RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Aaron Watson is a Texas artist with a fairly typical sound who sings about rodeos, fence posts and family. He releases his albums independently and doesn't get played on country radio. Last month, however, his latest release, "The Underdog," became the number one country album in America, pushing aside more familiar names like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean. Watson's success says something about the changing reality of country music and pop music, in general, in the Internet age. NPR's music critic Ann Powers is here to talk about it. Good morning.
ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey, Renee. How are you?
MONTAGNE: Fine. Thank you. So fill us in on Aaron Watson and how he got to be number one.
POWERS: Aaron Watson is a veteran artist. He has 12 albums to his name. And he's part of a scene in Texas that's connected to traditional country and has a parallel in Oklahoma - a scene called red dirt music. Both of these scenes are based on live performance, lots of touring, some Internet radio, but also just old-fashioned regional radio and selling it straight to the fans. And these artists stand proudly outside the mainstream. Like, here's Aaron Watson on his song "Fence Post," talking about how he's not going to capitulate to what commercial pop music demands of him.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FENCE POST")
AARON WATSON: (Singing) He said, son, don't get offended by what I'm about to say. I can see you have a passion for the songs you write and play.
MONTAGNE: Now, to my ears, this sounds like something that would be perfectly commercial.
POWERS: And, Renee, a lot of fans agree with you. But it's not what's getting played so much on country radio right now, where you're hearing artists like Blake Shelton or Jason Aldean. It's not about slick production, and it's not about necessarily the endless spring break that we get from top artists. Instead, it's about these musicians who grow along with their audience. A great example is two guys, Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen, who are putting out an album together later this spring that represents a decade of them touring together. It's an album about their relationship with each other and with the fans, and it's quintessential, classic Texas country music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HAD MY HOPES UP HIGH")
RANDY ROGERS AND WADE BOWEN: Standing on a highway with my coffee cup, wondering who's going to pick me up. I had my hopes up high.
MONTAGNE: This from the soon-to-be-released album called - what? - "Hold My Beer."
POWERS: "Hold My Beer," which is what they do. One will hold the other's beer while they're telling a story and sharing it with their fans.
MONTAGNE: Should really hoping for them to take over Nashville anytime soon?
POWERS: Well, I'm not hoping for that, Renee, because I like a lot of mainstream Nashville country, as well. What I think we're seeing is what we see in all areas of popular music, which is you have the stuff that gets played on commercial radio, the stuff you see on television award shows. And then you have all of these different scenes that operate on various levels of the underground. In rock and roll, it might be the kind of punk rock you hear on the Warped Tour, which has been going on for years and years.
Traditional Texas country and red dirt music is just one of those scenes that's going to keep thriving alongside the mainstream and support those artists through long careers. It's also even happening in a good old form called Southern rock. Before Aaron Watson topped the country chart, a band called Blackberry Smoke out of Atlanta did. And this is a band that has long hair, conjures the age of bell bottoms, really gets that Skynyrd, Allman Brothers vibe going on. And that kind of music has an audience, too. That's the beauty of pop in the 21st century. There's room for all of it.
MONTAGNE: NPR music critic Ann Powers, glad to have you back.
POWERS: Thanks, Renee.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET ME HELP YOU")
BLACKBERRY SMOKE: (Singing) I've heard it all before.
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