Aaron Watson The Underdog 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.
You know the country music market is in sore straits when a career-best effort from Alan Jackson dies outside the Top 20 on the charts. It’s easy to wonder if, after more than two decades of populating country airwaves with quality material well-sung and tastefully produced, the hits may finally be drying up for Alan Jackson. That would be a huge shame, because finely polished country tunes like current single “You Go Your Way” are becoming increasingly rare on country radio, with Jackson having been one of the last nineties veterans standing who was still able to sneak such efforts into the playlists.
No, this isn’t Alan Jackson covering The Flatlanders, although that would have been phenomenal. Rather, this is Jackson performing right in his sweet spot: a simple enough song, yet with some clever lyrics, a generous dose of pedal steel and Jackson’s typical smooth, agreeable vocals. “Dallas” may not be Jackson at his most experimental (see “I’ll Go On Loving You”) or mainstream (“Chattahoochee”), but it’s a pleasant little gem in a very rich catalog of music.
The slightly perceptible shift to more traditional sounding music on mainstream country radio carries on with Craig Campbell’s debut self-titled album, which was produced by the venerable Keith Stegall. Campbell may not be a household name just yet, but his album’s lead single is being warmly received so far and will likely continue to do so at least for the near future.
In one of Alan Jackson’s most revered songs, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”, he describes himself as “A singer of simple songs.” As proof of his sharp sense of self-awareness, Jackson can submit the greater part of his music catalogue as hard material evidence to support his claim.
Fortunately, in his case, “simple” has mostly translated to “transparent” rather than “amateur”, which is surely a difficult balance to strike. And while he has been successful at it more often than not, even he hasn’t always gotten it right.