(BIG Label Records)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
“These old boots have roots,” sings Aaron Watson on his follow-up to 2015’s popular, and appropriately titled, The Underdog. Those roots are in Texas, Watson’s home state, whose eclectic music informs his homespun yet surprisingly diverse combination of styles which are displayed on these 16 selections.
After struggling as a country singer-songwriter on indie labels since his modest 2001 debut, Watson finally hit big after years of touring nationally and internationally as The Underdog debuted on the Billboard Top Country albums chart at number one. Regardless of your opinion about his rather staid, somewhat slick, certainly polished take on country, that’s the kind of success story anyone can appreciate. But if he felt any pressure for the next release, it doesn’t show in the performance and writing of this hour long set.
Kicking off with the lovely accordion enhanced ballad “Texas Lullaby” featuring Celtic undertones establishes the varied yet organic approach. It focuses on Watson’s buttery, baritone vocals and engaging storytelling which alternates between melancholy and upbeat. The former is on display in this expressive tale of a soldier who loves his wife as much as his titular home state and whose life we follow from 18 to his death at 83, all compressed into just over five minutes. Fiddles and pedal steel also accentuate the bittersweet tale which is surely one of the album’s finest moments and arguably a Watson career highlight.
The disc’s name refers to the original Spanish horseman which led to the iconic North American cowboy from this country’s past. Similarly the sweet, slightly clichéd title track — a bit too reminiscent of fellow Texan Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” — about meeting an old vaquero in a bar adds Mexican flourishes to its agreeable if predictable story. Elsewhere Watson brings enough honky-tonk, folksy C&W, singer/songwriter tunes and even some moderate doo-wop (on the chirpy two stepping “One Two Step at a Time”) for a few albums worth of material.
The homey Vaquero is consistently hummable, melodic and masterfully produced. Even in its most obvious flashes — and there are plenty of them- you’ll never question Watson’s motives. As smoothly as it goes down, the final product doesn’t feels overly commercial or aiming for the marketable airplay it’s suited for. Watson typically stuffs his albums with a lot of tracks (he wrote or co-penned all 16 here and 2012’s Real Good Time had a bit-bursting 18 cuts), and perhaps some judicial editing would have made this stronger. That’s especially the case as Watson delves into the more clichéd wasn’t-it-better-in-the-old-days? waters of “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To” and the self-explanatory “Outta Style,” not to mention the references to American cars and jeans that pepper his work.
To wish he was more rebellious with a rawer edge isn’t to ignore the sheer professionalism and creativity on display, particularly when he borrows a Cars riff to open the aforementioned “Outta Style.” Watson’s knack for shaping sharp, hooky choruses makes this eleventh edition to his catalog not just a worthy complement to The Underdog, but a textbook example of his talents in a genre overflowing with shapeless, cookie cutter “bro country,” little of which is half as enjoyable or well-crafted as the majority of Vaquero.