REVIEW: Aaron Watson – ‘Vaquero’

LifeInASong_UK

“This is the first album I’ve ever made where if it’s the last album I ever make, I could be content with that”

Aaron Watson has become a trailblazer for independent artists far and wide, proving that loyalty to “faith, fans, friends and family” can rise above the powers that be in corporate Nashville. ‘The Underdog’ made history in 2015, becoming the first independent album to chart at #1 on country Billboard, an astonishing achievement and a well-deserved one too. Aaron has done it his own way, steadily building an incredibly loyal fan base on both sides of the Atlantic without the influence of a prominent record label. On February 24th, Aaron will release his new album titled ‘Vaquero’ (Spanish for ‘Cowboy’).

Personally, I believe this is Aaron’s best album to date. It offers so much variety, dabbling with a range of styles and influences but consistently maintains that familiar Aaron Watson drive, traditional instrumentation and heartiness. Right off the bat, ‘Texas Lullaby’ is a biography of a Texas war veteran and has the same kind of sentiment as ‘Barbed Wire Halo’. It’s classic Aaron Watson, paying homage to those who have served our countries for our freedom, and he does so beautifully with wonderfully simplistic instrumentation and heartfelt lyrics. When you hear the album for the first time and this one comes on first, you know you’re in for one hell of a journey.

Then, the energy starts to kick in with ‘Take You Home Tonight’, a fun, foot-stomping country barnstormer. It’s one of the album’s feel-good party tracks, one that’ll get you dancing around the house! This has everything I could possibly wish for in a country song; the subtle input from Damian Green on the fiddle simply makes the record, adding that distinctive Aaron Watson dance-hall feel, and it’s surely going to become an instant fan favourite. Much like the following track, ‘These Old Boots Have Roots’ which plays right into the hands of the rednecks back home in Texas – anthemic, hearty and powerful country with a thumping back beat that will provide the perfect opening for the live shows.

However, my two personal favourites on the album are tracks 5 and 6. The former, ‘They Don’t Make Em Like They Used To’ takes a slightly critical look at today’s society, particularly relevant with the political situation in the states at the moment. Aaron takes the saying “they don’t make em like they used to” and ponders whether generations to come will look back at us in the same way? “We criticize, we glamorize, who’s right or wrong, who’s left or right, missin’ out on so many beautiful colors, fighting over what’s black or white”. A superbly written account of the world’s issues whilst still maintaining the catchy, concert-friendly style that loyal fans have come to know and love.

Track 6, ‘Vaquero’ is probably my favourite on the album (although that’s an incredibly difficult decision!). The story reminds me of Billy Currington’s ‘People Are Crazy’ – meeting an old, seemingly confused man (or cowboy in this case) in a bar, taking inspiration from his simplistic view of life with the knowledge that a wealth of experience and a huge bank of memories lives behind his aging exterior. “He said don’t leave your beer in the hot Texas sun, don’t argue with a woman while she’s holding a gun. Never cheat when it comes to love or dominos, ‘vaya con dios’ said the old Vaquero”. This is as country as it gets and although it’s not one of the powerhouses on the record, it’s one that I’ve become more and more attached to with every listen.

There are a couple of experimental tracks on the album that see Aaron dabbling with a slightly more mainstream-orientated sound. The lead single from the album ‘Outta Style’ seems to have had a mixed reception on social media with its slightly poppier, radio-friendly edge. The real surprise on the album, however, is ‘Run Wild Horses’ which is a far cry from anything Aaron has ever released to date. The haunting fiddle at the beginning is so intriguing and draws you in, before building to a crescendo with a dominant electric guitar in the chorus. The whole song has a mysterious, dark feel to it and the killer guitar solo towards the end isn’t something I was ever expecting to hear at all, but it works a treat. It’s a wild experiment but it has become one of my favourites on the album.

We then have the unapologetically Texan and cleverly-titled ‘Clear Isabel’, a gripping story of a man attempting to cross the border with his daughter Isabel, escaping from the Mexican cartel. “Out here the grass is greener just beyond the Laredo border line. They say freedom is much sweeter than sweet blood red sangria wine. South Texas looks like heaven when you’re down here in this living hell, so come on let’s cross that Rio…the coast is clear Isabel”. Nobody paints a picture with lyrics better than Aaron and this one encapsulates you from the very first line.

The gorgeous ‘Big Love In A Small Town’ follows, a simplistic acoustic guitar-led ballad that does exactly what it says on the tin, taking great pride in a relationship whilst paying homage to his small home town – “It’s a Mom and Pop corner shop five and dimer, my Granddaddy bought my new old timer”. Heather Morgan’s backing vocals add another dimension and the harmonies are glorious; this is another one where the simplicity of the melody allows the focus to solely be on the lyrical finesse, and it’s got that in abundance.

The later stages of the album see Aaron getting more personal, with tracks like ‘The Arrow’ and ‘Diamonds and Daughters’ exposing the lovely bond he has with his 3 children, Jack, Jake and Jolee Kate. ‘The Arrow’ is reminiscent of ‘The Underdog’ from the previous album of the same name. It’s another life lesson to his kids as they go and follow their dreams – “be steadfast and steady, always be ready, aim for the stars in the sky…take heart, pull it back and let it fly”. There’s a wonderfully angelic, very emotional nature to this track and will strike a chord with all the parents out there who just want the best for their kids. ‘Diamonds and Daughters’ is Jolee Kate’s song (she wasn’t happy when her brothers got a song on the last album!). Aaron says this is “the song I hope to dance to one day at her wedding”. You might need the tissues for this one – a very fitting end to an album full of heart, honesty and most importantly, quality.

Aaron Watson doesn’t need country radio. Country radio needs Aaron Watson. Take any of the songs that you see in the country charts at the moment – will I still be playing them in 10 years? Probably not. Will I still be playing this album in 10 years’ time? Definitely. I’ve only highlighted my favourites on the album but the whole project is a gem, and it takes something special to release 16 tracks that I can listen to from start to finish without skipping any. These are timeless tracks, and it’s certainly an early contender for album of the year. Stunning.

Dan Wharton (@LifeInASong_Dan)

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