Few artists encapsulate the state of Texas quite like Aaron Watson. Fiercely independent. Familiar. Rooted in tradition. But still mainstream enough that even Europeans know about it.
Watson made history with his 2015 album The Underdog. Thanks to a fierce marketing campaign and a rampant Texas fan base, Watson sold 26,000 copies of that record in its first week. Those numbers made him the first male solo artist to top the Billboard country albums chart without the help of a record label.
He also found his name in a lot of articles, though, when some label execs claimed you're nobody if you're not on country radio. Watson didn't have any big national singles off The Underdog, but he very much proved you don't need radio to move albums and sell tickets.
Realistically, Watson could coast off that press for at least a few more years. But that's not really Watson's style. The success didn't derail him from his "album every two years" plan that so many Texas artists work to great success. But would Watson's higher profile (and busier schedule) ultimately affect his following work? After all, he played nearly 150 shows in 2015 alone.
With new album Vaquero, we have our answer.
Vaqueros: The Original Cowboys
More than any of his previous work, Vaquero is a love letter to the common man. And while Watson always spins at least a few cowboy tunes on his records, this album finds Watson paying tribute to south of the border culture as much as Texas culture.
Or at least a Texan's interpretation of it.
Songs like "Vaquero," "Clear Isabel" (and its gorgeous preclude, instrumental "Mariano's Dream") and "Amen Amigo" all capture a gringo's take on the legend, heritage and mythos of the Mexican cowboy. And in fact, "Clear Isabel" may represent Watson's most complete song yet in terms of narrative, melody and production.
But you still can't help but feel like his tribute to the vaquero is just that; they don't come across as believable as when Watson sings of his love for rodeo or his own personal history, as is the case with songs like "These Old Boots Have Roots."
Pitch Perfect Production
To that point, Vaquero represents Watson's best-produced album to date. And seeing as he's 13 albums in, that actually means something. He tackles familiar melodies in unfamiliar ways, which helps when so much of Texas country revolves around similar keys and tempos.
Each song does a remarkable job of utilizing its instrumentation, which never strays far from traditional Texas country fare, save for an accordion here and there. Songs like "Run Wild Horses" stretch Watson's sound in a welcoming way. And they provide room for some blazing solos, which always play well live.
The closest Watson gets to traditional radio fare is lead single "Outta Style." And while there's nothing inherently bad about the tune, it kind of pales in comparison to some of the more thoughtful songs on the record.
Songs like "Diamonds and Daughters." That tribute to his daughter Jolee Kate feels like a song he'll play forever. Ironically, "Outta Style" already feels a little outdated.
But hey, Watson needs to play the radio dial every now and then.
A Lot to Work With
All in all, Vaquero hits 63 minutes over 16 songs. That's pretty long for a modern record. Which, for the record, I love -- when done right.
And for the most part, Watson does it right. "Be My Girl" feels like a George Strait song, which may be the highest complement possible for a Texas boy.
And if you ever wondered what Kacey Musgraves' "Follow Your Arrow" would've sounded like if Aaron Watson had written it, just head to track 14, "The Arrow." Honestly, it's hard not to compare the two since the concept is so similar, but truthfully it's a really well-written version of that idea. And we still get some banjos and claps, which are always welcome in my book.
Meanwhile, "Rolling Stone" feels a bit superfluous in the album as a whole. Not that songs about ramblin' men aren't a key part of the genre. But by the 15th track on the album, its swirling phaser guitars aren't enough to really justify its spot on the record. But that's pretty nitpicky.
Keeping His Fans Happy
So did Watson go wanting for content after his huge success with The Underdog? Hardly. On Vaquero, Watson gives his fans exactly what they want: something familiar and something new.
In the world of Texas, Vaquero should rain king among releases. When you expand that scope to include country music as a whole, we might not be so generous. At its lowest moments, the album feels a bit too disjointed as a body of work. Especially for 16 songs.
But at its best, Vaquero takes full advantage of its musicians while stretching Watson in all sorts of new and interesting directions. Can it best The Underdog? Only time will tell. But even if it doesn't, Watson still has some of the best moments of his career on this new album, and that's something to be proud of.