The narrative surrounding Aaron Watson’s The Underdog makes it an album that is easy to root for: Buoyed by more than a decade of goodwill and fan support and a deft pre-release promotional push, the album surprised many with its #1 bow atop Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, surreptitiously around the same time that erstwhile Sony Nashville CEO Gary Overton made his controversial remark about how artists who don’t get played on country radio “don’t exist.” The Underdog, the twelfth album from a traditional-leaning Texas singer-songwriter known as much for his humility as for his music, provided a perfectly timed counterexample to Overton’s short-sighted arrogance.
That context suits the overall thematic bent of Watson’s album quite well. Although the album includes several bids for mainstream attention— lead single “That Look” peaked at #41, while “Getaway Truck” trades in the most tired of Bro-Country images—it does so without pandering too openly for approval, and tracks like “The Prayer” and “Fence Post,” the wondrous cautionary tale slash kiss-off that closes the set, position Watson as someone who acknowledges his outsider status even as he courts a wider audience.
Again, Watson’s timing works in his favor. A generation ago, artists like Mark Chesnutt, Clint Black, Tracy Byrd, and Clay Walker regularly released albums that all sounded similar to what Watson offers here and that, it’s worth noting, were also often regularly produced by Keith Stegal). But The Underdog plays as something of a reprieve from the boorishness and the bluster of Florida-Georgia Line, Chase Rice, Cole Swindell, and the other interchangeable acts along the Bro axis. And, while it’s certainly refreshing to hear an act who is an unapologetic throwback to the mid-90s (see also: Worsham, Charlie), Watson’s style alone can’t compensate for the album’s uneven quality.
“The Prayer” and “Wildfire” (a cover of a John Mayer song that Watson, in some kind of minor miracle, breathes life into) set the tone for the album with their skillful balance between traditionalism and contemporary polish and with Watson’s winning performances. “Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song)” is a genuinely lovely and understated meditation on loss, while “One of Your Nights” is torchy and turns on a well-turned phrase. But “That Look” and “That’s Gonna Leave a Mark” resort to predictable, borderline cutesy rhyme schemes that undermine their hooks, and the imagery in “Blame It On Those Baby Blues,” “That’s Why God Loves Cowboys,” and “Rodeo Queen” is all too familiar to make the songs in any way memorable.
At fourteen tracks, Watson could likely have benefited from some selective editing. The Underdog is never less than polished, competent, and, above all else, likable. But its best cuts make it clear that Watson is capable of far more than merely being a pleasant throwback. To that end, if The Underdog breaks Aaron Watson to a broader audience of country fans, so much the better.
Recommended Tracks: “The Prayer,” “Wildfire,” “Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song)”