Last year, the Amarillo-born Aaron Watson made history when his album “The Underdog” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s U.S. Country chart. He was the first solo male artist to do so with a self-released and independently distributed and promoted album.
Despite its title, “The Underdog” was Watson’s 13th studio album. He’s been a fixture in the Texas music scene ever since 2001, where his brand of songs about “faith, family and fans” has attracted a huge fanbase.
But he told me in a phone interview earlier this month that once he found out “The Underdog” debuted at the top, he knew his next album had to be even better. Today, the world will hear his follow-up, “Vaquero.”
“Probably an hour after ‘Underdog’ went No. 1, it hit me. I went, ‘Oh my goodness, if I’m gonna top this album, I’ve better get hard at work on the next one,” Watson said. “My manager was like, ‘You’re outta your mind, you can’t be thinking about the next one, the new record just came out,’ but I worked my rear off on this new one, and I gotta say, out of all my records, this one is the one I’m the most content with.”
“Vaquero,” out today, sticks to Watson’s trademark of blending trendiness with tradition. The 16-track album is the most sprawling work Watson has ever done, blending country-rock, R’n’B-tinged love ballads, backwoods stories, an epic instrumental track and traditional country twang with ease. He also gets more political than he ever has on this album, but more on that later.
“To prepare for this one, I listened to a lot of Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Springsteen, Mellencamp, Tom Petty, music that still lives on. Honestly, ‘Vaquero’ was inspired by The Beatles’ ‘White Album.’ The diversity that album has, I wanted to duplicate that. I also wanted there to be those moments and moments reflective of my culture, like Tejano and Texas music.”
The album’s title comes from the original cowboy, something that the traditional Watson says has gone out of vogue with country music.
“The vaquero was the original cowboy, and you cant talk about the American cowboy without talking about the vaquero, because he taught the American cowboy everything he knows today. The cowboy is timeless, and that’s what we wanted to portray in this album, that the values of the cowboy are relevant and still valued in country music,” Watson said. “Pop country needs to stop acting like cowboys are uncool and dated.”
The title track, along with the mid-album two-piece “Mariano’s Dream” and “Clear Isabel,” paint a picture of the vast landscape those vaqueros came from. The latter two songs use Tejano music and country rock to tell the story of a Mexican lawman and his daughter headed to the Texas border to flee a drug cartel. “Mariano’s Dream,” Watson’s first recorded instrumental track, makes you feel like you’re right there in the Mexican desert ready to ride off into the Texas sunset. That leads into “Clear Isabel,” and the cinematic border-crossing narrative.
More: ‘Vaquero’ was one of Gone Country’s most anticipated albums of 2017. Here’s more great music coming this year.
“Those were songs that I thought up while I was just driving around, thinking up songs, and I had this ‘Clear Isabel’ idea. Obviously, the saying is ‘clear AS a bell,’ but I played off of that, like what if Isabel is crossing the Rio, and the coast is clear? And so I sat down and immediately became a screenwriter, let my imagination run wild, and I took things I heard and turned it into a story.”
That moment is one of the best of the album, but Watson also has his share of love ballads on “Vaquero.” The sultry, R’n’B-tinged “Run Wild Horses” was written “as a way to write this sexy, graphic, but clean” song for his wife. “Be my Girl” is an playful examination of the ways the day-to-day aspects of marriage can brush up against a couple’s young love. “Take You Home Tonight” is his take on the old barroom pickup line, but meant within a marriage. He told me all of his love songs are written for his wife, and he’s tired of modern country’s insistence on trivializing real, lived-in love.
“There’s a lot of boys singing love songs in country music these days,” he said. “I don’t care if they’re 30, they’re boys singing love songs, and the fact is I have a daughter, and when she gets older, if some dude tries to ‘take her down to the river,’ he’ll show up missing.
“I’m writing these songs for my wife, the woman who’s given birth to my four kids, and she’s been putting up with me for a long time. She deserves something that’s real, and these songs are just songs about our life. Marriage is hard. My wife and I may not be perfect for one another, but we’re persistent for each other.”
“Vaquero” also showcases more of Watson’s political views than any album of his has before. The one-two punch of “Mariano” and “Isabel” make no political stance, but “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To” acknowledges what Watson believes is the real root of the problem with America’s political climate: love.
The song starts of as a nostalgic tribute to Watson’s grandparents, but evolves into a crescendo of guitars as he laments, “No news is good news, tell me, which news really tells the truth? The death toll rises high as gas prices shot straight through the roof. Meanwhile, politicians preach while some preachers politic, when what we need is lots of love…still we criticize, we glamorize, who’s right or wrong, who’s left or right, missing out on so many beautiful colors, waging war on black and right. We’ve gotta forgive, gotta learn to live together, make the world a better place. And just maybe someone someday somewhere will look back on us and say: ‘They don’t make ’em like they used to anymore.'”
“I’ve never been political. I have my thoughts, but that’s not why people listen to my music. But it’s ridiculous how our country has gotten. People hate people because they vote for someone they don’t agree with, and I don’t get it. I tell people I’m not for the left wing or the right wing, I’m for the whole bird. But I do truly feel like we don’t treat each other like we used to, and we don’t treat each other with respect and love. Hopefully someday, after we’ve lived lives worthy of being respected, our kids and grandkids will look back and feel like I do at the end of the song, but right now, people are selfish and lazy and both sides are guilty of being harsh and cruel.
“It’s a very political song, but what is being political about is love. It’s a political song saying, we need to love each other and make the world a better place.”
“Vaquero” is available now wherever records are sold.