The opening track to Aaron Watson's "Red Bandana" double album is "The Ghost of Guy Clark," and it's an appropriate way to kick things off. The legendary songwriter's spirit hands the narrator, Watson, a guitar and asks him to play a song. After just a couple lines, Clark stops him cold, saying "I think I've heard enough of that. When you've heard one, you've heard them all," It's probably exactly how a meeting with the spirit of an iconic songwriter and an eager-to-please, mainstream-at-all-costs singer would go.
Over the course of the hour-plus album, Watson name-checks plenty of heroes, uses plenty of feel-good aphorisms and tries to push his outlaw cred, but not in any way that would prevent him from being played on country radio. The result is something that a Keith Urban or Blake Shelton fan would show off to assert their "indie cred." There are good songs here, but with 20 tracks, there is some clutter that one has to work through to get to them.
On the positive side, "Riding with Red" is a worthy addition to the cowboy genre. Watson wisely doesn't do too much with it - one verse and a brief chorus in a 4-minute song, creating a beautiful and atmospheric space for his lyrics. The strings-backed "To Be the Moon" has a bit of a '50s feel that meshes well with Watson's delivery. While he's a natural at rowdier, up-tempo songs, he can deliver on a ballad with surprising skill and tenderness.
Watson does deliver some stand-out up-tempo tracks as well. "Trying Like the Devil" and "Kiss That Girl Goodbye" are nice slices of '90s-style contemporary country. "Shake a Heartache" is set to a slick groove, but the production never strays too far from his sweet spot. To Watson's credit, the album is heavy on fiddle, and the electric guitars are solidly twangy.
Frequently, Watson's songs get dragged down by overly simplified lyrics and trite phrases. "Live or Die Trying" and "Dark Horse" both feature Watson rap-singing generic lines about positivity and end up sounding like a countrified version of a John Cena ring entrance song. "So take that leap of faith/Go and shake your fear of flying/If you don't believe then you won't/So keep on losing until you don't," he sings on "Live or Die Trying." "Legends" is literally a list of people Watson really admires and what they might be doing today. It's a really good list, but it doesn't make for a particularly engaging song.
"Red Bandana"'s super-sized length commemorates Watson's 20 years of making music. A good number of the songs explain his longevity and popularity. Overall, with a little culling, it works better as a really good regular-length album.