My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Aaron Watson

Album Review: Aaron Watson – ‘Vaquero’

vaqueroAaron Watson is an old favorite of mine, with his honest Texan country style and high quality songs. His latest album is a bit of a mixed bag, but has some very bright spots.

There is the kernel of a concept EP within the album, with a brace of songs addressing the Mexican American experience. The title track paints a portrait of an old Mexican cowboy offering some useful homespun advice, set to a pretty tune. A rather lovely Spanish guitar instrumental, ‘Mariano’s Dream’, fits nicely into this category, leading into ‘Clear Isabel’, a dramatic, empathetic story song about a Mexican cop fleeing the drugs cartels for the safety of the US, where his daughter marries the rancher narrator but her father is deported and murdered.

The opening ‘Texas Lullaby’, a moving story song about a soldier’s WWII love story, is perhaps my favorite track. ‘Be My Girl’ and ‘Big Love In A Small Town’ are attractive love songs with pretty melodies. The latter of these benefits from the harmonies of co-writer Heather Morgan.

‘They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To’ talks about social and economic changes in a way reminiscent of some of Merle Haggard’s songs. It needs more of a melody, as far too much of the song is on a single note, but it’s an interesting song deeply rooted in Texas:

Well no news is good news, tell me whose news really tells the truth
The death toll rises high as gas prices shoot straight through the roof
Meanwhile politicians preach while some preachers politick
Well we need is lots of love, yeah lots of love might do the trick

Instead we criticize, we glamorize who’s right or wrong, who’s left or right
Missin’ out on so many beautiful colors, fightin’ over what’s black and white
We’ve gotta forgive, gotta learn to live together, make the world a better place
Maybe someday somebody somewhere will look back on today
Look back on us and say

They don’t make ’em like they used to

‘The Arrow’ is a life-affirming philosophical number aimed at Aaron’s children, set to a gentle tune, which I liked a lot:

Aim for the stars in the sky
Take heart, pull it back and let fly
On the wings of an angel
Let it fly with the grace of a dove

Let it fly with kindness and love.

‘Diamonds And Daughters’ was written especially for Aaron’s daughter Jolee and is a pretty song about the father-daughter relationship.

Disappointingly from an artist known for his solid Texas country style, a few tracks here are over produced in modern radio style. The main offender is the (admittedly quite catchy in its way) lead single ‘Outta Style’. ‘Amen Amigo’ is just too loud. ‘Run Wild Horses’ is a pretty, wistful ballad under a layer of over-production. I enjoyed ‘One Two Step At A Time’ and ‘Rolling Stone’, although again the production is intrusive. ‘Take You Home Tonight’ is rather forgettable. ‘These Old Boots Have Roots’ isn’t a bad song.

But the less good tracks are definitely overshadowed by the good stuff, especially as there are a generous 16 tracks, allowing for the odd misstep to be overlooked. This is another strong offering from Aaron, the quality of shoes writing is improving all the time.

Grade: A-

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Single Review: Aaron Watson – ‘Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song)’

500x500The message behind Aaron Watson’s latest single release is that everyone should take time to live in and enjoy the moment, because life is short we never know when it might unexpectedly end. It’s a tried-and-true theme in country music, but it is especially poignant here when one takes into account that “Bluebonnets” was inspired by the loss of Watson’s daughter Julia, who died in infancy in 2011.

The first verse is a nostalgic look back at Watson’s childhood memories of his grandparents and reminds me somewhat of the opening lines of Andy Griggs’ “If Heaven” — a bittersweet look back at a happier and more carefree time. The chorus uses the imagery of now-faded bluebonnets in the spring to convey the message that Watson’s grandparents are now deceased. It is the second verse, however, that packs the big emotional punch. This is the verse that deals with Julia’s death — Watson “kisses his angel girl goodbye” but expresses faith and hope of one day being reunited with her. That he is able to get his message across without becoming maudlin is a testament to his skill as a songwriter.

The track, like the album from whence it came, was produced by Keith Stegall. It’s considered Texas country, despite the use of a Nashville producer and some well-known Nashville musicians, including the great Paul Franklin on pedal steel. There is absolutely nothing about it that would not have been considered solidly mainstream just a few years ago before the “Bro Show” got underway. The production is restraint, tasteful and traditional. Like the previous singles from The Underdog, this one is unlikely to chart but traditional country fans who seek it out are bound to enjoy it.

Grade: A

Single Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Somewhere On A Beach’

dierks-bentley-somewhere-on-a-beach-single-coverWe’ve been down this road before. Dierks Bentley releases something intelligent to country radio and it fizzles. He responds with a horrid piece of tripe just ripe enough to please the powers that be without completely alienating the fans who still consider him one of the last remaining good guys in modern country music. So why does the road look and feel so different this time?

It’s because “Somewhere On A Beach” is Bentley’s most shameless attempt yet at fitting in with the cool crowd. He’s been the sideways, drunk on a plane and bat shit crazy. But he’s never gone as far as to literally have sex in the sand. We’ve come a long way from the days when all it took was a white tank top to get him hot and bothered.

But this isn’t solely about Bentley and his image. It’s about a song that’s nothing more than a pile of dog dung left on the side of the road by an owner to lazy to bend over and pick it up. It’s about a brazen attempt at marrying bro and beach bum-country signifiers. It’s about a marriage made in the deepest depths of hell.

Worse, “Somewhere On A Beach” is about a genre where lines like ‘she’s got a body and she’s naughty’ are liquid gold. Where ‘I’m getting sun, getting some, and I ain’t slept in a week’ passes as a good time. Where the theme of summertime has been grossly exploited growing more blatantly graphic with each passing song.

The genre has been changing – the likes of Jason Isbell, Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard and Aaron Watson did score number one albums last year. The phenomenon that is Chris Stapleton is unstoppable. It makes one wonder, is the ‘cool crowd’ the country music fans or the gatekeepers pushing drivel like this on the unsuspecting public?

Like other reviewers, I don’t blame Bentley for this atrocity. He may be co-hosting the upcoming ACM Awards with Luke Bryan, but he knows quality music. I’d be shocked if his new album, Black, fails to deliver. It better live up to expectations.

Grade: F

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2015

so this is lifeIt’s been a solid year rather than an outstanding one, with a number of interesting albums released but few really exciting ones. But any of my top 10 is well worth hearing.

angels and alcohol10. Alan Jackson – ‘Angels And Alcohol

The veteran star is reliable as ever with his latest release. It may break no new ground, but it’s good country music, and that’s something we always need more of.
Highlights: ‘Angels and Alcohol’, ‘The One You’re Waiting On’, ‘You Can Always Come Home

pageant material9. Kacey Musgraves – ‘Pageant Material
Unlike many, I actually preferred this to Kacey’s lauded debut because I found the production choices more sympathetic to her voice.
Highlights: ‘Pageant Material’, ‘Biscuits’, ‘Late To The Party

cold beer conversation8. George Strait – ‘Cold Beer Conversation
He may have retired from touring, and have lost his golden touch with country radio – but like Alan Jackson, George Strait is still making fine music. A solid classy album.
Highlights: ‘Something Going Down’, ‘Everything I See’, ‘Even When I Can’t Feel It’.

brennen leigh sings lefty frizzell7. Brennen Leigh – ‘Sings Lefty Frizzell
Only just released, this lovely tribute to one of the cornerstones of country music made a late charge up my best of the year list. A true delight. Brennen also teamed up this year with bluegrass singer Brandon Rickman and singer/fiddler Jenee Fleenor in a trio project called Antique Persuasion, which released a delightful acoustic tribute to the Carter Family in August which almost made this list, and a recent Christmas EP.

Highlights: ‘I Love You A Thousand Ways’, ‘Mom And Dad’s Waltz’, ‘How Far Down Can I Go’, ‘You Gotta Be Putting Me On

throwback6. Kevin Moon – ‘Throwback
A fabulous traditional country album from an unknown singer with a great voice. It’s a wonderful reminder of what country music used to be, with guest turns from artists including John Anderson, Rhonda Vincent and Ken Mellons. If there had only been a few more original tunes of the same quality, this would have been even higher in my year-end list.

Highlights: ‘The Storms Of Life’ (with Daryle Singletary), ‘Tennessee Courage’ (with Kevin Denney, Wesley Dennis and Billy Droze), ‘I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)’ (with Doug Stone).

pocket full of keys5. Dale Ann Bradley – ‘Pocket Full Of Keys
Dale Ann has a pure, beautiful voice, and is one of my favorite bluegrass vocalists. This gorgeous effort shows her at her very best.

Highlights: ‘I’m So Afraid Of Losing You Again’, ‘The Stranger’, ‘Pocket Full Of Keys’.

traveller4. Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveler
Chris Stapleton’s triple triumph at the recent CMA awards, and subsequent sales spike, was one of the most unexpected in country music history. Although he was formerly lead singer of the SteelDrivers, and has been a very successful songwriter for years, he had rather flown under the radar as far as mainstream acknowledgement went. His solo debut album is a very strong piece of work, showcasing his bluesy, soulful vocals. I don’t love every track – occasionally his more esoteric leanings to blues and rock wander too far from country music for me – but when he’s at his best, he is magnificent.

