Album Review – Aaron Watson’s ‘Vaquero’

album-cover

Aaron Watson is undoubtedly one of the biggest stars of the Texas country scene. In terms of stature and achievements, he’s the Luke Bryan of the scene. Watson has racked up numerous #1 hits at Texas radio and has established quite a following over his career. He also achieved a historic accomplishment with his last album The Underdog, becoming the first ever independent, male country artist to debut at #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It’s a feat that has since been accomplished by more, but it was significant because it made many in the industry realize that independent artists can sell better than many major label artists. It also brought him onto the radar of many mainstream fans. So his follow-up and new album Vaquero certainly comes more anticipated than any of his previous releases. At 16 songs long I wasn’t sure what to expect. The result for the most part is quality country music.

The easy-going “Texas Lullaby” opens up the album. The song is about a guy named Texas from Texas who goes to serve in the army. It’s a pretty cliché song that takes a very contrived approach. The fiddle and steel guitar play is nice, but that doesn’t automatically absolve the lyrics of course. The next song “Take You Home Tonight” though does a much better job of striking a good balance between the lyrics and instrumentation. The song is about a couple spending the night at home together. The theme is slightly bro-ish, but Watson’s charismatic delivery and the fantastic instrumentation really carry the song well. “These Old Boots Have Roots” is probably the best traditional meets modern country song I’ve heard yet. It’s infectious, catchy and fun from the first listen, utilizing the fiddle well. This song demonstrates Watson’s ability to get the most out of songs with his likable and down home personality. Watson also excels best on love ballads like “Be My Girl.” I especially enjoy how the instrumentation really lets this song breathe and at the same time enhance the mood the song is going for.

Watson laments things not being the same as in the past on “They Don’t Make Like They Used To.” It’s a song that relies on nostalgia and at first kind of comes off curmudgeonly championing the past. But halfway through it comes back around. It touches on how we need more love, compassion and forgiveness in the world so that one day we might be looked back upon as the golden days. Your mileage will vary on this one. The album’s title track has a decidedly Tejano influence, which is great to hear. The song is about a man sitting down at the bar with an old vaquero, who bestows upon him the lessons he’s learned in his long life. It’s essentially along the same lines as the Billy Currington hit “People Are Crazy,” but I think this song does a better job of getting it’s point across. “Mariano’s Dream” is a prelude to “Clear Isabel,” arguably the best track on Vaquero. The song is about Isabel and her father Mariano, a Mexican lawman. After watching his son die at the hands of a drug cartel, Mariano packs their stuff and sets their sites for freedom in south Texas. They are discovered by a Texas man who offers them shelter and work. In the meanwhile the Texas man falls in love with Isabel, marry and have a child. They are also able to obtain a green card for her father, but unfortunately it comes too late as he’s gunned down. It’s a tragic, timely song that conveys the risks people take to seek freedom and a better life.

“One Two Step at a Time” is a song I can imagine will be a hit at the Texas dance halls. Watson gets conciliatory on “The Arrow,” which reads like advice from a father to a child. While a tad sappy, it has a good message of spreading love and kindness. Watson’s charm once again elevates an ordinary song to something I will remember. The album closes out with another standout, “Diamonds & Daughters.” It’s about a father conveying how proud and how much he loves his daughter. He recalls the first time he saw her face to now giving her off at her wedding day. The guitar-play compliments the lyrics well and gives the song some much-needed texture. It’s a great, heartfelt way to end the album.

Vaquero is a pretty solid album from Aaron Watson. I think it’s even better than his previous album The Underdog. But at the same time I can’t help but feel it should have been even better and I think the biggest culprit of this album is the album length. It’s just too long at 16 songs and I think if it was culled down to 12 songs it would have made for an overall better listen. Nevertheless there are some really good moments on this album and they outweigh the more pedestrian moments you might have to wade through. For fans of Texas country there will be a lot to like and for the curious mainstream fan this album will harken them back to the days of early 2000s country. Vaquero will further endear fans of Watson and will surely attract more seeking the sweet sounds of fiddle and steel guitar.

