistent Watson, with his chart-topping album, definitely fits the bill.
Overton’s full comments to the Nashville Tennessean last week now seem a bit specious:
You can ask people in the building, and I can be quoted several times a day, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” Again I can’t think of one star, much less superstar in country music, who wasn’t broken by country radio. It’s just a fact. That’s where the active audience is. That’s where they go to listen to it. People talk about, “It’s a media act. It’s a groundswell. We’re going to build it virally.” That’s all nice, but I defy you to tell me one act that made it big without country radio.
“Made it big” is a subjective analysis—Overton’s “big” might not be yours or mine—but even the head of Sony Nashville would have to recognize that topping the country chart is a good start. (On the overall Billboard 200, Watson’s album debuted at number fourteen, the second-highest debut of the week, behind Imagine Dragons.)
The Underdog is a pleasant slice of old-school, traditional country music that doesn’t bother with the big rock guitars and pop hooks of the trendy bro-country acts—Watson is more George Strait than Florida Georgia Line—though Watson himself is quick, when discussing his success, to make it clear that he doesn’t see that as a value judgment. When discussing the mainstream in country music right now with Rolling Stone, he explained,
“People ask me about the Sam Hunt record,” he says of Montevallo, the pop-influenced, heavily synthesized album that’s currently sitting just below The Underdog on the country charts. “Sam Hunt’s record is killing it. I own that record. It’s probably the most un-country record I’ve ever heard in the country music industry, but at the same time, it’s a great record. My record is incredibly country in comparison, and that’s ok. I’ve told people, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be a shame if you went to the store and the only kind of jelly on the shelf was grape?’ Sometimes you want apricot. Sometimes you want strawberry. You need different flavors.”
That’s a diplomatic way to discuss the changes in country music—and what’s considered country music—that have taken place in an ever-shifting industry. But Watson doesn’t seem the type to badmouth anybody, and there’d be no margin for him to do it anyway: if there’s a battle here, it’s one he’s winning.
The Underdog’s first-week sales figure of 26,000 speaks, in part, to a slow time of year on the charts: last October, when Florida Georgia Line released its most recent album, it topped the charts with a rather more robust 197,000 copies scanned, while fellow Nashville bros Jason Aldean and Eric Church both sold more than ten times as many first-week copies as Watson. But qualifying Watson’s success by comparing it to the biggest stars of the moment ignores other important parts of his story: namely, that Watson has put out as many albums as Aldean, Church, and Florida Georgia Line combined, and it’s usually better to peak late than to peak early.
Even people with little to say about Watson’s success have been arguing against Overton’s suggestion that Nashville is everything and that the current blockbuster country acts outside of it are just a fad. In a deliciously poisonous (and mostly coherent) open letter to Overton, Austin’s Charlie Robison wrote:
A few words for Gary Overton. I was signed by Warner bros, and Sony during the days I had the patience to smile while ignorant pencil pushing, mullet headed expense account rapists like you ran those labels. I’m on the road right now and just finished putting on a show for the folks in Shreveport. That’s a town u call a blip on ur screen.
I don’t know Aaron Watson well but I do know you well though I’ve never met you. What I know about you is so sad. I spent so many years in Nashville watching you ignorant wastes of space sit behind your big desk and act like me and all the the Texas/Red dirt artists don’t exist. Well Mr. “I have a job today but as soon as Florida/Georgia line goes out of style, and believe me dumbass they will, you will not exist.” Saying that music does not exist unless it’s on the radio is like saying you don’t exist because you never got laid until you got your two week job as the head of Walmart Records.
I probably have a bigger house than you (for the time being because you’ll be back in the mail room like all the other Nashville (heads). I’ll still be playing for crowds that have been loyal to me for 25 years). Lemme cut you in on some people who don’t exist. Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Robert Keen, Vincent Van Gogh and Picasso didn’t exist for a long time. Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, and the ever terrible songwriter Steve Earle. When the world of music fans go to bed tonight they’ll be singing these amazing artists in their head. You my friend will be wondering how you could ever reach your unreachable place in the annals of mediocrity. Have fun hovering above your tombstone and listening to people say “who the fuck is that?” as they make they’re way to Townes’s grave. I’m sorry I lost my train of thought, I think it was, “Who doesn’t exist?” Yep, that’s it Gary Overton. Sweetheart
As Austin music writer Michael Corcoran pointed out on Facebook, it’s likely that the big house Robison lives in was paid for by his ex-wife’s Dixie Chicks royalties, but the point stands: the divide between what Nashville thinks exists and what the people who buy country records think exists is pretty wide. It has been for a long time—recall the ad Johnny Cash took out in Billboard after he won the Best Country Album Grammy for 1996’s Unchained—but that divide is only highlighted when someone like Watson ascends the country chart on a self-released album.
It’s uncertain what the future holds for Watson, at least in terms of chart position—he’ll be up against Shania Twain’s Still the One: Live From Vegas this week, the much-missed singer’s first release in well over a decade. But even assuming he doesn’t hold on to a top-ten spot on the chart, the message is clear: just as the Internet (and the collapse of the traditional record industry) paved the way for indie rock bands to become stars without institutional support, just as it gave fans the opportunity to make a superstar out of an independent, self-released artist like Macklemore, country music isn’t immune from changing forces. If you’re not on country radio, you might have been invisible in years past, but these days, even the Nashville establishment has to recognize that the power to connect with fans is increasingly in the hands of the artists.
Before long, there’ll probably be a country version of Macklemore—that is, an independent artist who not only competes with the biggest superstars on their own terms but overtakes them in sales and forces the establishment to take notice. It might even turn out to be Watson—anybody whose twelfth album is his biggest hit is someone whose career has a long tail. Let’s see what happens next.