Country music isn’t some chart in a weekly music rag. It isn’t simply a collection of words or imagery that happen to tie however loosely to rural or Western themes. Country music isn’t some eeny meeny miney moe game on the genre wheel where you select whatever pie piece you think will be most advantageous to get you to the top. Country music is a lineage that dates all the way to before recorded music even existed. Every performer who chooses country music as their profession must understand it is their duty to uphold, and preserve, and pay forward those traditions that have lingered for generations into the future, because they know it’s those traditions that have afforded them their opportunities.
Sure, some music may talk about horses and Wangler jeans and Gucci hats. Some songs may throw a banjo or a fiddle in the mix. Some may not do any of these things, and still claim affiliation to country music as a lucrative vehicle for launching a career. But true country music doesn’t need to explain itself, or defend against accusation. It just is, and its truth and authenticity is formidable and unquestionable. Otherwise, it is just musical entertainment.
Many years from now, legions of country fans will look back on this era in country music with awe and jealousy that us living souls were lucky enough to experience the majesty of “King” George Strait when he was still alive, just like today’s generation looks back with fawning reverence for the faraway legacy of Hank Williams. George Strait’s music won’t whither over time, it will only be embellished by age. His memory won’t fade in the months and years after his passing, it will ascend to a deity-like status in the ethos of country lore.
George Strait’s legacy is long, and growing longer by the year. It isn’t without flaw of course, as anyone’s would be after amassing 28 studio records spanning nearly 40 years. But Strait’s early career efforts are as strong as any of the country music greats. His mid career era was expansive and consistent. “King” George’s longevity in country music is nearly unparalleled. But as he entered into the period that all popular country artists do, where it’s a question of whether radio and awards will still pay attention to them, perhaps he got caught in the tug-of-war of two worlds for a while, and found a way forward that was more familiar to pragmatism than it was to purity.
It seems strange to characterize George Strait’s latest record Honky Tonk Time Machine as a return to his roots. After all, this is George Strait. But nonetheless, it’s a fair accreditation to make, and a welcome conclusion to settle upon when you appreciate the authority with which George Strait can deliver a honky tonk heartbreaker, or a barroom boot scooter, which he does on numerous occasions on this new album.
Now completely free from having to even consider the commercial implications of his music, George can just be George, and record the music he wants to, the way he wants to. A small but noisy minority of country fans always love to question Strait for writing so few of his own songs. Over the years this is a task Strait’s delegated to the likes of Dean Dillon, Jim Lauderdale, and a good deal of others, while slipping in a few of his own here and there. Sometimes recognizing a good song can almost be just as important as writing one, and that’s been one of Strait’s strong suits over the years. But Honky Tonk Time Machine finds George co-writing eight of the album’s 13 tracks, which has to be a record for him.
Some of the songs George wrote with Dean Dillon and son Bubba are the best of the record, including the tear-soaked “Sometimes Love,” a touching, but not sappy tribute to police officers called “The Weight of the Badge,” and one of two heavily religious songs on the record, “What Goes Up” co-written with Bubba and Jeff Hyde. George isn’t afraid to evoke Jesus on this record, which may leave some of the secular persuasion skipping over certain tracks. But no matter your opinions on the presence of a higher power, the line “Come hell or high water, there’s still two things worth saving, God and country music” should get you nodding in approval, at least if you like to linger around this corner of the internet.
Honky Tonk Time Machine could possibly have benefited from cutting off a couple of the songs. Nothing wrong with “Código” on the surface, but if we’re going to give it to Maren Morris for turning a Target commercial into a song, we can’t spare George Strait for peddling his boutique tequila company in a jingle track passed off as just another album tune. And even though it is very cool to finally hear fellow Texans George Strait and Willie Nelson singing on the same track, you’ll be hard pressed to find another song so full of shoddy phrases, strained rhymes, and sloppy harmonies than “Sing One With Willie,” however fun it might be. They just needed to spend a bit more time on this one to make it more memorable than novelty.
But you still get everything you want out of a George Strait record in Honky Tonk Time Machine, from some great mid tempo stuff that’s perfect for Saturday night, along with few serious tear jerkers, to the point where you don’t feel uncomfortable telling people you believe this might be one of Strait’s better efforts in the latter half of his career.
Debate upon what country music is and who is allowed to make it will continue into eternity. But if tasked with describing country music in two words, a damn good answer would simply be “George Strait.”
1 1/2 Guns Up (7.5/10)
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