On one hand, Aaron Watson's The Road & the Rodeo stays close to his Texas country music, singer/songwriter roots; on the other, this is easily his slickest record to date and swinging for the fences in Nashville. While the album doesn't contain many of the '70s rock-influenced sounds -- enormously compressed electric guitars or crunchy, booming arena rock drums --that are de rigueur for so many Nashville studios in the 21st century (and so popular with contemporary country radio programmers), it's far smoother than the rowdy, good-time honky tonk sounds on his earlier offerings. Evidence of this shift occurred on 2008's Angels & Outlaws, but given mostly reflective material, it was less apparent than it is here. Watson, who wrote or co-wrote over half of the set's 15 numbers, is still open to experimentation, however, letting his opening title cut go on for just over a minute before abruptly cutting off, seemingly in the middle never to return, making the listener think something is wrong with her stereo. Elliot Park's "The Road" kicks things off properly, with an uptempo Telecaster, pedal steel, and fiddle-drenched tale of life and its various adventures cleverly compared to road surfaces. Next up is a cover of Tom Petty's hit "Walls." Watson employs pedal steel and fiddle, and ratchets up the pace, but ultimately it goes nowhere, adding nothing to the song or the album. "Fast Cars and Slow Kisses" was written and recorded as fodder for radio and is virtually indistinguishable from mainstream contemporary country. Bruce Robison's "Drivin' All Night Long" keeps some Texas honky tonk inside its polished Nash Vegas grooves. That said, Texas roots music still looms large in Watson's vision. "God Bless Her Crazy Heart" rocks, but like something out of the prime of Waylon Jennings' and Willie Nelson's live band stomp. "Houston" and "Hollywood" are pure Texas country & western, with loads of swinging steel, popping cut-time basslines, and in-the-pocket shuffling drums. The Road & the Rodeo is a mixed bag that tries to please everybody, and to some degree does, but it also makes the listener wonder just where Watson will go from here.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek