Ask singer Aaron Watson about the current state of country radio, and he might start to rant a little.
“Listen to the top 10 country songs on the radio right now,” Watson says during a phone call from his lifelong home of Abilene, nearly three hours west of Dallas. “Every song is about how we roll, how we ride, how we do it in our town. Everything is the same.
“When you hear a song like that, it’s just not something that makes you pull over on the side of the road and think about life.”
The guy has a point. The last couple of years have seen country music morph into a hit parade of interchangeable party songs — about tailgating, chasing women, drinking beer, back roads and parties in fields. These tunes are inspired by life in rural areas, to be sure, but they don’t have much to do with the rich storytelling tradition of country music.
“I grew up loving Jerry Jeff Walker, Robert Earl Keen, Willie and Waylon,” Watson continues. “As an artist, I just can’t be Luke Bryan. I love the guy, but I can’t sing those kinds of songs and I sure can’t wear those jeans.”
While Watson might not consider himself a heartthrob, the 37-year-old husband and father of three knows the headliner’s spotlight well. He’s released 11 solidly performing albums since 1999 and has become a staple of the Texas country scene, frequenting honky-tonks, theaters and festivals all over the state and beyond. His 2012 collection, Real Good Time, reached No. 9 on Billboard’s country album chart.
“As an artist, I just can’t be Luke Bryan. I love the guy, but I can’t sing those kinds of songs and I sure can’t wear those jeans.”
Watson has built up enough of a fan base with his traditionally twangy material that he could tour comfortably for the rest of his life. Still, he’s sounding awfully restless lately, like a young buck out to make his first big splash.
“I’ve had a very successful career already, but in a way I was getting a bit content,” Watson says. “I thought, ‘It’s time to light a fire under myself and get competitive again.’”
With his 12th album, The Underdog (out Tuesday), Watson believes he’s outdone himself artistically and, more important, produced a collection of songs that could counteract country’s troubling “how we roll” format.
“After 15 years, 12 records and 2,000-plus shows, I think we’re finally coming into our own.”
The opening moments of the new album signal that there’s something different and special about it. On “The Prayer,” Watson’s earnest vocals blend with a picked banjo and an ambling fiddle. Its lyrics, inspired by country-music mythology, imagine a come-to-Jesus moment from the point of view of Johnny Cash at his most troubled. Watson evokes the Man in Black’s grounding spirit with impressive conviction.
“That was one of my challenges for ‘The Prayer,’” Watson tells us. “How can I write a gospel song that is going to be powerful and artistic, and also give a nod to my love for songwriting?”
Watson surely attempted to flex his songwriter muscles when putting together the material for the new album. He says he started much earlier this go-round and penned more than usual — up to 100 tunes, nine of which made the final track list.
“It was important that when people heard this record, they were like, ‘Hey, this stuff sounds as good as anything we hear on the radio, but it’s different,’” Watson says ofThe Underdog. For the versatile vocalist, that means a collection of songs that are part upbeat, part brooding and all intensely melodic. And yes, they build on the styles of country’s classic eras.
Watson penned 100 songs before settling on nine for his new album, The Underdog.
The urgency of young love peppers the album’s biggest earworms, “Wildfire” and “Getaway Truck.” Current hit “That Look” is more of a mature and familiar seduction, one that manages to sound twangy while name-dropping Sinatra and chardonnay. And to these ears, if the double-time road anthem “Freight Train” ever comes out as a single, its infectiousness alone could propel Watson to fame he hasn’t yet realized. He has to get the national airplay first, though.
“I’ve had program director after program director at major stations hear this record and they’re like, ‘This album is full of hits.’ So I’m like, ‘Roll out! Play it!’ And then I’m grateful if the station plays me at midnight on a Sunday.”
While he might be underselling his chances, Watson is probably correct in assuming the richer material on his new record will be overlooked.
A lack of prime airplay shouldn’t keep it from connecting with listeners, though, if they pay attention to the songcraft on display. “Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song)” seems a fitting example -- Watson wrote the gorgeous soliloquy after he and his wife lost their second daughter shortly after her birth. The album’s inspirational title track, Watson says, was written for the benefit of his children as they grow up. The chorus goes, “Follow your heart and always believe in the underdog.”
“I wrote that for when I’m not around,” he says. “They can listen, they can know what I expect of them and how much I love them.”
If The Underdog sounds more polished than some of Watson’s past red-dirt records, that’s no coincidence. He co-produced the new record with Keith Stegall, an industry star who has elevated recordings by the Zac Brown Band, Alan Jackson and George Strait, among others.
Stegall’s participation gave Watson access to the best studio players, ones he could handpick to achieve different styles.
At the end of his new album, it comes back down to Watson’s conviction and passion about keeping tradition alive. He’s happy to be the underdog.
“I’d rather be an old fence post in Texas,” he sings, “than the king of Tennessee.”