Grade: 7/10

 

Recommend? – Yes

Album Highlights: Clear Isabel, Diamonds & Daughters, Vaquero, Be My Girl, Take You Home Tonight, These Old Boots Have Roots

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: Texas Lullaby, Big Love in a Small Town, Amen Amigo, Rolling Stone, Run Wild Horses


Album Review – Flatland Cavalry’s ‘Humble Folks’

Getting noticed in the music world is without a doubt one of the biggest obstacles a new band faces. How can you stand out amongst the crowd? What do you have to offer that another band cannot? In this reviewer’s opinion, one of the better ways to get people to listen is to offer an original voice. Write songs from a different perspective, touch on something that not many others have. And it doesn’t hurt when the music is delivered with skill that proves dedication to the craft beyond the bare minimum.

New Texas country band, Flatland Cavalry, will get people to notice them through their understated, yet fine tuned style that brings immediate comparisons to the Turnpike Troubadours. Friends and founding members Cleto Cordero (vocals and guitar) and Jason Albers (drums) are joined by Jonathan Saenz (bass), Reid Dillon (electric guitar), and Laura Jane (fiddle). While their sound may not be the most original, the band is devoted to bring a voice and sound to country music that is different when compared to the masses of Nashville or most of Texas’ other bands.

Humble Folks kicks off with the tender love song “One I Want.” Cordero sings about his willingness to show how much he loves his wife without leaving any room for doubt. One thing you’ll pick up on through the album is the band’s skills in storytelling. They cover quite a bit of ground without compromising detail or natural progression. Their devotion to a simile is best showcased in “A Good Memory” as entire stanzas are used to explain how this particular woman is like a flower drawn in sidewalk chalk or a drunk dial late at night. A song that harkens back to a 90s country sound, “A Good Memory” is the exact opposite of the first track, as Cordero sings about regret for not doing enough to make his love stay. The first true showcase of who Flatland Cavalry is can be found in “February Snow.” This breakup ballad touches on the regret of saying goodbye and trying to come to terms with the heartbreak. The lyrics paint a detailed picture that draws you in, and the song is aided by a catchy chorus and a great production prominently featuring Laura Jane’s fiddle.

“Tall City Blues” details a white-collar worker who’s unhappy with his life. He doesn’t like his job or apartment living, and spends his nights drinking his blues away at the bar. Nothing about the city life feels permanent. Given country music’s blue-collar pride and history, this kind of song isn’t surprising to hear, yet it’s delivered with a story and details that feel fresh. William Clark Green joins the band on “Coyote (The Ballad of Roy Johnson).” Roy Johnson is a transporter who aids illegal immigrants in safely and quietly getting across the Rio into Texas for a new life. The story is predictable and repetitive in its hook, which seems like a partially wasted opportunity for having William Clark Green on the album.

Laura Jane’s fiddle play may be the best part of Humble Folks, and she’s given a chance to show off in “Devil Off My Back.” After singing about a rowdy lifestyle and a desire to change, the darker, mid-tempo song takes an upbeat turn as Jane tears up a fiddle breakdown in the song’s outro. The album may not have many noteworthy instrumental moments, but Jane’s fiddle on this track is certainly one of them. Flatland Cavalry resort to common lyrical tropes on “Stompin’ Grounds.” A character who’s tired of the office life and ready to get back home for a good night with his buddies. They’ll drink Shiner around the bon fire, and dance with good-looking women while the DJ plays Waylon Jennings. It’s the same kind of small town pride and party song, wrapped up with a true country sound.

The band is at their best with breakup songs, and “Goodbye Kiss” may be the album’s best song. In this ballad, the couple have decided to end things and say goodbye, but before they part, they allow themselves one final kiss. Cordero sings the man’s point of view as the regret and pain of that last kiss make this goodbye much harder than it needed to be. In a much happier sounding breakup song, Kaitlin Butts joins Flatland Cavalry in “A Life Where We Work Out.” Cordero and Butts trade verses and harmonize beautifully as they imagine what their life would be like had they not ended the relationship.

