Aaron Watson compiles a hefty 20 tracks on his towering double album Red Bandana, a number that bears some sentimental significance: There’s a song here for every year he’s been in the music business, a tally that might come as a shock to anyone who only heard of Watson through “Outta Style,” his surprise number-one country single from 2017. Commercial success came late for the veteran singer-songwriter, and Watson’s taking nothing for granted: He pulls out all the stops across these 70 minutes of music, ably balancing the anti-establishment attitude of outlaw country with just the right amount of contemporary polish and radio-ready tunefulness.
Clearly, he’s thinking about the big picture, and as spectacle, Red Bandana is hard to resist. It’s when you get into the details that you notice a few weak spots in Watson’s songwriting: In “Legends,” he offers a laundry list of singers who inspired him but doesn’t have much to say about them, while several songs position him as a Music Row outsider whose calling card is his “soul,” a dubious and vague suggestion that he’s realer than the rest. Of course, a few rough patches can’t overshadow the set’s generous sprawl, and Watson largely justifies his widescreen ambition: Opening in a spoken-word reverie with the “Ghost of Guy Clark” before coasting through the dusty vistas of the instrumental “El Comienzo del Viaje” shows just how willing he is to swing for the fences, but it’s in the more intimate moments that Watson really shines. “Heartstrings” builds from back-porch picking into the sweet swell of a string section, as Watson fetes the love of his life, and “Old Friend” teeters from old-timey fiddles to a big, gleaming chorus—proof Watson’s greatest feat is how he keeps his heart in tradition, but at least one eye cast toward the present day.
Published as part of Rooted & Restless | Issue 4