Highlights: ‘Whiskey And You’, ‘Nobody To Blame’, ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore’.

the underdog3. Aaron Watson – ‘The Underdog
Texan Watson has been steadily plugging on for a decade or so, and his latest album is as good as anything he’s done, with a powerful depiction of Johnny Cash at his turning point and a reflection on the state of country music. Solid Texas country music which deserves a mainstream hearing.
Highlights: ‘The Prayer’, ‘Fence Post’, ‘Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song)’.

the blade2. Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade
A fine album by one of the best artists currently on a major label – even if that label isn’t bothering to push her work at radio. The title track in particular is exquisite.
Highlights: ‘The Blade’, ‘If The Devil Don’t Want Me’, ‘Dixie’, ‘I’m Good At Leaving’.

so this is life1. Courtney Patton – ‘So This Is Life
A lovely mature piece of work from a fine singer-songwriter, loaded with gorgeous country waltzes. For my money this is the most consistently great album of the year.
Highlights: ‘Little Black Dress’, ‘Need For Wanting’, ‘Killing Time

Spotlight Artist: Dale Watson

dale watsonAs noted British detective Sherlock Holmes might have observed, “It’s really elementary, my good fellow. If you want to hear good country music, go listen to Watson”

We have already spotlighted the great Gene Watson and the young Texas swing/honky-tonk star Aaron Watson, and perhaps sometime we will spotlight the great Doc Watson. This month, however, we spotlight the most iconoclastic (or perhaps sardonic) of the Watson clan, Dale Watson.

While I regard Dale Watson as being quintessentially country, Dale no longer refers to himself as “country” preferring to distance himself from the fodder currently being produced in Nashville, but to listeners of my generation, Dale Watson is unquestionably country. Whether you use Dale’s preferred term “Ameripolitan” or “country”, Dale Watson is the real deal.

Dale Watson was born in October 1962 near Pasadena, Texas. Watson wrote his first song as a pre-teen and make his first recording at age 14. Apparently Watson had a contentious upbringing as he was emancipated before the normal age of eighteen. He spent the next several years playing the juke joints, skull orchards and night clubs in Texas.

Dale moved to Los Angeles in 1988 on the advice of Rosie Flores and soon joined the house band at North Hollywood’s famous Palomino Club. Dale first came to national attention when he appeared on the third volume of the compilation series A Town South of Bakersfield, in 1992, an interesting album I highly recommend (this was my introduction to Dale Watson). From there, he moved to Nashville and eventually to Austin, Texas.

Once back in Texas, Dale formed his band, the Lone Stars, and landed a recording deal with Hightone Records, a very forward thinking independent label. His first album Cheatin’ Heart Attack, was released in 1995. The album featured a shot-across-the bow at radio country in “Nashville Rash.” This was followed by the excellent Hightone albums Blessed or Damned (1996) and I Hate These Songs.

Changing labels to Koch, Dale next released The Truckin’ Sessions (1998), the first of three such albums that Dale would record over the years devoted to truck-driving songs.

In 2000 Dale suffered a tragedy in his life when his girlfriend Terri Herbert was killed in an automobile accident. The story of Dale’s attempts to cope after this tragedy is the subject of the Zalman King documentary Crazy Again. Dale’s next album Every Song I Write Is For You (2001) served as a catharsis for Dale.

Since then, Dale Watson has released (or has had released by former labels) an album or more per year on a wide variety of labels. Although he is a proficient and accomplished songwriter, he has no reluctance to cover the material of other writers and/or recording artists, if he feels the material to be worthy of recording. At least one of his albums has charted on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, but Dale Watson’s focus is on making good music, not making the charts. Since I’ve never heard a bad Dale Watson album, I’d say his focus has been proper.

We hope you enjoy this month’s Spotlight Artist, Dale Watson.

Discography (since 1999)

People I’ve Known, Places I’ve Been 1999
Christmas in Texas 2000
Preachin’ to the Choir 2001
Every Song I Write Is for You 2001
Live in London…England 2002
One More, Once More 2003
Dreamland 2004
Heeah!! 2005
Whiskey or God 2006
Live at Newland, NL 2006
From the Cradle to the Grave 2007
The Little Darlin’ Sessions 2007
Help Your Lord 2008
To Terri with Love 2008
The Truckin’ Sessions Vol. 2 2009
Carryin’ On 2010
The Sun Sessions 2011
El Rancho Azul 2013
The Truckin’ Trilogy 2014
The Truckin’ Sessions, Vol. 3 2015
Call Me Insane 2015

Album Review: Aaron Watson – ‘The Underdog’

the underdogAlthough it is an independent release, our Spotlight Artist’s brand new album The Underdog is produced by the always reliable Keith Stegall, who does a great job.