Flatland Cavalry touch on a growing band’s life in the final two songs. “Traveler’s Song” details the band’s journeys across Texas and how they can’t stay in one place too long. It’s not a song that offers a lot of insight to life on the road and acts more like a highlight reel. Humble Folks comes to a close with the title track. Cordero’s vocals are put through a distortion effect, as he sings about trying to remain humble as fame and recognition grow. The distorted vocals make it hard to understand the lyrics, and I don’t understand the point of it.

Overall, Humble Folks is a solid debut album for Flatland Cavalry. Some moments on the album fall short as they rely on overused tropes for storytelling. However, there are several moments where the band shines showcase their promise. Flatland Cavalry describe their music and “Easy on the ears, heavy on the heart” and that description is right on the money. The easy listening of mid-tempo and slower songs are met with darker songwriting that does a great job capturing heartbreak and pain. You can’t do much better with a debut album than Flatland Cavalry does with Humble Folks. This is a good band to watch and keep on your radar as more albums are released.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review – Randy Rogers Band’s ‘Nothing Shines Like Neon’

Randy Rogers Band Nothing Shines Like Neon

If you asked me to list the ten artists in 2015 in country music who had the best year, Randy Rogers would be near the top of this list. His collaboration album Hold My Beer Vol. 1 with buddy and fellow Texas country artist Wade Bowen was one of the best of 2015 and reminded everybody just how great these two are at making music. It felt like many country fans had forgotten about them, especially after their less than stellar stints on major labels in Nashville for the last few years. But now both have returned to their roots in Texas and are wholeheartedly pursuing the music they want to make.

Rogers is back with new music again in 2016, with his own Randy Rogers Band. The group is made up of Rogers, Geoffrey Hill (guitar), Jon Richardson (bass guitar), Brady Black (fiddle) and Les Lawless (drums). It’s been three years since they’ve released an album of new music. Combined with the intriguing details that have been revealed in the months leading up to this new album (being produced by the well-known Buddy Cannon and the announced collaborations most notably), it’s something many country fans have been anxiously anticipating to hear. Rogers and the band promised that this new album, Nothing Shines Like Neon, would be full of traditional country music. And after listening to this album several times, I can say they wholeheartedly lived up to this promise.

The album begins with the easy-going “San Antone.” It’s an ode to Texas and how proud they are to be back home in Texas after trying their hand in Nashville for the past several years. It’s sort of their re-introduction as a Texas country band and an appropriate opener for the album. Plus it’s quite catchy and features plenty of fiddle and steel guitar. But this is something I can say about the entire album. This is followed by the romantic ballad “Rain And The Radio.” The song is about the power being out and a couple being together in the darkness of their house. I know some listeners will express concern this song is too much like the romantic slow-jams on country radio the past few years, but I don’t think this is in that territory. This song is sincere in its romantic intentions and implies it’s more than quick fling, but rather an honest, loving moment between two people. That being said it is one of the weaker songs of the album, although not a bad song in any way.

“Neon Blues” is your classic drinking song about a woman trying to drink her heartbreak away. The woman isn’t in any mood to talk about it, but rather continue to put back shots to dull her pain. After you hear this song a few times, you’ll undoubtedly catch yourself humming it randomly as I’ve found out (this is a good thing). One of the standouts of Nothing Shines Like Neon is “Things I Need To Quit.” It’s about a man realizing a list of habits he needs to quit, most importantly a woman from his past he can’t let go of. He knows he needs to move on and quit waiting around for her to come back because it’s never going to happen. The songwriting on this song is great and really captures the feelings of someone experiencing this well.

Randy Rogers Band team up with the talented Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski on “Look Out Yonder.” This is another song that demonstrates just how far and how great this band has become over the years. Perhaps a self-reflection song for Rogers, it’s about a man returning home to his family and how he’s been many things over the years, but has always had the best intentions in mind. The instrumentation and production are light-weight, which is quite beneficial the song. This really lets the lyrics shine and tell the story at hand, allowing the listener to connect with the song and experience their own feelings with it. For many this will probably be their favorite song on Nothing Shines Like Neon.

Following this is “Tequila Eyes,” a song about a woman drinking tequila to drown her sorrows away, but as her friends explains it can only hide her true feelings for so long. It’s a solid drinking song with some great fiddle play and slightly catchy lyrics. Nothing Shines Like Neon is at it’s most fun and exciting on “Taking It As It Comes.” Rogers duets with the Texas country music icon Jerry Jeff Walker and their voices go together perfectly. Walker hasn’t missed a beat after all these years. The instrumentation is fantastic, blending piano, fiddle, steel and electric guitar throughout. It’s just one of those songs where you just can’t help to move your feet and sing along with it.

There are a lot of really good songs on this album, but none are better than “Old Moon New.” It’s a tender love ballad about a man nervously trying to profess his love to a woman through various ways. Whether it’s his love letter that he knows has a “thousand clichés” or the eleven red roses he gives her just to shake it up from the usual number, he knows the love he feels for her. He knows there’s nothing new being done under the old moon that night, but she makes it feel new when she’s with him. It’s such a refreshing and enjoyable take on the romantic, moonlight, country ballad that has been tainted in recent years. This is the type of song I could have easily seen Alan Jackson and George Strait cutting back in the 90s, with the genuine lyrics and heavy steel guitar and fiddle.

“Meet Me Tonight” is your classic “ex regret” song, as a man reaches out to a woman from his past to meet up with him tonight to rekindle a lost love. But it’s not going to be successful, as it’s just a failed relapse out of desperation. This song has the misfortune of following the best one on the album, but you shouldn’t overlook it. Jamey Johnson joins the band on the next song, “Actin’ Crazy.” Johnson did a lot of cool collaborations with fellow country artists in 2015 and to start off 2016 he’s part of another. It’s another really fun song and features the best and most witty line of the album when the duo utters, “The rent is high as Willie.” That definitely made me chuckle. Randy Rogers Band did one hell of a job picking guest artists for this album and it’s reminder that more country artists need to do fun collaborations like the ones on this album.

Nothing Shines Like Neon is capped off with “Pour One For The Poor One,” another strongly traditional country song with plenty of fiddle and steel guitar. A man has had his heart-broken after professing his love for a woman and she responds by leaving in the middle of the night. Now he’s stuck on a bar stool and asking the bartender to continue to poor out the drinks for his “poor, pitiful” self. Once again the band captures the feeling of heartbreak perfectly.

The year 2016 is quite young, but I can say with certainty that Randy Rogers Band has released the first great country album of the year with Nothing Shines Like Neon. It’s an album full of entertaining and engaging traditional country music that is sure to wet the whistle of any country fan. Randy Rogers Band does a fantastic job of balancing serious songs and fun songs. I was most impressed by the depth of the serious songs, one of the few small concerns I had coming into this album. I always knew they could make entertaining, fun songs, but to make as great of love ballads as they did on this album it demonstrates to me how much this band has grown. This is a big step forward for Randy Rogers Band and reminds everyone that they’re still one of the best in the Texas country scene. Traditional country music doesn’t get much better than it does on Nothing Shines Like Neon.

Grade: 9/10

Country Perspective’s 2015 Duo/Group of the Year

When it came to determining the winner for Group or Duo of the year, the main factor we took into determination was impact. All five groups we nominated delivered quality music and carry a dedicated fan base, but which of the five made the biggest impact to Country and Americana music? Maddie & Tae’s Start Here left quite the impact on mainstream country. Start Here is a great album and showed that Maddie & Tae are poised to take a position of leadership in country music, but this is just the beginning for the duo. The fact remains that they have room to grow and certainly have the potential to improve, build off Start Here and be the female leaders of country music that the Dixie Chicks were once upon a time. However, there was one other pair whose traditional country music album release left a bit bigger impact. Country Perspective’s 2015 Duo of the Year is Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen.

Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen’s Hold My Beer album was a career defining album for each Texas singer. In a time where Texas country musicians continue to let the new Nashville sound influence their music more, blurring the line that once separated Texas country from the rest of the genre, Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen showed leadership expected from two of the genre’s most well-known names.

Rogers and Bowen both dabbled their feet on a mainstream label, while not entirely abandoning their roots in the process. After failing to make a mainstream impact, they’ve both returned to independent labels for their new music. Rogers and Bowen said country music can still be country music and proved it with Hold My Beer. From traditional country heartbreak in “Til It Does” to fun protest with “Standards;” from covers of country greats like Merle Haggard to originals celebrating friendship, Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen let their talents speak for themselves. And even though “Standards” was rightfully named Song of the Year, “El Dorado”, the five-minute chronicle of a dying cowboy, may be the album’s best song. Randy & Wade are established enough in the genre where their decisions carry more weight than newcomers. In respect to their position in the genre, this leadership in the fight for traditional country music cannot go unnoticed.

Randy Rogers has been hard at work this year with his own band recording new music. He has promised that the band’s new album due out next month will continue his delivery of traditional country music. This year Wade Bowen also appeared on Jamie Lin Wilson’s debut album in a traditional country duet about lovers regretting their affair. Hold My Beer doesn’t appear to be an anomaly, as both Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen seem poised to continue bringing traditional country music to the forefront of the genre.

Country Perspective’s 2015 Song of the Year

Determining song of the year comes down to a few key attributes within the song. The song should tell a story with confidence and consistency in its approach. The lyrics need to be evocative and connect with the audience. The musical production should match the writing in its confidence and nuance. The artist singing the should deliver the material in a way to reach the desired effect of the lyrics. There were a few songs Josh and I narrowed this category down to. Songwriting was our main focus and we felt there were strong candidates in that regard. Ultimately, there was one song that stood out to us not only with the above criteria in mind, but also due to one final attribute: impact. To us, there was one obvious choice for Country Perspective’s 2015 Song of the Year…

Bowen & Rogers Hold My Beer

“Standards” by Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen caught the attention of the country music world. When Hold My Beer was announced, I think the general assumption was that the album was going to be a snapshot of Rogers & Bowen’s collaborative acoustic tour. But when the duo debut the first single from the project, everyone was surprised not only by an original song, but a well-written country protest song. A song steeped with fiddles and steel guitars, fun word play and double meanings in song’s hook, and two singers delivering the song with a fun, light-hearted attitude. “Standards” took the country world by storm in April and has maintained its impact through the year.

Protest songs about the establishment of Music Row are commonplace in independent country music circles. Many of the songs come from a place of anger or resentment against Nashville. What makes “Standards” stand out among the crowd is that it comes from a place of acceptance and confidence in one’s music. “But it ain’t me, so I shook my head and that’s all there is to that” sings Bowen to end the first verse. “Don’t get me wrong I want to hear my songs on country radio, but it’s gotta feel right standing here singing them at the show” the duo sings in song’s bridge. Both Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen spent some time on a major label, but now they’re both back making their music independently. They sing the song from a place of experience and assert their place in country’s world while only slightly dismissing the Nashville establishment.

Rogers and Bowen’s confidence in their music is due to the fact that they know their songs have a longer shelf life than a Nashville hit song. They have fans who swarm their shows happy to hear any song the bands will play. As they say in the song “I don’t have hits, I have standards.” Standards meaning a timeless collection of country songs, and standards meaning that they won’t sell out to sing a dirt road song simply to have a top ten song on Billboard. Seven words full of rich meaning that not only connect with their audience, many of whom dislike Nashville and love the subtle jab, but the song also connects with their peers in the independent country music world.

As mainstream country continued to push away from the country sound, “Standards” feels more relevant each day. “Standards” has all the makings to be a country music standard. As great and well written as the other Song of the Year finalists are, “Standards” made an impact that wasn’t matched. This song and its lyrics perfectly describes the independent country music circle and those fighting the good fight for quality and country in our music. Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen dropped the defining song of 2015. “Standards” is a song that’s built to last and could very well maintain relevancy for years to come.