Aaron Watson at The Garage

Disclaimer: I was very kindly given my ticket to this show for free by the lovely people at Lime Tree Music PR. All opinions in this review are my own.

In the past year or so, country music has slowly been drifting back towards a more traditional bent, buoyed by the success of acts like Jon Pardi, William Michael Morgan and Chris Stapleton. However, Texas native Aaron Watson has been 'putting the cowboy back into country' by slowly building up a reputation and a fan base for over a decade. In 2015, he had a major breakthrough: his 11th album, The Underdog, which became the first independently released album to top the Billboard Country Albums chart. The follow-up, Vaquero, is due out in February and Aaron has been touring the UK in support of it, including a stop at the Garage in Islington on Friday night.

The support act were Honey Ryder, who I'd been keen to see for a while - I was gutted to miss out on them at C2C last year. They played a short 20-minute set , including songs from their latest album 'Born In A Bottle' as well as their previous records. The standout songs for me were current single 'Damn It I'm In Love Again', 'Marley's Chains', 'If I Ain't Got You' and 'Mirage', all of which showed off their playful lyrics and great guitar playing. Overall I thought they did a great job of getting the crowd warmed up and had everyone singing along very quickly, which is always a good sign for me!

Then it was time for Aaron, who came out to an absolutely thunderous reception. He went straight into his first song and didn't let up for a good 10 minutes, which was a great way to get the crowd going. Initially I was a bit nervous that he wasn't going to be much of a chatter, but I needn't have worried - within a couple of songs he seemed to settle down and get into his rhythm more, engaging with the crowd and handling a few over-enthusiastic fans with aplomb.

I have to say the show was an absolute rollercoaster of emotions for me - Aaron kept the crowd laughing with stories about his family back in Texas, such as teaching his daughter to play Taylor Swift songs on her guitar, but also brought tears to my eyes when he talked about his faith and his experiences in life. The ballads 'Bluebonnets' (which he wrote for his late daughter Julia) and 'July in Cheyenne' in particular had me in floods, showcasing his ability as a songwriter brilliantly. Granted most country musicians write from life, but those deeply personal songs - whether slow and sad or more uptempo, such as 'Raise Your Bottle' and 'Barbed Wire Halo' - were what made the show so special for me.

Of course, that's not to say there weren't some fun moments too. In particular I loved 'That Look', the tongue-twister of 'Freight Train', 'Getaway Truck' and 'That's Why God Loves Cowboys', all of which got the crowd singing and cheering along. However, my highlight was undoubtedly 'Fence Post', which was the first song of Aaron's I ever heard (via Bob Harris Country on Radio 2) and which sums him up perfectly - that it's not about being famous but about being able to make great music. It was also great to hear some of the tracks from the new album, particularly 'Outta Style' and 'They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To' - if the rest of it sounds like that then it's going to be brilliant!

Overall I thought that Aaron's show was utterly brilliant. I laughed, I cried, I was inspired by his speech about chasing your dreams, and I danced and clapped and sang until my throat was sore. Here's hoping he comes back to the UK soon!

My Top Five Country Albums Of 2016

Last summer, I wrote a post about my top five country albums of 2016 so far (you can read it here if you're so inclined). However, there were a few late entries that became big favourites of mine towards the end of the year, so for today's postI've decided to write an updated list. So without further ado, here are the country albums I loved most in the last 12 months...

1: Miranda Lambert - The Weight Of These Wings
It's fair to say Miranda Lambert's double album was the most anticipated record of 2016 - and it didn't disappoint. The Weight Of These Wings is definitely more introspective than her previous albums, although there are some fun uptempo numbers like 'Pink Sunglasses' and 'For The Birds'. I also really loved the storytelling elements, from 'Runnin' Just In Case' as the narrator leaves one breakup, progressing through the highs and lows of a new relationship and then ending with another depature on 'I've Got Wheels'. Standout tracks for me were 'Tin Man', 'Use My Heart', 'Highway Vagabond' and 'Vice', but I think my favourite is 'We Should Be Friends'. I can't wait to hear her singing it live when I see her on tour in August!

2: Dierks Bentley - Black
Another 'story' album, but this time it's examining a relationship and how the right one can change you for the better. Dierks does a great job of showcasing his protagonist's journey from thinking in purely carnal terms on the opening title track to a newfound maturity by the time he gets to 'Can't Be Replaced' 13 songs later. I also really liked the more emotional side Dierks showed on the album's two duets, 'I'll Be The Moon' with Maren Morris and 'Different For Girls' with Elle King, although there are still party songs like 'Somewhere On A Beach' and 'Mardi Gras' on there too. He's pulled off an outstanding album that requires you to sit down and listen to it all the way through, in order, and that's becoming increasingly rare. Hats off to him!

3: Maren Morris - Hero
I don't think a week has gone by when I haven't listened to at least one song on this album. It strikes a great balance between the uptempo tongue-out, two-fingers-up tracks such as the ska-tinged 'Rich' and 'Drunk Girls Don't Cry' and the more emotional likes of 'I Could Use A Love Song' and 'I Wish I Was', which are great showcases for Morris' songwriting talents. My favourite song still has to be 'My Church' though; it just oozes soul and defies you not to sing along as loud as you can. I'm so looking forward to hearing the entire O2 singing it back at her when she makes her main stage debut in March.

4: Jon Pardi - California Sunrise
'Big hat' country had something of a revival in 2016 (largely due to the success of a certain Mr Stapleton), and Jon Pardi was at the forefront of it with his sophomore record. From the lead single 'Head Over Boots', which is surely going to be a country wedding staple for years to come, to the 'Fence Post'-esque opener 'Out Of Style', the stomping 'Dirt On My Boots' and the heartfelt ballad 'She Ain't In It', there isn't a dud track on the entire album. It's full of down-home twang but with enough poppy leanings to appeal to new country fans as well as traditionalists, and songs that will stick in your head for days. Definitely my discovery of the year.

5: The Shires - My Universe
I loved The Shires' debut album, Brave, and this follow-up is even better. It's packed with pulsating beats, shimmering melodies and, as usual, Ben and Chrissie's beautiful harmonies. Songs like 'My Universe', 'Beats To Your Rhythm' and 'A Thousand Hallelujahs' are practically begging to have an entire arena of people singing along to their choruses at full blast. But my favourite songs are the pair of ballads about their fathers: Chrissie's solo number 'Daddy's Little Girl' and 'Everything You Never Gave', which sees Ben reflecting on parenthood and his own relationship with his dad. The album is a perfect marriage of all my favourite things about Brave and showing the band's growth as musicians and songwriters, and I've played it non-stop all autumn. Bring on the tour!

Honourable mentions: Chris Lane's Girl Problems, which replaced Thomas Rhett as my getting-ready-to-go-out country album; William Michael Morgan's Vinyl flying the flag for traditional country music; the gorgeous harmonies that littered Ward Thomas' wonderful Cartwheels; Frankie Ballard's southern rock-infused El Rio; and Florida Georgia Line (mostly) leaving bro-country behind and sounding all the better for it on Dig Your Roots.

And the ones I'm looking forward to next year: The new Brad Paisley album! According to his Twitter account, it's going to be called Love and War and is coming out in February. Given the strength of the first two singles (I still cry every time I watch the 'Today' video), I'm hopeful for a really great record. And I fully expect the C2C crowd to sing every word back at him when he comes over in March. I'm also very excited about the new Little Big Town album, The Breaker - their foray into pop on Wanderlust was great, but latest single 'Better Man' makes me excited for what's to come. Bring on 2017!

What albums were your favourites this year?