Aaron Watson should have been a huge star years ago, but he has been plowing his own furrow making real country music in Texas, and doggedly building up a fanbase. He addresses his career in the part-spoken valedictory ‘Fence Post’, touching on the fight between compromise and integrity, and the current state of country music. A record executive is shown telling Aaron he “don’t have what it takes to make it here in Nashville”, before coming back once Aaron has honed his skills and developed his fanbase to what even a record company man can see is “commercial appeal”. Aaron’s response, in both adversity and triumph, is to affirm:

I’d never sell my soul to rock and roll and rap and wear those tight skinny jeans
‘Cause you know I’d rather sing my old songs than be a puppet on a string
I’ll wear what I wanna wear
I’m gonna sing what I wanna sing
Heaven knows all I need is my faith, my friends, my fans and my family
Besides I’d rather be an old fence post in Texas than the King of Tennessee

The somber opening ‘The Prayer’ is a powerful imagining of the conversion of Johnny Cash:

There’s the man in white
His words are painted red
There’s power in his blood
And only truth in what he said
There’s the man in black
With the beetle in his vein
Lying flat on his back this is the prayer he once prayed

He said
My mountain is a molehill
My throne’s a busted chair
His crown is turned to rust and it’s all tangled in my hair
This high horse that I ride on is gonna buckle at the knee
On my castle made of sand
I cannot be the King of Peace

This is a quite remarkable song, and it’s brave to sequence such a challenging song right at the beginning of the album.

As powerful, and even more moving because it is so personal, is ‘Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song)’, a wistfully poetic elegy to Aaron’s daughter Julia, who died soon after birth in 2011. The admirable title track may be addressed to his other children, offering sensible life advice about leading a good life, ranging from not living on credit, to reacting to adversity. Family memories are explored in the warm hearted ‘Family Tree’.

On the lighter side, a brace of songs were inspired by Aaron’s wife. ‘Wildfire’ is a pleasant mid-paced love song which is catchy and attractive if not earth-shattering, while ‘Blame It On Those Baby Blues’ is similarly likeable. ‘That Look’ is quite pretty, and has the honor of being Aaron’s first single to chart on Billboard. ‘One Of Your Nights’ is my favourite of the love songs, a sweet song about returning to her loving arms after a bad day.

The rapid paced ‘Freight Train’ is quite a good song about separation from a loved one due to the needs of his career but is so fast and one-note melodically it’s hard to decipher the lyrics. ‘Getaway Truck’ is an up-tempo love song which could do with a bit more melody. The perky ‘That’s Gonna Leave A Mark’ is more melodic.

Aaron’s Texas roots influence ‘That’s Why God Loves Cowboys’, a respectful and perhaps somewhat idealised tribute to cowboys and cowgirls and their care of the environment. It also has a smooth attractive melody. ‘Rodeo Queen’ is written from the point of view of a lovelorn rodeo clown, and is the only track where I don’t really like the production/vocal arrangement although it’s an interesting story.

Overall, an excellent album from one of the most underrated performers in country music.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Aaron Watson – ‘July In Cheyenne’

Album Review: Aaron Watson – ‘Deep In The Heart Of Texas – Aaron Watson Live’

deep in the heart of texasThis was Aaron Watson’s ninth album and second live album. Like his three albums immediately preceding this album, it would reach Billboard’s Country Albums chart, peaking at #47 in 2009.

The real test of any artist is how they sound in live performance. With modern recording technology it is possible to make anyone sound decent on a recording, even if they can’t carry a tune in a bucket. On this album Watson proves he needs no such tricks to carry him.

Deep In The Heart Of Texas – Aaron Watson Live features songs from Aaron’s previous studio albums. The album opens up with three up-tempo songs “Love Making Song” (from Angels & Outlaws) “Heyday Tonight” and “Except For Jessie” (from San Angelo), before Aaron pauses for breath and tells a little story about “Hearts Are Breaking Across Texas”, a nice ballad from Angels & Outlaws.

Next Aaron picks up the tempo with the medium-fast ballad “Rollercoaster Ride” which was one of my favorites from Angels & Outlaws, followed by “Angels & Outlaws” (prefaced by a few comments) and followed by the lovely ballad “San Angelo” and the mid-tempo country rocker “All American Country Girl” (from San Angelo).

