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)”
I agree that it’s a mediocre album, especially by his standards. But, to have generated as much success as it has given the state of modern country music is impressive.
I was about to beg through emails for a review of this album!
Whoa! I didn’t realize “Wildfire” was a John Mayer song! That’s one of my favorites on the album as far as the funner songs go. I’m still baffled by the John Mayer thing, since I think Mayer is so incredibly boring.
Good picks for the stand out songs on this album. I’d probably give it 3.5 stars.
I would agree with the album review. I wanted to like this album more than I did, but honestly Aaron Watson has never been one of the Texas artists I have really gotten into. Some of his songs have just felt a little too…generic or whatever for me. That said, I am thrilled he has had the success he has had in regards to the chart and albums sold.
I’m more of a Randy Rogers/Stoney LaRue/Wade Bowen fan, but Watson has a number of solid songs on this album and while there are not enough of them for me to rate it higher than a 2.5/3 star album, it truly is great to see an independent artist with a traditional sound making the waves he has been without help from a music row label.
Okay, I just listened to the Mayer version of “Wildfire” and it’s pretty good. I can’t believe how country it is. It’s certainly more country than anything on country radio!
I feel that this album doing so well on the charts is a big middle finger to Gary Overton, Scott Borchetta and all of the others who had given true country music up for dead. I think recent success of Watson, Sturgill Simpson and others have proven that traditional sounding country music can thrive and certainly is alive and well.
I am more inclined to agree with Lisa’s review at My Kind of Country, although I would only have given it a B+
This is a 5 star album from a Lone Star singer.
It has everything that a great country album needs: fun songs, sad songs, reflection songs, breakup songs, regret songs, inspiring songs, Christian songs, love songs, even a cowboy song.
Aaron Watson does a fine job of taking old themes and lyrics and twisting them into shiny, new vocal work. It is familiar ground, but he re-hoes the ground with gusto.
“Getaway Truck” only appears like a bro-country song because those singers have completely ruined trucks as a subject. It is just nice to see old-fashioned romance represented outside of Josh Turner who is often panned for not recording “deeper” material and merely focusing on love songs. I mean, considering a lot of country fans whine about the bro-country/modern approach to treating women, Turner and Watson’s well-penned offerings should be more respected.
Well-written cutesy rhyme schemes should and will always have a place in country music.
Pleasant throwbacks are more enjoyable than pretentious abstract music.
This album is what a modern country music album should sound like. Not all sad, not all happy. It covers all human emotions. This isn’t necessary a critic’s album, but neither were Walt Disney’s movies sometimes, but the public loved them and that is the audience Watson and Disney wanted to please. His albums are the same as Walt’s movies: you laugh, you love, you cry, you leave with a happy feeling in your heart.
Both of Mayer’s last two albums have moved in more of a SoCal / Laurel Canyon style; they’re no less dull than any of his previous albums, though. I greatly prefer Watson’s version of “Wildfire,” since he doesn’t sing like he needs a hit off an Albuterol inhaler. It was a smart choice of a song to cover, and it would definitely be my choice for another single from the album, even though there are a few other tracks with a more strongly commercial bent.
“I greatly prefer Watson’s version of “Wildfire,” since he doesn’t sing like he needs a hit off an Albuterol inhaler.”
Best description I have ever read of John Mayer’s vocal style.
Thanks for that.
Since everyone seems to enjoy “Wildfire” so much, I’ll just remind y’all that Rascal Flatts also does a version on their latest album. I like Watson’s version a little better, I think, but I enjoy Rascal Flatts’ version better than John Mayer’s. I know Rascal Flatts doesn’t really get much love around here (and in general they don’t deserve much), but they did a solid job on this one.