Album Review – Aaron Watson’s “The Underdog”
As singles and individual songs from The Underdog were released ahead of the album, almost immediately their availability was heralded by a hot rise to the top of the iTunes chart, speaking to the loyalty of Watson’s fan base and the serious marketing push ahead of this effort. Yes, Aaron Watson’s good will sown with the rodeo crowd and parts of the Christian demo is rightly to blame for what has been a very successful run up to this album release, but there’s also been money spent, and hands shaken to help make all this happen.
All of a sudden ads for Aaron Watson started showing up in radio trade magazines—pretty unheard of for an independent artist. Pop country über DJ Bobby Bones even played Aaron Watson’s controversial protest song “Fence Post” to his nationally-syndicated audience, and the song shot up the iTunes charts upon release as well. But even with all the iTunes success, The Underdog‘s lead single “That Look” still could only muster a #41 on the Billboard country chart. Aaron Watson may be surprising many folks, but the “underdog” tag still applies.
At least it does for the moment. In the coming weeks, he could be etching out a soaring trajectory similar to Strugill Simpson, if not even stronger, dazzling onlookers as he defies his independent and radio-ignored status to steal headlines. On the day of The Underdog‘s release, it is #1 in country on iTunes, and #6 overall, and rising. It will likely debut at #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart if this form holds.
The stereotypical take on Texas country from an outsider’s point of view is that its more rock, and has more sensibilities than most other independent country, but with more authenticity than Nashville. The sector Aaron Watson inhabits in Texas music is the more traditional country wing of the scene with the likes of Jason Boland and Jason Eady.
But The Underdog finds Aaron Watson very much seeking out commercial sensibilities, whether constructed or accidental, and making an album nobody should be surprised by if it finds the widest audience of his career, especially with the promotional effort underway behind it. These are authentic country songs, written from Aaron’s traditional, Christian, and agrarian perspective, produced by Keith Stegall, and accented with fiddles and steel guitar.
There’s also many rhythmic plays for mainstream listener’s hearts, some moments of laundry list lyrics, and even some wistful production in places not all too foreign to the pop world. The Underdog is a pragmatic album, and though the 12th offering from an artist’s discography might be a strange vehicle to launch a big national push with, you can hear in these songs why it just might work and make Aaron Watson a more widely-known artist in his late 30’s.
Though we all love to cheer for the underdog, and Aaron Watson has spent the first decade and a half of his career sewing good will among a strong cache of loyal listeners, in the end is The Underdog any good? Is it balancing the best of both worlds, or pandering too much to the one side that most Aaron Watson fans love to avoid?
Naysayers are certainly given plenty to work with in this album, starting with multiple songs that make their way towards the laundry list stylings of commercial country, or dare I say, even veer towards Bro-Country. There’s no mistaking it, “Getaway Truck” works from the Bro-Country formula, even if the rhythmic-based style is driven by fiddle and banjo instead of Stratocaster and synth. “Blame It On Those Baby Blues” is all about driving around in a truck with a girl, and describing everything indicative of those moments: county roads, moonlight, Saturday night, tailgate—it’s all here folks. Even though you want to give it a pass because it’s coming from our beloved underdog Aaron Watson, there’s no mistaking what’s going on here.
The frenetic “Freight Train” is a more complicated case, with some probably misunderstanding Aaron Watson’s super-fast singing as rap, and though I wouldn’t go that far, it certainly is indicative of replacing story and melody with rhythm and lists. At the same time, and as it has been said many times before, there’s nothing inherently bad with list songs. Some of the greatest country songs even benefit from that approach. It is the pervasiveness of them over the last few years that have turned the sentiment on them sour to many attentive music listeners.
Truth be told, I really enjoyed “Freight Train” and “Getaway Truck,” but in that guilty pleasure sort of way. No artist exists in a vacuum, and Aaron Watson must know the devil’s he’s dancing with here, and you feel like he’s trying to chase these trends while still trying to stay within himself as best he can. He wanted this album to be different, to be “the one” that launched him to the next level, with the big producer and some money spent on promotion.