By now you’ve probably noticed that the first eight songs all came from the San Angelo or Angels & Outlaws albums. There will be more songs from these albums, but next Aaron covers the Waylon Jennings classic “Bob Wills Is Still The King”. Aaron gives this song a western swing arrangement that I would probably like better if I hadn’t heard Waylon’s version – it’s good but in arranging it as a swing song, it seems (to me at least) that Aaron lost Waylon’s original melody).

Next follows a brief narrative “Grandad, Paw Paw, John Pop & Mr. Pete” that serves as an introduction to the slow ballad “Barb Wire Halo” (also from Angels & Outlaws). The mid-tempo “3rd Gear & 17” (from San Angelo) is next followed by an extended fiddle introduction to the up-tempo “Wake Up and Smell The Coffee” (from Angels & Outlaws) and the slow ballad “Unbelievably Beautiful” (from San Angelo).

Aaron Watson takes a moment to pay tribute to America’s military veterans with “Thanks For Freedom” which serves as a spoken introduction to the Merle Haggard classic “The Fighting Side of Me”.

“Lonely Lubbock Lights” is from Aaron’s 2002 album shutupanddance, a slow ballad about the choices faced by many musicians – the girl or the road.

At one time “East Bound and Down”, written by Jerry Reed & Dick Feller as Jerry Reed’s calling card from the movie Smokey & The Bandit, would have been familiar to everyone in the US, but Jerry Reed has passed away in the last few years and country stations today consider an oldie to be a song from before 2013 but after 1995, so this song is not as ubiquitous as once was the case. Aaron does a nice job with this song but the problem with covering Jerry Reed songs is that they were written with Jerry Reed in mind and there is nobody past or present who reminds me of Jerry Reed.

Next up is “Breaker Breaker One Nine” (from Angels & Outlaws) is the perfect continuation to “East Bound and Down” both in subject matter and in tempo.

“Off The Record” is a slow ballad about divorce from shutupanddance. Aaron would reprise this song as a duet with Charla Corn on his 2012 album Real Good Time. It’s a beautiful song deserving of the additional exposure,

I got a letter from your lawyer
And you got one from mine
They say It’s gonna be final
Once we sign that dotted line

We’ll I guess we’ll get our freedom
And a so called fresh new start
But when you take half of everything
You’ll be taking half my heart
Our love got lost somewhere in life’s complications
Torn between two lawyers and all their legal litigations

“Orphans of The Brazos Band” is a spoken track in which Aaron introduces his band. The album concludes with “Restless”, an up-tempo song from The Honky Tonk Kid.

Aaron Watson’s milieu is live performances, so this is an effective representation of his music. Like all live albums, the songs are often taken at different tempos with instrumental breaks that vary from the studio recordings of the same songs. There is audible crowd noise so the sound is not as pristine as with the studio recordings, but this is a very enjoyable album from start to finish.

Track List
01. Love Makin’ Song
02. Heyday Tonight
03. Except for Jessie
04. Hearts Are Breaking Across Texas
05. Rollercoaster Ride
06. Angels & Outlaws
07. San Angelo
08. All American Country Girl
09. Bob Willis Is Still the King
10. Grandad, Paw Paw, John Pop & Mr. Pete
11. Barbed Wire Halo
12. 3rd Gear & 17
13. Wake Up & Smell the Coffee
14. Unbelievably Beautiful
15. Thanks for Freedom
16. The Fighting Side of Me
17. Lonely Lubbock Lights
18. East Bound and Down
19. Breaker Breaker One Nine
20. Off the Record
21. The Orphans of the Brazos Band
22. Restless

Classic Rewind: Aaron Watson – ‘Raise Your Bottle’

Album Review: Aaron Watson – ‘Angles & Outlaws’

angels-outlawsAngles & Outlaws, released in 2008, saw Aaron Watson transitioning into a more contemporary sound in hopes of wider airplay. It was his first release for Big Label Records and managed to peak at #28 on the national country album’s chart and #175 on the Billboard 200 chart.

Watson solely wrote nine out of fifteen cuts for the project. In keeping with his mission, Watson incorporates drums alongside the steel, fiddle, and twangy guitar on the excellent “Whisky On The Fire.” “Wake Up and Smell The Coffee” couldn’t be more country, or lovely, with divine breakneck fiddle leading the way. “Love Makin’ Song” is terrible, with clunky electric guitars and a terrible lyric.

Watson rebounds with “Roller Costar Ride,” which is a bit heavier than we’ve come to expect from him, but still enjoyable nonetheless. “Hearts are Breaking Across Texas” is an impeccable weeper complete with fiddle, steel, and Watson’s gorgeous vocal. The title track is a subtle country rocker and is neither terrible nor very good. “Barbed Wire Halo” is a gospel-tinged number given the delicacy such a song rightly deserves.

