Country Music

Classy Aaron Watson Shuts Down the Internet Outrage Machine

It was an innocent enough post. On Halloween, Texas country singer Aaron Watson, who performs at 93Q's "Country at the Ballpark" festival this Saturday at Sugar Land's Constellation Field, shared a photo of his family dressed up in costume. Watson and his son were dressed up like Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, and his wife was dressed up like Disney’s version of Pocahontas. In light of the protests in Standing Rock, North Dakota, it’s perhaps no surprise that a number of fans were offended by Watson turning an actual, real-life hero into a Halloween caricature.

And, because the Internet’s outrage machine never takes a break, controversy swirled. Fans began to leave comments on Watson’s Instagram account criticizing him for cultural appropriation and racism. Many pointed out the fact that actual Native people were being pelted with rubber bullets and tear gas by police while Watson and his wife were trick-or-treating with her kids. Whether or not you agree with these criticisms and accusations of cultural insensitivity, Watson clearly took them to heart.

Tuesday, he offered a public apology in response to the flap alongside a photo of an arrowhead found on his property. It’s important to read his statement in full, because it provides a whole lot of insight to the kind of stand-up dude that Aaron Watson really is, and an important lesson for the country artists who will undoubtedly end up pulling similarly stupid, probably racist stunts in the future.

Last night my wife dressed up as Pocahontas and it caused a bit of an uproar when I posted a picture of her online. It bothered me to think we may have unintentionally hurt someone's feelings, as well as seeing all the arguing in the comments. Out of respect, I removed the picture. It is important to Kim and I that we let everyone know we were not intending to be disrespectful to Native Americans in any way.

There are countless Native American families who support my music and my family and we love each and every one of them, as we do all our fans. She was simply just dressing up as a Disney character from a movie. If we offended anyone we hope you will accept our sincerest apologies. Last week, Jack and I were excited to find this arrow head out at our place. I explained to Jack that this land belonged to the Indians long before it belonged to us.

I also explained to him how the American Indians have been mistreated and how they are still mistreated today. The most important thing to take from this is that we all need to be kind, respectful, sympathetic, and loving towards each other. A simple sincere apology can go a long way. Also, If you have been watching the news then you have seen there are many Native Americans going thru some very hard times right now...please keep them in your prayers. Have a blessed day.

On face, Watson’s apology looks a whole lot like the “sorry you were offended” line that celebrities tend to trot out when they find themselves in trouble. But when you look beyond the “if you were offended,” you’ll find a whole lot of nuance, and what comes across as a very genuine, honest meditation on his own privilege. It’s a straightforward mea culpa, one that doesn’t accuse anyone of being “overly sensitive” or pointing to “political correctness gone awry.” Nope, Aaron Watson realizes here that he’s screwed up, and he’s sorry. He even deleted the photo from his social-media platforms.

Let’s contrast Watson’s response with Jason Aldean’s. Last year, also on Halloween, Aldean actually went out in public wearing blackface and a dreadlocks wig as part of a Lil’ Wayne costume. Aldean hemmed and hawed around the controversy back when it happened, and sort-of explained himself in an interview with SPIN earlier this year. “In this day and age people are so sensitive that no matter what you do, somebody is going to make a big deal out of it,” said Aldean. “ I get that race is a touchy subject, but not everybody is that way. Media tends to make a big deal out of things. If that was disrespectful to anyone, I by all means apologize. That was never my intention. It never crossed my mind.”

Here, Aldean’s statement qualifies as an apology only in that it includes the word “apologize.” Aldean doesn’t seem to understand why it’s racist for a white man to dress up in blackface, a harmful caricature that has been used to demean African-Americans for literal hundreds of years. He also seems to blame overly “sensitive” critics instead of his own stupid actions for the controversy. Long story short, Jason Aldean demonstrated everything that you shouldn’t do in the aftermath of doing an ignorant, racist stunt.

But Aldean isn’t the only other country star (see: Julianne Hough, Hank Williams, Jr., Brad Paisley) who has found themselves in the middle of a controversy involving race, which really shouldn’t be all that surprising. Few genres are as historically white and conservative as country, not to mention the fact that there’s already an underlying, inherent racism that has long gone unaddressed. We are all raised in a culture that values almost nothing more than whiteness, and are all inevitably going to say or do plenty of racist things in our time on this spinning rock.

What matters, though, is how a person, artist or otherwise, behaves after they’ve done something racist. An honest apology that doesn’t shift blame is an important start, but Watson takes it one dramatic step further in taking an opportunity to educate his son, a privileged white man in the making, about the painful history of Native Americans in the United States. He acknowledges that he is living on occupied land, and notes that “mistreatment” of Native people isn’t something that’s relegated to the time of Pocahontas — it’s a real living thing, and it’s a problem.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, Watson acknowledges and offers prayers for the water protectors who are protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, set to transport nearly half a million barrels of crude oil through sacred land in North Dakota. He’s not packing his boots to go paint protest signs just yet, but Watson’s show of solidarity is one of very, very few to come out of the world of country music in recent weeks.

And sure, Watson is no race scholar. He’s probably not going to be leading any marches anytime soon. But at this point, it’s important to acknowledge when country artists actually get it right because the instances are so unacceptably rare. Put simply, there are a whole lot more Jason Aldeans than there are Aaron Watsons, and that’s a real shame.

With a single Instagram post, Aaron Watson has provided a nearly foolproof blueprint for the next country artist — or anyone — who finds themselves in a similar situation. And because country music does have that race problem, the one that we so frequently refuse to acknowledge, it inevitably will happen again. It’s just that now no one has any excuse to not do better.

Aaron Watson performs alongside Jake Owen, Frankie Ballard, LANCo and Runaway June at 93Q's Country at the Ballpark, Saturday, November 5 at Constellation Field, 1 Stadium Dr., Sugar Land. Gates open at 3:30 p.m.; see for details.
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Amy McCarthy is a food writer and country music critic who splits time between Dallas and Houston. Her music writing is regularly featured in the Houston Press and has also appeared in Texas Monthly, Salon, VICE, Playboy, and Pitchfork.