Aaron Watson’s The Underdog is a country album, and yes, it is that simple. There is nothing here that can cross over to other genres. There are no influences from recent radio trends. Watson is taking a risk with this record, trading commercial appeal for creative expression. He knows country, and he’s going to give us country.
That’s not to say there isn’t anything mainstream about The Underdog. Some songs lend themselves well as potential hits. For instance, “That Look” was an excellent choice for the first single. The way the chorus explodes and then winds down, the sweet loving lyrics, the simple arrangement of guitars, fiddles, and steady drums—it’s the makings of a great radio track. “Blame It On Those Baby Blues” is another solid ode to love with memorable lyrics you can sing along to. Even the slightly religious “That’s Why God Loves Cowboys” could be successful if released as a single. The hook is clean and catchy, and the theme doesn’t come off as preachy. It’s very down to earth.
We have a few of these radio friendly songs, and then we have “Fence Post.” This closing track begins with a spoken-word monologue, taking a dig at music industry politics: “God knows I love country music with my heart and soul, and I love the Grand Ole Opry. But I do have a problem with someone who can’t even play a D chord on a guitar telling someone with a dream that they won’t get far.” The song itself has a good message, telling listeners to not get discouraged when others don’t believe in your dream… but holy smokes, that intro! It’s much more in-your-face than other songs on the topic, like Jason Aldean’s “Crazy Town,” so much so that it may be alienating.
Most of The Underdog is something between these two extremes. There’s a lot more banjo and steel guitar on this album than today’s more mainstream fare, but Watson isn’t reinventing the wheel. It’s the lyrics that make this album stand out, which are both humble and poetic. “Freight Train” does a wonderful job of blending the fast pace of the music with a unique portrayal of a lonely life on the road. Watson’s travels are not all pretty as he sings from “a glorified Greyhound bus,” which is a gripping phrase sung with power. Watson even makes the overused theme of needing companionship sound new again on “One of Your Nights.” It’s straightforward, but far from plain. This could also be said for the record as a whole.
I should give a disclaimer: this album is not for everybody. If you’re looking for something more palatable, you should not seek out The Underdog. That being said, Aaron Watson has crafted a really great country album. Those with open ears will find it very worthwhile.
Highlights: “Freight Train,” “That Look,” “Blame It On Those Baby Blues,” “Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song),” “One of Your Nights”