Overall, Angles and Outlaws is a very good album with solid songs and a more polished sound. The concessions to mainstream country are small enough that it doesn’t really matter and it’s nice that Watson’s true spirit wasn’t lost in the process.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Aaron Watson – ‘Love Makin’ Song’

Album Review: Aaron Watson – ‘Barbed Wire Halo’

barbedwirehaloBarbed Wire Halo is Aaron Watson’s 2007 collection of religious and inspirational tunes. Some of them, like the opening “I’ve Always Loved You” are not overtly religious; the lyrics can be about love between two people or between God and man, according to the listener’s interpretation. Others are more specific in their references to Christianity, such at the title track that tells the story of a war veteran who lived a hard life, lost his wife in childbirth, and subsequently lost and rediscovered his faith in God.

Many of the arrangements are acoustic, while others have a more honky-tonk sound despite the religious content of the lyrics. Most of them don’t stray too far from traditional country. I particularly liked the western swing-flavored “Long Vacation” — possibly the only Western-swing religious song I’ve ever heard. Lefty Frizzell’s “Old Chunk of Coal” is also given a Bob Wills-style Western swing treatment. It’s an interesting interpretation of a song that I’d have never thought to include on a religious album, although it certainly can be considered inspirational. The music is occasionally interrupted by brief Bible verse readings read by Billy Joe Shaver.

The album contains only two actual hymns — the well-known traditional “Farther Along” and “Amazing Grace”, which are both performed as duets with fellow Texan Kina Lankford. The soulful “Nothing But The Blood”, performed with Tim Curry and the Wesley United Methodist Church Choir is a stretch for Watson. It is more African American spiritual than southern gospel, and not, I’m afraid, my cup of tea.

Barbed Wire Halo’s appeal is probably somewhat limited due to the album’s religious content, but the music is excellent and those willing to keep an open mind are in for a real treat.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Aaron Watson – ‘Hearts are Breaking Across Texas’

Album Review: Aaron Watson – ‘San Angelo’

san angeloSan Angelo was Aaron Watson’s sixth album and his first album to reach Billboard’s Country Albums chart, peaking at #60 in 2006. From this point forward all of Aaron’s albums would receive nationwide exposure.

The album opens up with “Heyday Tonight” a good up-tempo country honker that would have fit in the repertoire of any dance hall band of the period. Aaron composed this song as he did the second song on the album “Good Thing Going” about a good love that got away due to the narrator’s failure to tend to business. It’s a bit lightweight in terms of lyrics, but it is pleasant listening.

The third song finds Aaron covering a Frank Dycus – Jim Lauderdale composition “In Harm’s Way” that could easily have been a hit for someone. Frankly, I would have expected George Strait to have wound up with this song.

I didn’t know my heart
Was in harm’s way
I couldn’t see the truth
Till it was in my face
If I’d seen it coming
I could have turned away
I didn’t know my heart
Was in harm’s way

Aaron co-wrote “3rd Gear & 17” with Drew Womack, another song of lost love, this one with a football backdrop about a fellow who left to play college football, losing the girl he left behind.

“Unbelievably Beautiful” is another Aaron Watson composition, with a laid-back, almost jazzy vibe to it. While I don’t think the song had any potential as a single, it makes a nice change of pace within the context of the album.

“Haunted House” is another Watson composition, this one a fine mid-tempo exposition of a love gone wrong.

Willie Nelson has written many fine songs in his long career. “I’m A Memory” wasn’t a huge hit for Willie (#28 for Willie on RCA in 1971) but it was always one of my favorite of his songs. Aaron does the song justice with an arrangement similar to Willie’s arrangement but with steel guitar and fiddle added to the mix.

I’m a game that you used to play
And I’m a plan that you didn’t lay so well
And I’m a fire that burns in your mind
So close your eyes I’m a memory

The title track “San Angelo” is one of those hard-edged about love and heartbreak that Aaron writes so convincingly. The medium-slow tempo fits the song perfectly.

She said time would heal my broken heart
And I’d find a true companion for my soul
You know she was right, we were wrong
Nothing more than a pretty song
About a boy who loved a girl
In San Angelo

“Except For Jessie” is Aaron’s wonderful tribute to Waylon Jennings and his lady Jessi Colter . The song is a four minute biography of Waylon’s life. Although a bit of a novelty, with a sound reminiscent of some of Waylon’s songs, it is an effective song. I doubt Waylon ever got to hear the song (I don’t know when it was written) but he surely would have approved.

