Aaron Watson might be one of the hardest artists to get a read on in country music. He’s a fiercely independent and principled performer who embodies the DIY Outlaw spirit of the music as much as anyone. Yet Watson also covets many of the sounds and accolades of the mainstream, and incorporates these things into his music to the chagrin of some of his more traditional fans. This has created a career the straddles the cultural divide as opposed to choosing one side or the other, which strangely makes Aaron Watson even more of a maverick than some of the independent artists that shirk the mainstream altogether. Aaron Watson wants to beat the mainstream at their own game.
Back in the mid teens, Aaron Watson reached the very top of mainstream country, with his 2015 album The Underdog going #1, his 2017 album Vaquero going #2, and a single “Outta Style” being willed into the Top 10 on mainstream country radio. But that didn’t last for very long. Music Row doesn’t like outsiders, and after some tweaking in the charts to weigh streams more heavily, and closing the door in Watson’s face on radio, the Texas native was falling back on his support base of the rodeo circuit and Texas honky tonks.
Watson’s 2019 album Red Bandana might have been one of his best, but it only got to #7 on the charts. His 2021 album American Soul seemed an unabashed effort to get back into the good graces of mainstream country, with songs screaming for radio play—very list-like Bro-Country-style compositions that Aaron Watson has always dabbled with, but leaned into especially hard. It didn’t exactly work, and American Soul became Aaron Watson’s worst-selling album in a over a decade.
So now Aaron Watson is back with Unwanted Man, having rattled the cage of Music Row, realizing that apple cart can be upset, but overturning it is another story. It’s best for Aaron Watson to just do Aaron Watson, and let the cards fall where they may. As he says on the second song on this album “Cheap Seats,”
“You finally offered me a seat there at your table, then laughed and pulled the chair right out from under me. And now I aim to se the whole wide world on fire, mixing my music with your words as gasoline. As long as Saturday nights have a honky tonk, and good timing band to keep your boots stompin’, a blacktop where these old bus wheels can roll. As long as lovers keep on loving, dogs die, trucks break down, there’s cheating and drinking you can go ahead and keep your rigged up radio.”
Unwanted Man is a return to classic Aaron Watson—pragmatic, mostly country with mainstream sensibilities, and in this case, a large measure of love songs, which really are the story of the album. “Cheap Seats” is Aaron Watson getting some stuff off his chest about his approach to country music and the twists his career has taken, punctuated by these distorted base bursts that make for a uniquely-textured and infectious track.
Aaron Watson writes all of his own material, and he’s always good for a song or two that hits you right in the feels. That’s what you find with “The Old Man Said” about the last dying conferring of wisdom that is so critical to life. Another song easy to find favor with is “Heck Of A Song,” which similar to “Old Man Said,” reminds you to go out there and live life and make stories as opposed to getting lulled into the passing of everyday events until life has passed you by.
But Unwanted Man really is a collection of love songs in a love album, perhaps to the point where it gets a little tedious and redundant by the end. Love songs can be great when they tell a story and touch on a human emotion. Watson finds that with “Dancing Around The Truth” about a relationship that has met its end, though you still want to take one more positive memory from it before it’s over. “When I See You,” “Unwanted Man,” “One In A Million Girl,” “Nothing On You,” and others take a more generic approach to the country love song where Watson is just obsequiously complimenting his wife in a way that’s difficult to draw any significant meaning from.
Unwanted Man is very much an Aaron Watson album. He can be a little hokey at times, and veer too much into contemporary sounds. But he’s also one of the biggest champions of the independent approach to country, and will write and perform a song that speaks to the beauty of country music more than most. He’ll never be what the most staunch traditionalists and underground fans want. Nor will he upstage that mainstream entirely. But for Aaron Watson fans, he’s the perfect blend of depth and infectiousness, and Unwanted Man will be right down their alley.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7/10)
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