But there’s 14 songs here, and no single style dominates The Underdog. Though there are a few more unfortunate decisions. The song “That’s Why God Loves Cowboys” just tries a little too hard, and may be the worst offering of the lot. Does God really like fences? The Five Man Electrical Band didn’t seem to think so, and sure a cowboy takes care of God’s hooved creations—until he loads them up nut to butt in a cramped trailer to be unceremoniously slaughtered in a processing plant. I’m no hippie or vegetarian, but these were the counterpoints that came to mind when listening to a song that didn’t even bother to rhyme the chorus.
But The Underdog has a lot of winners too, and they pull the balance more towards the positive by the end. “The Prayer” and “Wildfire” start the album off very strong. “Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song)” is the strongest-written track maybe of them all, and “One Of Your Nights” strikes a great understanding between writing and composition. “The Underdog” really is a good song that has you rooting along too.
Other offerings like “That Look” and “Family Tree” are hard not to appreciate, but sort of blend too easily into the background. That’s certainly not the case with the final track, “Fence Post.” As an outspoken country protest song that carries with it many personal threads from Aaron’s career and struggles, it elevates the song to an upgraded status for what has become very much a trope of independent music, no less stereotypical than the songs, artists, and practices these protests songs look to criticize.
Because Aaron Watson is a 15-year underdog, you really want to root for him and this album, and are willing to turn an eye from his more commercially-oriented dalliances, understanding they may be the avenue for bigger things for one of your favorite artists. But Aaron Watson really delivers a pretty mixed bag here—some things that are forgivable, others that feel regrettable, and others that atone and downright inspire.
The Underdog is a great album to get Aaron Watson lots of attention and to the next level in the industry without completely compromising who he is. But it’s not a great album. It’s just a good one. But sometimes those good ones are the ones that have the capacity to rise to the very top of the general consciousness, like Kacey Musgraves’ much-decorated Same Trailer Different Park for example, and cause positive reverberations throughout the country music landscape that break barriers down, open doors, and shatter ceilings to allow artists to finally see the worthy payoff for a lifetime of service to the music.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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February 17, 2015 @ 12:16 pm
While a lot of texas/red dirt guys go for more Waylon or even rock stuff (some veering into a twangy matchbox 20 type pop rock) Watson always struck me as a poor mans George Strait/Mark Chesnutt type. Its not super subversive stuff but its pretty genuine. I guess I feel like Watson sort of picks up where a lot of the 90’s hat acts left off before Nashville went full on arena rock.
February 17, 2015 @ 12:20 pm
Thanks for reviewing this and reviewing it so quickly Trigger!
I’m a huge Aaron Watson fan. I’ve seen him plenty of times over the last few years. With the release of “That Look”, I was really worried about where this album was going. But I was pleasantly surprised when I listened to this one all the way through last night.
There is no doubt that his last album, Real Good Time, strayed toward seeking that mainstream appeal we all deride. Though the songs on Real Good Time sounded good instrumentally and were plenty of fun to sing along to, most of them were fairly shallow. After “That Look” was released, I began to think back to a time when AW released his simpler, more country tunes. “Lonely Lubbock Lights”, “For What It’s Worth”, “The Honky Tonk Kid”, etc.
I think you see that same strive for commercial appeal in parts on this album, but this album also includes some very tender, personal reflections from Watson. “Bluebonnets” reflects very directly upon the loss of his daughter a few years ago. “The Underdog” is directly written to his two sons, and feels that way. Watson is by no means a Jason Isbell/Jason Boland/etc quality songwriter, but the sincerity and personal touch in some of the tracks on this album really set these songs apart. “Fence Post” is Watson laying it all out there, telling his story and staking out his ground. Some of the tracks on the album were fairly forgettable, but I suppose I’m just willing to let those slide in order to appreciate the rest of the album.
One thing I would add about Watson to any who haven’t seen him and his band perform is that his music is best appreciated live. He has one of the sharpest fiddle players in the Texas scene, and the nature of his music will have you up and enjoying yourself.
