As country music’s most unlikely, and likable, newly minted star, the only real danger Aaron Watson is likely to face on the road ahead is letting his biography overshadow his material. Luckily for him, both sides of the ledger are pretty compelling: Once rejected by Nashville for his lack of “commercial appeal,” as he told Tuesday’s RodeoHouston crowd in his debut on the revolving stage, Watson retreated to his native Texas, where he played gig after gig until 2015’s The Underdog became the first independently released album by a solo male artist to top Billboard’s Country Albums chart. He’s back there this week with new LP Vaquero, still without a label or major distribution deal, only kept out of the top spot this time by the mighty Little Big Town.
Seriously, the people who made Friday Night Lights — either the film or the series — ought to think about commissioning a screenplay on this guy. Watson is a red-state archetype without the ungainly political baggage: a happily married father of three who stands tall for faith, family and first responders. (It really was First Responders Day at the rodeo, made all the more poignant by the passing of Houston Fire Department Captain "Iron Bill" Dowling a few hours before Watson took the stage.) Watson, too, has seen real tragedy in his life, losing a daughter at a young age, the genesis of The Underdog’s “Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song).” Artists like him aren’t necessarily supposed to be successful in 2017; the world has long grown too cynical, or so we are led to believe.
And yet the reason Aaron Watson sells records is not because of his backstory, or at least not completely. Trends come and go within country music, all too often at the expense of art, but somehow real and honest songwriting endures; the connection a song like “Bluebonnets” forges with an audience, whether instantly or long-term, is simply impossible to manufacture. Tuesday, Watson told the crowd he wasn’t sure he could get through it without breaking down, but rather than tears, the only thing it provoked was the firefly effect seen in thousands of smartphone lights.
Yet as goosebumpy as it was, to single out the most emotional moment of Watson’s set would not be entirely fair to the rest of the songs, because in the dizzying amount of territory he covered in about 45 minutes, nothing felt anything less than 100 percent authentic. Other songs touched on rodeo life (“God Loves Cowboys”), disabled veterans like his dad (“Raise Your Bottle”) and windows-down summertime highway music (“Outta Style”). If that last one is not blaring from every pickup from Watson's hometown of Amarillo to the shores of Lake Ontario two months from now, there really is no hope for commercial country radio.
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Elsewhere, the self-admitted lifelong George Strait fan’s “That Look” carried the same sly delivery as Strait’s vintage ’80s valentines. The introduction to “Fence Post” went on a little long, but the song itself stood as a fine example of what a powerful motivator a chip on the shoulder can be; besides, a punch line like “I’d rather be a fence post in Texas than the king of Tennessee” is worth a little extra buildup. And if he wants to crank it up with his band, Watson can do that just fine as well, as on the supercharged Texas swing of “Real Good Time” and the Pat Green-style rocker “Getaway Truck.” He also had some fun using NRG Stadium’s closed-captioning board Tuesday to “score some points” with his wife.
As someone who admitted to waiting his whole life for his turn on the rodeo stage, Watson deserves more than a one-and-done shot. The announced crowd of 51,586 may have been on the modest side, but that’s still nothing to sneeze at, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a performer at RodeoHouston more in tune with the audience in the stands. Tuesday, his modern-throwback aesthetic was probably best articulated in “Like They Used To,” which extols the virtues of fried chicken, Patsy Cline and John T. Floore’s Country Store, and by extension artists who slog through years of lousy gigs until one day they’re thanking their kids for skipping school to come see daddy play at the Houston rodeo. They don’t make ’em like they used to, all right, except for when they still do.