Well, before she came along he was lonesome, on’ry and mean
It was his way or the highway
But she had a way that he’d never seen
He’d been livin’ hard and fast
All his takin’ was takin’ it’s toll
And it took a good hearted, hard headed angel
To help him gain control

Bruce Robison wrote the slow ballad “Blame It On Me”. It’s a nice song, and Aaron gives the song a proper reading.

‘All American Country Girl ” is the worst song on the album, a lightweight piece of fluff that is would work well on the dance floor. It’s not bad – I’d give the song a C+ – but the rest of the album is better.

Buddy Holly’s “True Love Ways” was an interesting choice for Aaron to cover. I am afraid that Buddy is slowly being forgotten as I hear no trace of his influence in today’s country music whereas through the 1980s it was fairly common for his songs to pop up on country albums. Mickey Gilley’s cover of this song in 1980 went to #1 and Peter & Gordon had a #14 pop hit with the song in 1965. I really like Aaron’s recording which nicely combines fiddle and steel as well as featuring more piano that the rest of the album.

Aaron co-wrote “Nobody’s Crying But The Baby” with Gary Nicholson. I think this song would have made an effective single for someone:

With her little one in one arm
And the laundry in the other
She could sure use a helping hand
But that’s just the life of a single mother

Somebody’s calling on the phone
Somebody’s knocking at the door
She forgets and burns the dinner
Throws it across the kitchen floor
And for a moment she wants to give up and break down

But nobody’s crying but the baby
She ain’t far from going crazy
And there are times she wonders how she’s going to make it
But she’s got to be strong enough for two
She’s gotta do what he wouldn’t do
No time for tears around here
Nobody’s crying but the baby

I thoroughly enjoy this album from start to finish each time I pull it out to play. I’d give it an 4.5 stars. Ray Benson produced the album, and this is a country album – no doubt about it.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Aaron Watson – ‘Next To Heaven’

Album Review: Aaron Watson – ‘The Honky Tonk Kid’

honky-tonk-kid-lgAaron Watson tapped Asleep At The Wheel’s Ray Benson to produce his follow-up to Shutupanddance. His fourth album for Sonnet Records, The Honky Tonk Kid was released in the spring of 2004.

Watson solely composed ten of the project’s thirteen tracks, including the record’s only national single, “If You’re Not In Love.” A brisk country shuffle, the track boosts impeccable lead guitar work; but has a clunky lyric that brings the overall quality down a notch.

“The Right Place” opens the album with glorious sawin’ on the fiddle that gives way to a wonderful honky-tonker about the desire for authentic country music and this being “The Right Place” to hear it. “Reckless” is a heavier rocker with ample drum and electric guitar, but saved by the prominent fiddle heard throughout.

The remainder of Watson’s solely penned numbers lean more on the ballad side of the sonic spectrum, with prominent steel guitar and fiddle. “Mackenzie Park” is a splendid shuffle, “Fool’s Paradise” mixes in jazzy swing, and “Next To Heaven” is a touching love song. The best of the bunch is “Will You Love Me in a Trailer,” an excellent shuffle with a fantastic lyric elevated by Watson’s lovely vocal. “Fool’s” is the only stinker with a clunky lyric that makes the track cheesier than I would’ve liked.

In addition, Watson recorded a number of duets for the project. Most notably is the title track, a fabulous fiddle laden ballad with his hero Willie Nelson. Asleep at the Wheel joins him for “Honky Tonkin’ Around Texas,” a fantastically twangy western swing number. Dale Watson (no relation) joins him for “Diesel Driving Daddy,” a chugging Texas shuffle.

The Honky Tonk Kid is a great album, with impeccable instrumentation and Benson’s keen ear steering it in the right direction. At times the project is hindered by terrible lyrical compositions, which I wasn’t expecting as I hadn’t listened to an album by Watson before. But it’s worth picking up and an enjoyable listen for anyone who enjoys the forgotten sounds of country music’s past.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Aaron Watson – ‘Barbed Wire Halo’

Album Review: Aaron Watson – ‘shutupanddance’

shutupanddanceshutupanddance was released in 2002, when Aaron was still known mainly in Texas. It was produced by Kym Warner, an Australian mandolinist. (It was incidentally during these Aaron Watson sessions that Warner met British-born fiddler Eamon McLoughlin, with whom he founded the Americana band The Greencards.) Aaron wrote every song, either solo or with Neal Lowry, and the results are very impressive.