This album exceeded my expectations, and while I agree that it is not a great album, I do think it can do great things for his career. The trajectory and duration of Watson’s career are something truly special for an independent artist. Like you say, it’s hard not to cheer for him. Here’s to this album hitting #1.
February 17, 2015 @ 12:25 pm
If I wanted to hear a great, not good album from him, what would you recommend?
February 17, 2015 @ 12:40 pm
I would probably recommended The Honky Tonk Kid (2004) or Angels & Outlaws (2008).
February 17, 2015 @ 1:41 pm
I would also suggest his live albums to get the real feel of how hard this guy works.
They’re both great but I have to say that the ladies screaming throughout the “Deep in the heart of Texas” album gets kind of old.
February 17, 2015 @ 6:21 pm
Yes Vinnie I love that album. But, at the same time I hate hearing those screaming girls on every track. I thought I was the only one that hated that lol.
February 18, 2015 @ 5:16 pm
February 17, 2015 @ 12:43 pm
I love Aarons music, and I’m a big fan, but when i first heard that look, it sounded like a complete sellout, and I still haven’t found a song I really like on this album, although the underdog is pretty good, and I have yet to hear the full album.
February 17, 2015 @ 1:14 pm
Great review Trigger! I love Aaron’s music and can’t wait to get this album. “Good” from him is better than 90% of mainstream country. Hell, even bad from him would be better than most of it. I love his commitment to traditionalism and the respect he pays to the genre’s roots.
February 17, 2015 @ 1:27 pm
John Mayer cover two songs in? Pass.
February 17, 2015 @ 5:10 pm
A lot of songs on John Mayer’s last album are more “country” than most of what is on country radio. I would probably enjoy a cover of a couple songs on that album. Unfortunately, Wildfire is not one of them.
February 17, 2015 @ 2:36 pm
In a just world Aaron Watson would have become one of the biggest stars in country music a decade ago. People who defend bro-country like to talk about music evolving, but it’s Watson whose work is actually the natural evolution from the late ’90s and early ’00s and would have fit in seamlessly on the radio alongside guys like Clay Walker and early Brad Paisley.
February 17, 2015 @ 3:06 pm
Three songs in…..check that….make it four, and I’m in. Checked his site, doesn’t have any Chicago dates. Aaron – you need to remedy that. Joe’s Bar is right in your wheelhouse.
This guy is legit. Looking forward to going through all his albums. Thanks for the review Trig.
February 17, 2015 @ 5:35 pm
Be patient. I’ve seen him at Joe’s twice over the past two years. I’m assuming he’ll be back. He does well over a hundred shows per year and the schedule is often set with pretty short notice. Keep checking back.
February 18, 2015 @ 6:44 am
He plays Joe’s Bar all the time.
I’ve considered driving from Cleveland to see him since he does put on a great live show.
Plus I love Joe’s.
February 18, 2015 @ 8:20 pm
I would almost put money on him coming back to Joe’s this summer, if not sooner, especially with his new album out. He frequents there about once a year it seems. And he always sticks around for meet & greets after every show!
February 20, 2015 @ 1:25 pm
Awesome. Thanks for the info. I’ll keep checking.
Truth No. 2
February 17, 2015 @ 3:11 pm
I think you are being a bit too harsh on “God Loves Cowboys.” You’ve been around too many hippies in Austin. 🙂 I do think he veers a bit too heavily in the “bro” direction with some of the lyrics. However, these songs are miles ahead of the bros in terms of instrumentation. I am forced to listen to mainstream radio every day for a half-hour, and I hear more auto-tune and R&B beats than fiddles. I am inclined to forgive Aaron for his transgressions. As if we need any reminder, if Aaron Watson reachest the top of the album charts, that’s one less week Sam Hunt spends there. Oh, Bobby freaking Bones is playing “Fence Post?” Made my day.
February 17, 2015 @ 4:00 pm
Right!? I haven’t heard “Fence Post” yet, but Bobby Bones needs to keep his god damn dirty fingers away from Aaron Watson.
