Album Review – Aaron Watson’s “American Soul”
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)
January 11, 2021 @ 8:17 am
I’m an Aaron Watson fan for the most part, though he typically has too many filler tracks on his albums. He’s had some terrific songs through the years.
This effort, by and large, just doesn’t measure up to his others.
January 11, 2021 @ 11:26 am
If Pat Green was my introduction to Texas Country when I was really hitting my stride in getting into the genre then Aaron Watson blew the doors off for me. Fresh off my first true heartbreak I was on facebook and saw someone asking my ex if she was going to the Aaron Watson show. I looked him up and started with the Live at the Texas Hall of Fame specifically with “What She Don’t Know” and I must’ve played that song 100 times through in a row.
I really dug into his back catalogue at the time which wasn’t as big as it is now, but he was far and away my favorite. I’ve probably seen ever bit of 50+ AW shows. Now I said all that to say this, I just won’t go see AW in person anymore unless I’m invited. Its the same with Cody Johnson, the majority of the time they’re up on stage they’re rehashing the same tired in between song stories and “isms” for lack of a better term.
I loved The Underdog, and even vaquero had some decent stuff on it but I guess I haven’t given Red Bandana a fair shake especially after reading this review.
January 11, 2021 @ 12:11 pm
Same reason I don’t go see Roger Creager anymore. He never changed his setlist, and told the same stories.
January 11, 2021 @ 9:03 am
Aaron Watson should be the biggest star on country radio. His music is very listener friendly and most of all it is country. I just feel like his music is what modern country should be. Not the pop crap on the radio. I was raised on 90s country and he is a good evolution from that. I know some people will be very critical on this site about him but he is definitely one of the good guys.
January 11, 2021 @ 9:17 am
You know I get early to mid 2000’s contemporary vibes to this music which isn’t really a bad thing. I grew up with that style on the radio so I’m not opposed to it even though I prefer more traditional sounds. I recently discovered a album called “Living a Nightmare” by Tanner Sparks. Great traditional album with a voice that keeps bringing to mind Mark Chesnutt and Tracy Lawrence. So far it’s been my favorite of the albums released so far.
January 11, 2021 @ 9:40 am
Works for me.
He is the Texas version of Josh Turner. Which is what country music needs. Not every singer has to be some edgy, tortured soul overdosing on heroin.
For every singalong song Watson has, he balances it out with gut-shot songs in “Bluebonnets”, “July in Cheyenne”, “Barbed Wire Halo.” etc
And yes, Bro-Country definitely ruined some of these themes for people. You have a large segment of fans that turn their ears off once they hear “truck and tailgate.”
January 11, 2021 @ 10:35 am
“Not every singer has to be some edgy, tortured soul overdosing on heroin.” A classic statement.
And yet for some reason, many “glorify” those types.
January 11, 2021 @ 11:27 am
Because typically they’re the ones putting out quality music outsiders can relate to.
January 11, 2021 @ 1:13 pm
If outsiders like a country music artist, they are usually not very country.
strait country 81
January 11, 2021 @ 1:47 pm
I’ve had a few friends through MS/HS and a couple family members that don’t like country but love George Strait,Alan Jackson.
January 11, 2021 @ 6:18 pm
There are always exceptions to every rule.
Good for them, though. At least, they recognize quality music.
January 12, 2021 @ 11:18 am
It is the curse of Western art. The artist has to suffer and the characters have to suffer and then we all wonder why people are messed up. A culture becomes what it consumes.
A druggy hack ODs and we all weep. Maybe we shouldn’t have been glorifying his output until he flew right. Glorify debauchery and more debauchery will come.
Cool Lester Smooth
January 13, 2021 @ 9:00 am
Well, Justin Townes Earle (to whom he’s clearly referring, even if he only has the courage to slander him obliquely) was really fucking good.
Yuma, Midnight at the Movies, and Harlem River Blues are stone-cold classics of the last 15 years (Midnight made SCM’s “Decade” Top 10).
He certainly had his demons, but those demons weren’t why people loved him.
They’re just why an incredible artist was taken from us too soon, before he could fulfill his transcendent potential – these “tortured artist” types get a LOT better, once they get sober (see: Isbell, Jason; Barham, BJ; even Justin’s father).
People aren’t valorizing addiction when they memorialize someone like JTE – they’re lamenting what could have been, if they were this fucking good with a monkey on their back.
Bacon and beer
January 11, 2021 @ 10:06 am
Been a huge fan of his for years. This is definitely his weakest album. Have only listened through it once though. Might have to listen to it 2 or 3 more times.
Looking forward to whatever else he puts out this year – especially since he’s gone on the record saying that the next one may be more “outlaw” or traditional.
January 11, 2021 @ 10:58 am
The song “Country Radio” off of his last record was hands down one of THE year.
January 11, 2021 @ 11:08 am
One of THE BEST songs out of all of 2019 I meant to say.
January 11, 2021 @ 11:12 am
Couldn’t agree more.
January 11, 2021 @ 11:53 am
Kind of in a snarky mood today, so here’s my admittedly silly question, coming from someone who doesn’t know a lot about country history, but learning more every day thanks to this blog:
[ “He lays the list-like lyrics on thick, rattling off “truck,” “dashboard,” “beer cans,”
“coolers,” “Saturday night,” “]
I’ll assume Friday gets mentioned often in country songs, but what about the rest of the week? Are there any songs in the canon that name-checks -another- weeknight?
January 11, 2021 @ 3:27 pm
Lorrie Morgan went through every day of the week in one of her songs “except for Monday”
Robert's Country Blog
January 11, 2021 @ 4:30 pm
Dwight Yoakam’s “Then Here Came Monday” is a good one.
January 14, 2021 @ 4:46 pm
I think it was Gary Allen that said pop music is about the weekend while country music is about the rest of the week—going to work, family, heartache, aging parents, etc (real life stuff). I agree it’s hard to find a recent country song about the other days of the week because modern pop country doesn’t get much deeper those party “Saturday night” themes.
January 14, 2021 @ 4:48 pm
Sunday Mornin Comin Down 😉
BC in IL
January 11, 2021 @ 12:36 pm
I feel like this is a guilty pleasure album. One you throw on when you have to drive 45 min somewhere and want to listen to some fun music. Nothing that’ll really blow you away, or that you’ll share with a friend, but also doesnt have any auto-skip songs. If we want to talk about stereotypes “Best Friend” might be the best ‘my dog has died’ song I’ve ever heard. Well told, and heartbreaking, story.
January 11, 2021 @ 1:11 pm
I like Aaron Watson. I just rarely like his music. Every now and then I buy an album his and always like about 2 songs off it, and the rest are at best meh.
Clear Isobel of Vaquero is amazing though. The likes of Isbell could learn something about how to give an opinion on a touchy subject but not offend anyone.
The guy sounds like a nice person doing what he wants, so best of luck to him.
January 11, 2021 @ 2:02 pm
This exactly how I feel! His music is just missing something. Just does not have the hooks or something. The guys seem genuine and I really appreciate that about him. I buy his music but never really get hooked on it….
January 11, 2021 @ 3:54 pm
Pretty much what I was going to say. Always good for a couple good songs off each album, but never has become one of my favorites.
Jumpin' Jack Flash
January 11, 2021 @ 4:44 pm
Excellent take. Red Bandana was the record that convinced me to give AW a fair shot, and this one really did nothing for me. Looking forward to what he’s got in store later this year
January 11, 2021 @ 4:53 pm
I enjoyed every song on the album except “Touchdown Town.” Maybe because it is something I don’t really relate to…
January 11, 2021 @ 5:18 pm
Great review, as usual. I like Aaron Watson precisely in his crowd-pleasing, entertainer role, which is probably why I also like Jon Wolfe. As such, I thoroughly enjoyed this album. I can’t argue with any of your negatives, as they’re all true, but it makes me want to see Aaron for a third time and hear some of these live. This damn pandemic cannot end soon enough!
January 11, 2021 @ 8:23 pm
Aaron Watson was my getaway into nonmainstream Country. I discovered his song I Met Jesus In A Bar back many years ago on I-tunes and never realized there was a whole other side of country music. I was hooked. I will have to check this album out. I am one of those odd times that can listen to anything from Aaron Watson to Cody Jinks to Luke Bell to Rusty Wier to Whitey Morgan. Thanks to Aaron, it lead to the path to most of the artists I listen to now. Seen Aaron 3 times and he always puts on a great show and is a class act.
February 11, 2021 @ 10:13 pm
OK…..here I am 1 month later because “I” have taken my time before chiming in on something I haven’t given my FULL amount of listens to until now…………. and this album is currently #3 in my rotation because it POPS and it’s PUNCHY with hooks and choruses. I know he/they are trying to ingratiate themselves into boyfriend Country and you know what?………. they do a damn job of it. I gave many many spins to Red Bandana and although it was too long and overbloated it still had a few good songs……………..
I know you’re wondering what my #1 and #2 albums are at the moment………………….. and those are Craig Gerdes – Tough As Nails and that outlaw of allllllll outlaws (you know I’m kidding about the outlaw thing) Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous half album of 16 songs….(that I chose) Ohhhhhh he’s such a bad bad boy……………….LOL but you know what?……………..good songs are G O O D songs and he stays no matter what he said.