With a string of hit releases on the Billboard Country Albums charts, and long, shiny buses carrying him to packed concerts from coast to coast, on the surface it may seem difficult to think of twangy Texas singer-songwriter Aaron Watson as any sort of underdog anymore. Throughout the 41-year old Amarillo native’s epic new album, Red Bandana, it’s clear that Watson wears the Underdog cape proudly, refusing to acknowledge any sort of permanent victory in a business where fame and success is ever so fleeting, especially for an independent artist.
Containing 20 songs, one for each of Watson’s 20 years in the music business, Red Bandana is an ambitious undertaking. That already high ambition quotient is raised considerably by the fact each of the songs are written solely by Watson himself. While it’s refreshing to see an artist double-down on his commitment to the album format in this digitally streaming day and age, 20 songs on a single record often means, as it perhaps does in this case, there’s at least a couple of songs that simply feel misplaced, even if the collection a whole is a winner.
With what almost amounts to a 50/50 split in fast and slow numbers, Red Bandana impressively assumes the role of a country-powered mixtape. A similar description can be given to many of Watson’s previous records but the diversity in styles, sounds and stories is amped up a good but here, an idea bolstered by the inclusion of “El Comienzo Del Viaje,” a cinematic, western gothic instrumental track.
There’s the usual combo of fast and slow, but more to the diverse point, there are also up-tempo tunes with Watson delivering his lines with what is dangerously close to a rap-style cadence (“Dark Horse,” “Kiss the Girl Goodbye”), as well as one that fuses a snappy, jazzy beat with Green Day-influenced punk guitars (“Shake a Heartache”).
Watson has long offered up a great many revved up rocking numbers, but there’s a fresh, adventurous energy evident in these new approaches. The more familiar, more traditionally country songs also avoid tasting stale, at least in part, thanks to lush, expansive string arrangements backdropping Watson’s always earnest Texas groan. “Country Radio” is a fiddle- and pedal steel-kissed tune that wouldn’t be found anywhere near modern country radio, while “Am I Amarillo” is one of the better songs George Strait didn’t record in his late ‘80s glory days.
Watson goes out of his way on this record to pay tribute to many of his heroes. The album-opening “Ghost of Guy Clark” and “Legends,” Watson speaks rather than sings, while acoustic instrumentation plucks along. “Riding With Red,” is another lovely acoustic-driven song paying a tribute, this time to his longtime friend, and cowboy legend Red Steagall. The best tribute track on the record isn’t one that discusses the hero as much as it emulates him. Inspired by the passing of Tom Petty, the roots-rocking “Old Friend” features Watson singing “left wing or right wing, it takes both wings to fly,” before adding later “I think we all agree we love a Tom Petty song.”
As much as anything else, it can’t be an Aaron Watson album without a couple of sexy gettin’ busy tunes. The proud family man has never been shy about singing songs about the marital bed, and the sultry, R&B-flavored “You on My Hands,” occupies that space here, and is as modern pop as Watson has ever sounded. Another contender for modern country radio is the electric rock “Live or Die Trying,” which Watson has said is inspired by famous radio DJ Bobby Bones’ book, Fail Until You Don’t.
For all of the different musical approaches Watson employs over such a large amount of songs, his goal to use his writing to make an emotional appeal to the listener is certainly intact. “To Be the Moon” is a creative, ode to the inspirational, desirable qualities of being something other than a shooting star or shining sun. The jangly, up-tempo “Trying Like the Devil” is a believable note to his fans that he’s nowhere near the perfect guy some might think he is. Closing with an absolute wallop to the gut, heart and soul, “58,” at less than a minute-long, is a tear-jerking ode to the victims of the 2017 Route 91 Harvest Festival massacre.
With two decades in music under his belt buckle, Aaron Watson’s ambition and drive is likely bigger and better sounding than it’s ever been.