Truth No. 2
February 17, 2015 @ 4:15 pm
reaches not reachest
February 17, 2015 @ 4:58 pm
The song “The Underdog” has a very “Standing Outside the Fire” vibe going on. Is that just me?
February 17, 2015 @ 5:06 pm
This is the style of country missing from the mainstream. Reminds me of a lot of 90s and early 00s music. Sure, Getaway Truck might be “bro-country” in content, but it’s not like those topics were never sung about before 2011. They were just stylized like these songs and we enjoyed them. I hope Aaron finds a place on country radio and ushers in others who you can listen to and say “yep, that’s country” instead of “why is this on country radio?”
February 17, 2015 @ 5:43 pm
As a pretty big fan of Aaron, I appreciate that you reviewed his album. I have only listened to half of it but so far it is pretty good. Like someone else said, seeing him live is where the best really comes out. I have seen him twice and he is a wonderful person to meet after the show and he even remembered me from the show before. Overall great music but even better person.
February 17, 2015 @ 5:54 pm
He jokes at the end of every show that he’s “gonna be hanging out in the back til they kick us out”, except that he means it. It doesn’t matter how long the line is, he’ll stay for hours talking to fans after the show. It’s a pretty special thing given the size of his typical crowd.
February 17, 2015 @ 8:17 pm
Yes, I have realized that too, because I remember one time I was pretty close to the front of the line but it still took my awhile, but I was alright with that due to how much he cares about each and every one of his fans.
February 17, 2015 @ 5:53 pm
Aaron Watson just gave you a shot out on his Facebook page Trigger. https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10152749870174702&id=11573344701#
February 18, 2015 @ 7:08 am
I don’t have Facebook. Would you mind copying and pasting what Aaron said, on here? Thanks.
February 18, 2015 @ 7:28 am
He didn’t say anything, he just shared the link to the article.
February 18, 2015 @ 11:15 am
Yea, he just posted a link to the article. But if he’s posting Triggers review on his page, that shows me that he at least pays attention and has some respect for SCM. It’s funny, some of Watson’s fans are going at Trigger hard. I mean, it was a positive review for Pete’s sake! I’m a big Watson fan and I appreciate Trigger’s honesty.
February 17, 2015 @ 5:58 pm
Anyone who confuses Aaron Watson’s fast singing with Bro-Country/Rap must not have ever listened to his songs before. Hayday comes quickly to mind.
February 17, 2015 @ 5:58 pm
Well I’m from no where near texas but I love the texas/ red dirt music scene and I have been listening to it hardcore for the last 4 or 5 yrs. I first started listening to Randy, Wade, Stoney, Boland etc. I heard of AW from the get go but some of his stuff I just wasn’t turned on to. But slowly I started digging a few of his tunes here and there. So, for me this album is like that. I absolutely love some of these tracks and some maybe not as much. I completely agree with Trigg ( as I usually do lol ) with the review. Just wish it was in 1/8’s and I might would give it 1 5/8 guns up ðŸ˜‚. But, I also saw him in birmingham about a week ago and was damn impressed with the quality of his sound( his fiddle player is badass). He mentioned something about staying and shaking everybody’s hand there and thanking them for coming until they ( Zydeco) kicked him out, and I think he would have. So he seems like I genuine man. I also find myself forgiving him for some of the bro/laundry list elements, because I guess I think of him singing about his wife and not so much some girl at a club like the feeling I get if u here that stuff from some of the Nashville clowns. That’s based on following him on fbook the last yr or so and seeing the type of family man he appears to be. Just my 2 cents. Sorry to be long winded but I’ve been wanting this review since I heard this album was coming. Thanks Trigg for it.
February 17, 2015 @ 6:36 pm
I’ve tried listening to this guy a couple of times but I really can’t get past his voice. It sounds too overdone. Too pop country twangy for my taste. With that being said, a lot of the music does sounds good with fiddle and steel guitar.
