About two years ago, Aaron Watson had returned home from dropping his kids off at school and was sitting at his kitchen table when he received one heck of a phone call: His 10th studio album (12th overall), The Underdog, had debuted at the top of the Billboard country charts; he was the first solo male artist to accomplish that feat with a self-released, independently distributed and promoted studio project.

"[My wife and I] celebrated that moment," Watson recalls, "but it probably wasn't 30 minutes later that I went, 'Oh my goodness, I've got to get to work ..."

With the release of his 13th album, Vaquero, on Friday (Feb. 24), Watson clearly has a lot to live up to. He's not letting it get to him, though.

"My approach to this album was really simple," Watson tells The Boot. "It's basically the same kind of thing that I tell my two little boys before a big baseball game ... 'Hey, if you get out there and you give it all you've got, if you just go above and beyond, at the end of the day, whether you win or lose, you're going to sleep good at night knowing you gave it your best effort.'"

Watson released his first album in 1999 -- 18 years ago -- so while Vaquero feels like his sophomore album to national audiences, the singer-songwriter isn't afraid of the so-called "sophomore slump."

"I feel like I'm more slow and steady rather than up and coming," Watson says. "To have the pressure of people expecting a great album from you is a lot better than it was the first several years when nobody cared ..."

Besides, as Watson points out, before making a name for himself nationally with The Underdog, the artist was making a living for himself on the Texas country music scene, "so for over a decade, I've been having a lot of success in a state that's bigger than some countries." He compares his slow-and-steady climb to national success to the 40-year-old who saves up to buy his dream sports car: "There's no way that a young 20-year-old can truly appreciate what has happened to me over the last few years like someone who's 39 and been doing this for a long time."

"We have a lot of blood sweat and tears invested, and it's exciting," Watson continues. "I'm independent not because i'm not good enough; I'm independent because I'm unwilling to sell out on my music or my fans ... I'm independent by choice."

Vaquero's 16 tracks combine love songs for his wife with musings about the "good old days." Moments of love and levity mix with storytelling and seriousness, and culminate with a gonna-make-you-cry song for Watson's little girl, called "Diamonds and Daughters;" he penned the tune for daughter Jolee Kate after writing The Underdog's title track for her brothers, Jake and Jack.

"When [my daughter] found out that her brothers got a song and she didn't, she was not happy with me," Watson recalls. Jolee Kate, the singer says, is "a total daddy's girl," and as he gushes about her during his interview with The Boot, it's obvious that the feeling's mutual.

"Even though I wrote that for Jolee Kate, I wanted all daughters ... to hear that song and just know that they're special," Watson adds.

Songs like "Be My Girl," "Run Wild Horses" and "Take You Home Tonight," meanwhile, reflect a grown-up kind of love -- the kind of love songs someone can sing after years of marriage and multiple children.

"Right now, there's a lot of boys singing love songs ... There's not men singing love songs," Watson muses. "I'm singing about something that's the complete opposite of shallow; I'm not singing about some puppy-love one night stand."

Things haven't always been easy for Watson and his wife -- their daughter Julia Grace died shortly after she was born in October of 2011, and Watson admits that when you're a adult, with adult responsibilities and adult stresses, marriage can be tough -- but as he says, "My wife and I, we aren't perfect for each other; we're persistent for each other."

"It's easy to be passionate about each other when it's young love," Watson continues. "It takes work to keep that passion, to keep that fire ... [We're] just constantly pushing ourselves to be better for each other."

Right now, there's a lot of boys singing love songs ... There's not men singing love songs.

Vaquero's biggest moment, though, comes halfway in, on its ninth and 10th tracks, "Mariano's Dream" and "Clear Isabel." Together, the songs tell the story of "a Mexican law man," Mariano, and his "pride and joy," his daughter Isabel, who escape to the U.S. after the cartel murders Mariano's son: "South Texas looks like heaven when you're down here in this living hell / So, come on, let's cross that rio, the coast is clear ..." The narrator's family takes the refugees in, and he falls in love with, marries and has a son with Isabel -- but Mariano is discovered to be in America illegally and sent back to Mexico. Unfortunately, by the time the narrator and Isabel obtain a green card, it's too late: "He'd been gunned down in a border town / Shot in the back ..."

"I wanted this album to have epic moments," Watson says, though he wasn't anticipating that the songs would feel so timely.

"We were all immigrants -- unless you were an American Indian -- we're all blessed to be in this country," Watson muses, "but, at the same time, we need to have secure borders, which make us safe, and we need to quite allowing them to bring drugs ...

"It's such a complex issue, but at the end of the day, the problem is this: The left side and the right side, they both refuse to be respectful and acknowledge each other's point ...," he continues. "There needs to be love, and grace, and mercy, and compassion and understanding."

Vaquero is available on iTunes, Amazon and Watson's official website; Watson's upcoming tour dates are also available on AaronWatson.com.

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