To be completely honest, Aaron Watson has never been one of my favorite Texas country artists. He's recorded solid songs in his 15-year career ("Lonely Lubbock Nights" comes to mind) but has generally been surpassed by contemporaries like Pat Green and Charlie Robison in terms of commercial and critical success. On his latest release, though, it seems as if Aaron Watson has settled down into a mature rhythm that really suits him as an artist.
The highly-anticipated album The Underdog is Watson's 12th release since 1999, and easily his best record to date. Instead of the kitschy good ole boy tunes he used to record, Watson has finally grown up into the troubadour that he was intended to be. The Underdog is more evocative of Johnny Cash and Jason Isbell than Luke Bryan, with strong storytelling and lyricism paired with stripped-down vocals and authentic guitar playing.
Straight out of the gate, The Underdog is ridiculously good. "The Prayer" is as strong an opening track that any artist can hope for, with notes of Hank III and rich storytelling. Then the record jumps straight into "Wildfire," a punchy toe-tapper that would be perfectly at home on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. The record is a solid survey of many of country's favorite tropes, including western swing influence, tepidly sexy love ballads and old-school nostalgia.
There is the occasional hint of party boy pandering, but that is largely due to the fact that old musical tropes die hard. You'll also find a little cheesiness here and there: "Family Tree" really beats you over the head with its rootsy (sorry) metaphor, and is incredibly churchy compared to the other drinking and pot-smoking anthems that you'll hear in Texas Country. You could attribute this to Watson's well-documented past as a country traditionalist, but it's almost too schlocky to excuse.
Still, there is relatively little evidence of Aaron Watson's old-school style having been perverted by the influence of bro-country, which further indicates that country music is headed for a shift away from this pernicious trend. There's a heavy focus on nuanced songwriting, plenty of quality metaphor and no hint of sexist tropes. After three years of disappointing releases by country artists of all stripes, such a thoughtful, nuanced album is thoroughly refreshing.
Where The Underdog succeeds most, though, is in its range. On this album, Watson is making a case for his status as one the next Texans in line to be anointed by Nashville, even if he isn't particularly willing to bend to trendy stereotypes. By diversifying his sound and lyrical content, Watson is poised to become the next Brad Paisley -- a solid performer that isn't afraid to make music that doesn't sound exactly like the songs that accompany it on the charts.
Watson has clearly demonstrated his ability to record an album that has the potential to produce multiple hits, on charts in Texas and in the mainstream. The album's first single, a love ballad written for Watson's wife called "That Look," currently sits in the top 10 on the Texas Music Chart, but has yet to break into the Billboard Hot Country Songs. Give it time, though; it often takes months to find success in the mainstream, and this song has as good a chance as any other current country releases.
In recent months, Texas Country has done a lot to inspire confidence that it can once again positively influence the music that is being made in Nashville. Watson's The Underdog follows strong end-of-year and early 2015 releases from artists like William Clark Green and Wade Bowen. Viewed together, they set a pretty strong precedent for what the rest of the year is going to look like in terms of Texas Country music.
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This new generation of Texas Country artists has learned plenty from their predecessors in terms of style and sound, but brings a more refined approach to songwriting and performance. Cross Canadian Ragweed and Jason Boland were always having a great time making solid music, but it too often ended up being cast into the category of "party music," which suffers from the same mediocrity as bro-country. Put simply, nuanced love songs full of rich storytelling are just better than beer drinking anthems for frat boys.
If Texas Country music is to finally wedge into a permanent space in country music's broader, mainstream sound, there has never been a crop of artists more suited to make that happen. If these quality records from guys like Watson and Wade Bowen and William Clark Green are indicative of the future of Texas Country, it looks incredibly bright. Watson may be a fifteen year veteran of the industry, but his potential to blow up into the mainstream is probably bigger than ever.
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