The beaty opener ‘I Don’t Want You To Go (But I Need To Leave)’ is quite catchy, about a relationship with a woman who is just a bit too much of a party girl for everyday life together to work out:

It’s time we called it quits
You know you make fun for Saturday night
But the rest of the week is the pits

There is an excellent classic-style country cheating song set in ‘The Notel Motel’

In a room full of lies
Where love is stolen and put up for sale
If the walls could talk
You know they’d have some stories to tell
‘Cause there’s a vacancy at home
Not tonight at the Notel Motel

Also excellent is the sad story song ‘Stuck Between A Rock And A Heartache’ paints a picture of lonely young wife and mother talking refuge in romance novels and daytime soaps which remind her of her own past romance. An acoustic version of this song is added at the end of the set; since the non-acoustic version is very restrained anyway this seems unnecessary, but it’s a fine song.

‘Off The Record’, a regret-imbued song about a pending divorce, is also very good, with the protagonist still in love despite acknowledging it is all over. In ‘Wish I Could Say I’d Been Drinking’, the non-drinking protagonist feels guilty about the breakup of his relationship, with no one to blame but himself. In ‘Lonely Lubbock Lights’ the singer protagonist has chosen the barrooms he performs in over the straitlaced preacher’s daughter he loved, and now it’s too late to find her again.

‘Kentucky Coal Miner’s Prayer’ is yet another highlight, a powerfully empathetic portrayal of a man struggling with poverty and the terrors of the mines.

‘Heaven Help The Heart’ is an entertaining putdown of a femme fatale who enjoys breaking hearts. ‘Something With A Swing To It’ is, as you might expect from the title, western swing, and is a delight. Belying its title, ‘Shut Up And Dance’ is a pretty melodic love song about staying home with a loved one.

‘Some Never Will’ is well written, but has a slightly harder edge musically. ‘Wrangler Butts’ is a mildly amusing but rather silly tongue in cheek number about the appeal of a good for nothing cowboy’s posterior view. ‘Messing With A Man On A Mission’ is a cheerful up-tempo tune; unremarkable but pleasant.

This was an impressive album by a young artist, solidly country with a Texas feel. It’s a great shame it didn’t make a wider impact at the time of release.

Grade: A

Album Review: Aaron Watson – ‘A Texas Cafe’

2001’s A Texas Cafe was released two years after Aaron Watson’s eponymous debut. A collection of Texas honky-tonk tunes, it is a stark contrast to the mainstream country music of the day, which was dominated by crossover artists such as Shania Twain and Faith Hill. While firmly entrenched in tradition, it is not a retro or throwback record; it is simply a collection of uncomplicated and unpretentious songs that ought to be a staple of country music in any era.

51GN5QJTwPL._SS500_In many ways, Watson is reminiscent of a young George Strait, and though it’s tempting to speculate that he might have been a superstar had he emerged a decade earlier, the songs on A Texas Cafe are probably not quite commercial enough even for Nashville’s New Traditionalist era. Watson writes most of his own material, and I believe the songs on this album are all originals, and though they are all very good, he album probably could have benefitted from some contributions by outside songwriters. With a few exceptions, the songs are not particularly memorable; their main appeal lies in their simple production, with plenty of prominent fiddle and steel, and Watson’s straightforward delivery.

The album did not chart, nor did it produce any radio hits, but there are a handful of standout tracks, mostly in the second half of the album. My favorite is the uptempo “Charlene Gene”, about unrequited love. Though it takes place in a trailer park among self-professed rednecks, it avoids most of the cliches of today’s redneck anthems. In fact, though the trailer park locale provides some humor and charm, the story could just as easily have been set elsewhere. “When All Those Aggies Move To Austin” is a variation on the well-worn “I’ll take you back when hell freezes over” theme, with plenty of references to the Lonestar state. It is also the one song on the album that has a slight Southern Rock feel, with plenty of electric guitar along with the fiddle and steel.

The Western-swing flavored “Amarillo Fair” is also quite good. The title track is a bit reminiscent of Alan Jackson’s “Little Man”, with its references to mom-and-pop businesses that could not compete with big box chain stores. It differs from Jackson’s song, though, in that the heart of the town — its local cafe — remains resistant to change. But as far as the ballads go, “Every Time I Hear Those Songs” is by far the best. It pays tribute to the late Conway Twitty; the protagonist reminisces about enjoying Twitty’s music with a loved one that is now gone. I assumed throughout most of the song that it was about a lost love, but in the song’s closing lines it is revealed that the loved one is the narrator’s late mother.

A Texas Cafe is a fine listen for anyone who is looking for an alternative to bro-country or any of the other dreck currently on county radio.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Aaron Watson – ‘Honky Tonk Kid’