After Aaron Vaughn dug his discarded pop songs out of the trash, truth finally hit him like a ton of bricks.
“I’m country, man,” Vaughn says, cracking a classic country grin. “Just finally accepted it, and I’ve got to say, it sure feels right. Better than it ever did before.”
With the fall 2011 release of a stunning four-song solo debut, Vaughn has finally found his voice as a budding country singer. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a guy who nearly gave up on music just a few years ago.
Fearing he’d wind up another shunned pop-rockster trapped in an endless industry racket, Vaughn made an out-of-the-blue decision to put his promising pop music career to bed.
“I’d decided to throw it away, the music, the shows, the producers – everything. I was just tired of the trial and tribulation, so I figured I’d go be ordinary,” Vaughn recalled.
The Ardmore, Okla., native’s life had been anything but ordinary throughout much of the 2000s. He’d cut a record with his pop-rock group, Cardinal Trait, that picked up steady steam on regional radio (regular rotation on KMYZ, KHTT, KRSC, KJYO, KNYZ, among others). The airplay was precisely the type of attention Cardinal Trait had hoped for when they went in with megaproducer Zack Odom (Collective Soul, Matchbox 20, Keith Sweat, The Ready Set, etc.). Everything seemed on track.
But nothing’s a given. Having done all the right things, met all the right people, but still stuck in Ardmore unsigned and unknown outside the region, Vaughn decided he’d had enough of the game. He broke up the band, packed his guitar and songs away and set out for some honest work.
Soon enough, Vaughn was supervising safety on oil rigs all across oil-crazy Oklahoma.
“I’m hanging with roughnecks all day, guys with real lives, real problems and just an overall sense of humanity I hadn’t experienced in a long time,” Vaughn said. “Spending time with folks like that gave me a perspective and empathy I didn’t have before.”
One day, sitting in his pickup, driving to a rig down some county road in the endless Oklahoma nowhere, Vaughn experienced a clarity of conscience he hadn’t felt in years.
“What I realized was I had to quit pretending I wasn’t country,” he recalls, laughing. “So there’s no running from it anymore. I’m country. I mean, I’m from Ardmore, for goodness sake. There’s not much more country than Ardmore, Oklahoma.”
With his soul sobered up from the pop-rock flameout hangover, Vaughn got his guitar back out, dug up some old, unfinished songs and started embracing a country sound he’d always had inside him but never fully explored.
Soon, the songs he’d thrown away years before started coming together again, but this time, Vaughn learned to avoid forcing things. Instead, he waits, no matter how long it takes, for the right word, right note, right hook. Whatever it takes to get the song right.
The result on his solo debut is a group of strikingly patient, honest country anthems for the everyman. The songs reflect the wisdom of a man who tasted the tip of success only to find that back in reality was where the best songs were to begin with. It’s a story to which most ordinary folks can relate, and Vaughn is the perfect spokesman for them.
Vaughn’s newest batch of songs speak straight to the soul of real, hardworking people like the roughnecks who helped Vaughn find his way when he’d lost it. But that’s not to say Vaughn or roughnecks are so overly familiar that they are unoriginal. Quite the opposite. Vaughn’s songs, like the middle class warriors he represents, prove to be full of the type of personality and originality that’s in such short supply in his newfound genre.
Take, for example, the alternate twist in the hook-heavy “One Bar,” Vaughn’s clever country romance about seeking spiritual refuge in the watering hole on the edge of town.
“The thing is, ‘one bar’ is really a cell phone term, not just a spot for beers and billiards. There’s actually a place outside town where I just get one bar of cell phone service, which inspired the song to begin with. I thought surely someone must’ve come up with the ‘one bar’ wordplay before, but apparently they haven’t. I’m happy to take it.”
Vaughn’s newfound penchant for patience is on full display in his debut’s emotional high point: The touching ballad “My Old Man.” The song was ten years in the making. When he started penning the tender ode to his father a decade ago, Vaughn couldn’t seem to finish it, so he put it on a shelf. It wasn’t until years later, when his father unknowingly gave him the key to finish the song, that Vaughn brought it back into his rotation.
“Dad was just telling me a story one day about how as a school kid he’d mop the cafeteria floor for lunch money while all his friends goofed around. The story just encapsulated so much of what I was trying to say about my dad, and it wound up being the one line I needed to finish that song. It took ten years to find the part, but I found it.”
In “My Old Man,” veteran producer Kendall Stephens layers a thin layer of lap steel guitar just above Vaughn’s vocals, where the thin, tinny strings float like angels in the clouds. It’s a fitting touch for a song with such a heavenly message from a man whose faith seems to have finally steered his music in the honest direction it was destined to go to begin with.
“I used to be the guy who listened to producers, labels, industry people, whoever. Now I listen to myself, my family, my friends, my faith – real people. It’s a lot better this way.”