On The Road & The Rodeo Watson continues his expansion into the ‘mainstream’ but instead of being slick and glossy or ‘pop’ or faux rock like some of his contemporaries, Watson’s music still features as much steel guitar and fiddle as it does telecasters. It’s a record that is 15 songs deep without any ‘bad’ cuts. While over ½ of the record was solely written or co-written by Watson, the choice of outside materil is strong along with covers of Tom Petty’s “Walls,” Larry Gatlin’s “Houston” and Bruce Robison’s “Drivin’ All Night Long,” are songs written by Elliott Park (“The Road”), David Dunn (“The Conflict”) and EMI Records Nashville’s Troy Olsen (“After The Rodeo”).
The previously mentioned “The Road” is the first full song (after an interesting one minute intro title track). In this joyful fiddle-soaked tune Watson brings a little of the western back to modern country with a dusty tale of life. It’s a song that finds an inanimate object – the actual road – serving to remind folks that it’s only the vessel in which we often use to chase our dreams or make any our life’s decisions. The production joyfully recalls something that might be on the latest records from Alan Jackson, George Strait or even Brad Paisley with a melody that reminds me of some of Garth Brooks’ tunes. This isn’t to say that I’ve heard a song quite like “The Road,” because I don’t think I have. Country artists have long covered Tom Petty so the fact that Aaron Watson is covering the iconic heartland rocker is not surprising. What is surprising is the choice of “The Walls,” a rock chart hit from 1996’s soundtrack to the film She’s The One. Watson takes this folk rock tunes and adds massive fiddle fills and audible steel guitar fills and ends up selling a song that probably could’ve gone bad. Lyrically it’s a song about how a woman can break all the metaphorical walls the narrator built up to keep himself from getting hurt.
Watson’s songwriting ability continues to grow and it’s evident on the melodically beautiful “Best For Last,” a song that really shows off Watson’s slightly raspy voice that recalls Gary Allan at times. “Fast Cars Slow Kisses” feels tailor made for mainstream country music as it tells a story of a jaded woman who takes a chance at online dating, despite wanting a ‘good old fashioned romance.” This is the kind of song that mainstream country radio eats up recalling Rodney Atkins or Brad Paisley songs. It may be a little ‘too cute’ or ‘aww, isn’t that sweet’ in a tidy story of the way a modern couple met but that doesn’t make the song any less appealing and once again the production never gets in the way of the songs and the melody only serves to enhance the story. The song is insanely likeable.
Coming right after the sweetness of the last two tracks is the Waylon-like “Bless Her Crazy Heart” that isn’t nearly as sweet (at least melodically). Fans of story songs with loads of fiddle like those of the Charlie Daniels Band or even Zac Brown Band’s “Sic ‘em on a Chicken” will likely like “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” tune which revels in its Texas ‘essence’ and is gloriously not mainstream but that doesn’t mean it won’t make for one hell of a song for Aaron’s band to play or for people to two-step to.
As the choice of “Walls” proved, Aaron Watson is good at picking a smattering of ‘cover tunes’ and one of the most interesting ones on the record is pop singer/songwriter David Dunn’s “Conflict.” Originally released by the writer in 2009, Watson’s version isn’t too much different from Dunn’s original except for the fact that it has more fiddle and obviously has steel guitar fills. The song also allows Watson to show off his fantastic voice. Aaron Watson grew up in the honky tonks of Texas so it’s fitting that he’d record a song that’s likely been played hundreds of thousands of times in such locales. “Houston,” the last #1 hit for Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers in 1983 is reverently revived here as is Bruce Robison’s “Drivin’ All Night Long,” a song Jack Ingram has also recorded in the past.
Aaron Watson has steadily built his career through hard work and sheer will. Now 10 years in, he may still be the man he sings about in the intro title song but that doesn’t mean that he’s not working towards rectifying such facts. Like Angels & Outlaws before it, The Road & The Rodeo is the work of an artist confident in where he’s been and confident in where he’s going. In many ways this is the way mainstream country music should be marketing itself, that is as a genre that may borrow from other genres but is still completely its own sound.
If you prefer your music to be more than ones and zeroes you can buy the CD at Amazon.