Aaron Watson may be the most enigmatic entertainer in all of country music. I’m not talking about “enigmatic” in the manner of a Sturgill Simpson or something, where they see-saw between manic and depressive moods, and put fans on a roller coaster ride through wild forays into varied musical influences. Aaron Watson is enigmatic in the way that you won’t find someone more fiercely dedicated to the independent approach to country music in all of its facets, but who will also still release songs that feel like they’re prattling for commercial acceptance … and then turn right back around and release a spectacularly-written sentimental ballad that reels you right back in. Nobody is more of a moving target than Aaron Watson.
The native Texan holds the distinction of being the first independent solo artist in the modern era to mint a #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart when the aptly-titled The Underdog did it in 2015. Building a dedicated following through his family business and family values approach, and dedicating his energy to the rodeo circuit to build a fan base similar to Chris LeDoux, Aaron Watson is nothing short of an independent country music hero. However, the music doesn’t always fit the motif we’re normally used to from such independent country performers.
Watson’s last record Red Bandana from 2019 was a 20-song treatise, all written by Watson, starting off with a recitation tribute to Guy Clark, and rewarding listeners with numerous well-written and decidedly country songs, along with a few cuts that seemed to cater to radio. Independent country listeners who’d already cast off Watson’s output from previous efforts missed out on one of the the best, and most surprising records of the year.
His latest record American Soul is not exactly that. The lion’s share of the 10 songs are steeped in Watson’s more crowd-pleasing, commercial style. He lays the list-like lyrics on thick, rattling off “truck,” “dashboard,” “beer cans,” “coolers,” “Saturday night,” “football” “touchdown,” “dogs tags,” etc. etc, often in rapid succession in songs. There are some big exceptions, but building easy songs around obvious buzzwords is mostly what American Soul is about.
Aaron Watson has been hinting heavily that 2020 will include two records, and the second one will be straight up traditional country. Perhaps instead of releasing a 20-song record where you try and satisfy everyone by presenting both sides of the Aaron Watson enigmatic dichotomy intermixed together, you give the Aaron Watson fans who love his easy, simple, list-laden singalongs what they want on one record (and trust me, those fans are ample), and then you give the singer/songwriter and traditional country fans their favorites on another. That way you mitigate the conflict, and misunderstanding. So far we only have one piece of that puzzle. But if this is Aaron’s strategy, that may not be an entirely bad plan.
What you really have to understand about Aaron Watson is that he’s not “selling out.” Aaron Watson really seems to enjoy these kinds of simple, catchy songs that win a wide audience and result in a carefree good time by many. He gets off on giving the audience what they want. He’s not some troubled soul like Sturgill or Isbell. And if he tried to play that role, he’d be lying to himself, and his fans. That would be the sellout move. Aaron Watson is an entertainer, and embraces that role. And even when he releases a rather simplistic song, the fiddle is still high in the mix, and it’s hard to not label it at least some version of “country.” If it weren’t for all the damage Bro-Country did last decade to list songs, this material would be deemed a lot more acceptable, because it’s still fun, and country.
This isn’t to completely excuse the sometimes shallow, and formulaic nature of certain Aaron Watson’s songs, especially on American Soul. It’s simply to explain there’s no ulterior motives here. This is just Aaron Watson being Aaron Watson. Some instances when he does try to get deep and sentimental, it still feels pretty safe, like the otherwise honorable and reverent “Dog Tags.” It’s still an obvious play to a demographic, and doesn’t show off the best of what Aaron Watson is capable of, like when he writes about a dog in “Best Friend,” and brings the great depth of story we all know Watson can wield when he really wants to.
But the American Soul effort is salvaged by enough deeper and more sentimental moments, as well as the title track. No artist has the benefit of controlling how an album release will align with current events in a manner that may render it more potent, poignant, and timely. But “American Soul”—which is arguably the album’s best song—benefits not just from Watson’s heart and effort, but perfect timing.
American Soul will not be the record to win over traditional and independent country fans already leery of Aaron Watson’s output. However, it will be a healthier alternative to much of the mainstream, and warmly welcomed by many of Aaron Watson’s core fans who just want to have a good time and forget their cares, and find Aaron Watson their favorite artist to help them do so.
1 1/4 Guns Up (6/10)