"I came of age in the '90s," says Watson, speaking via cellphone from his Nevada City home. "DJ culture was prevalent, and a lot of sampling was going on. What's around me now, among my peers musicians and artists is a struggle to escape these feedback loops of pop culture. Everything has to be punk, or post-punk, or Beatles-esque, or Hank Williams crossed with Cyndi Lauper; everything has to have a genre and a reference point." Watson, who has played his fair share of roots music, confronts this referential instinct on his third solo album, Aficionado. "I feel like it's a critical point in our culture when we can't seem to get past that. On the one hand, I'm really reverent of the past in my music. That makes it a special challenge to throw down the gauntlet and say, "We've gotta do something new.'"
Which isn't to say that Aficionado lacks clearly defined reference points. Watson's influences emerge throughout the album: "Living in the Past," a down-home blend of country and soul, evokes both Bill Withers and Curtis Mayfield, while "Highway 1 Sunset" shines with sunny, moving harmonies owing a debt to the Beach Boys. "Come on Home," on the other hand, borrows from the raw, sincere vocal delivery of Roy Orbison, and the singing is accompanied by electric guitar and heavy reverb.
While alluding to these iconic American songwriters of the '60s and '70s, Watson avoids pastiche by filtering his output through narratives that address the current cultural climate. This is exemplified by the character of Aficionado, who appears in the title track. A country gentleman who buys his Western wear in SoHo and gets taken for a bittersweet ride through the music industry, Aficionado is ultimately abandoned as a passing musical fad. He represents what Watson describes as his own "quest for authenticity in a culture based on recycled themes and sounds." Says Watson, "I like to create story lines and characters. It's a way for me to look at my relationship with what's going on around me. It's probably hedging my bets a little bit, too: A lot of my songs are about characters who'd say, "I got in the ring, yeah, that's cool I don't need to be a superstar, I'm just doing my thing,' in a Tom Waits kind of way. I create these characters that can go out there and take the knocks."
While the story of Aficionado takes a jab at empty expertise and pop-cultural reproduction, Watson also sees him as a sympathetic guy. "An aficionado is someone who knows a lot about something. And people in this culture can become famous just for being able to spew out information about stuff they have no personal relationship to knowing a shitload about '70s singer-songwriters, for example. They don't even have to generate their own content. But I've definitely been that person, and I've known plenty of people like that. It seems a natural thing on the one hand, but I also know people who've gotten past it and been completely comfortable in themselves. They don't have to study some style and reproduce it perfectly. They can make something original."
In his own quest for musical purity, Watson ambles toward that promised land of unfettered creativity. As a result, his best songs appropriate popular American songwriting traditions to communicate the humor, beauty, and pathos of our own time.