February 17, 2015 @ 6:45 pm
Pretty sure his accent is genuine. Plus a twangy accent is one of things I love about country music. It gives me another way to relate to the artist, in that we both have something in common. This is just an assumption, but do you prefer folk music to country?
February 17, 2015 @ 6:53 pm
Oh I love country and folk both. I’ll listen to Waylon, Willie, etc. All the greats. But Aaron Watson’s voice just reminds me of the overdone pop-country singing voices from the 90’s and 00’s. I’m not doubting his accent is genuine, but his singing voice just rubs me the wrong way.
February 18, 2015 @ 11:22 am
The reason I asked is because usually when I hear people say they don’t like a southern accent coming from there musicians they generally prefer folk over country. And I love 90’s country, especially early 90’s country. So I reckon that’s where we differ.
February 17, 2015 @ 6:47 pm
You need to see him play or watch his stuff on Texas Music Scene. He talks just like he sings. He is a twangy Texas boy. He doesn’t do it for show.
February 17, 2015 @ 6:38 pm
I get it, you dig fowl mouth druggy county, but seriously bro country?
It seems like when someone puts out a well produced album we cry sell out.
TX MUSIC JIM
February 17, 2015 @ 7:44 pm
solid record my favorite Arron Watson record is honky tonk kid. However this is a solid effort. With legs good for him Arron has worked his butt off!
February 17, 2015 @ 8:41 pm
Also, just because Aaron is singing about blue jeans in a song doesn’t mean he is hitting the Bro-County theme. I mean if that is the case, ol’ Mel McDaniel was the originator of Bro-County.
February 18, 2015 @ 1:20 am
I don’t think I mentioned any blue jean references in his songs. Moonlight, talgates, county roads. Yep, that’s the tropes. But like I said in the review, the songs work and I enjoy them. I just wish Aaron would have done a little bit more to separate his music from Bro-Country material, but it will probably get a lot more folks paying attention, so…
February 18, 2015 @ 6:01 pm
Yup, sorry about that. I saw the normal tropes and just thought that was included. There is a little bit of radio friendly on the album, but it is still is classic AW.
I enjoyed the review and this is always my first stop when new albums come out. Keep up the great work!
February 17, 2015 @ 10:36 pm
Pretty good album. There is definitely a more commercial sound to some of the songs, however, I don’t think it ever crosses the line of not still being an Aaron Watson song.
Hopefully radio picks up on his singles. But if not, we have seen what an artist can do without national radio play…
February 18, 2015 @ 7:15 am
I think this is a pretty fair review. I find myself being pretty forgiving due to the fact I like the overall sound of the album. There are some Texas acts that do sound like that lost 90’s sound I used to love. AW and Cody Johnson definitely fill a void.
February 18, 2015 @ 9:05 am
Another good album from a guy that country radio will never play:(
February 18, 2015 @ 11:02 am
I have been a fan of Aaron’s for a while, and I agree with almost everything you said. He’s always had a few songs that weren’t 100% country, but are good. I think he wants a little something for everyone.
February 18, 2015 @ 1:18 pm
Being from rural Texas, I’ve heard a lot of good things about Aaron Watson, but I just can’t get in to his music. He seems like a sincerely great guy, but his music just sounds like late 90’s-early 2000’s radio country to me. I kind of feel like a lot of Texas country fans see more of a difference in between Texas country and Nashville Country than there really is. I mean The Turnpike Troubadours and Jason Boland are fantastic, but Granger Smith, Casey Donahew, or Eli Young sound just about as formulaic as any Nashville artist.
February 19, 2015 @ 5:15 pm
Like with every artist out there: You win some, and you lose some. Not everything you put out is going to appeal to everyone. Not everything is going to be a #1 hit.
That’s a no-brainer
February 24, 2015 @ 9:27 pm
I have listened to this record a lot over the last week. It has really grown on me. Freight Train is classic AW. If some of his stuff seems like it him wanting to get on radio more, at least it is with instruments and not autotune and synthesized sound. Watson is classic ’90s country sound. His live shows are 2nd non. Glad I bought and can contribute to his sound.