There are only three men who have legitimate claim to being called “The King of Country Music.” For those who truly know their country music history, they understand that Roy Acuff might be the most rightful owner of the title. He set the table for country music and the Grand Ole Opry as a major American genre and a commercial enterprise, and more specifically he coined the term for himself, and was so self-assured about it that he engraved it into an album cover.
Hank Williams is probably the most-recognized King of Country for most fans, especially of the traditional variety. And it’s hard to put up a fight with them, even though Hank never held the title in his living years, and insisted that he personally be referred to as a folk singer.
And then there’s “King” George Strait. It flows so easily off the tongue, and his impact both commercially and critically on the genre was so deep and so protracted, it’s hard to argue with. Truth is all three probably deserve the crown for their respective eras, just like true monarchs who must relinquish the jewels when they retire, die, or are deposed.
One of the attributes that tie these three men together was they weren’t show boaters. Their style of country music was straight down the middle. “Do it vanilla boys,” is a quote attributed to Hank Williams, yet nobody would ever accuse Hank or his music of lacking any character. Yet that criticism has dogged George Strait a bit over his career, especially as more flashy performers like Garth Brooks showed up on the scene with pyrotechnics, and rock/pop sensibilities. Meanwhile George Strait remained steady as she goes, selling out arenas in multiple eras, and setting a record of 44 songs at #1 on the country charts.
But George Strait was not always King George. There was a time when he was struggling to amass crowds in central Texas venues like Gruene Hall and the Cheatham Street Warehouse. Just like the traditionalists of today, George Strait was a strange bird—young, hungry, idealistic, and wanting to make his mark on country music in his own way. Strait has been so stoic and successful for so many years, it’s hard to even picture the young Strait today out there barnstorming through honky-tonks, fresh out of the Army and agriculture college, trying to carve a niche out for himself.
George’s first record on MCA was no slouch either. Strait Country launched a Top 10 hit with “Unwound,” and proved Music Row’s bet on this young man from Texas country would be worth it. Though Straight would go on to set the standard for what mainstream country would sound like for years to come, his debut was full of old school Bakersfield influence and Texas honky tonk.
But his second record, Straight From The Heart, released on June 3rd, 1982 and recorded at the Music City Music Hall with producer Blake Mevis, is what would set one of the most legendary careers in country music in motion.
What is so striking about the album listening back to it after nearly 35 years of perspective is not just the big hits, the #1’s, and the now country standards that it contains. It’s the variety in Strait From The Heart that makes it the perfect study of where country music had been, where it was in the present tense, and where it would be going. It is a staunchly traditional country record with a lot of Texas flavor delivered by the fiddle. Yet you can hear a couple of places where the Countrypolitan influence still lingers, and where Conway Twitty’s take on country evidences itself in the lyrics—Conway being the man Strait would depose for the most #1’s in country later in his career. There is also Western Swing and Texas honky tonk, and even a small taste of more contemporary country pop in the Conway style of “The Steal of the Night” and “Lover in Disguise.”
But you must start singing the praises of Strait From The Heart by shining a big spotlight on the albums two #1’s: the instant classic and contender for one of the greatest country songs ever, “Fool Hearted Memory,” and the strange verses but infectious groove and mannerisms of the Guy Clark-penned “Heartbroke”—first recorded by Rodney Crowell and later recorded by Ricky Skaggs.
As strong as these tracks are, it’s a couple of other Top 10’s from the record that may prove to be the album’s most lasting contributions. Though possibly more adult contemporary than many traditionalist’s tastes, “Marina Del Rey” showed that George Strait could also sing and perform in a more romantic and sedated mood, even if the song resolves in its own version of heartbreak. Meanwhile the timeless and despondent “Amarillo By Morning” might be the perfect song to capture the true essence of loneliness ever recorded, while Strait’s voice may have never been stronger or on point for not just singing the verses, but placing himself square in the boots of the character, and making this ode to the rodeo life a permanent brand on country music’s legacy.
Even if Strait From The Heart isn’t a masterpiece, many of its songs are. And for the criticism that some Strait skeptics raise for not penning his own songs, the album includes a solo-written Strait song that may be the record’s hidden gem. The unapologetically Western Swing-flavored “I Can’t See Texas From Here” would have never held up as radio material, even in 1982. But is perfectly-written, and lovingly-executed by Strait. If you’re wondering how and why Strait’s friendship with Ray Benson of Asleep At The Wheel has lasted so long, listen to this song and you’ll understand why.
Strait From The Heart includes a little bit of cheese too. After all, it was the early 1980’s. The female answer chorus and some of the lines of “Lover in Disguise” and “Steal of the Night” would make fair discussion points relating to the misogyny of country music today. But just as much as it’s an incredibly-enjoyable album to listen to, it is also an important time piece, and that was part of country music during that period.
When in a listening rut, there is an entire world of music out there to discover, and the early discography of George Strait is not a bad place to start, even if you’re one of those who think he was too mainstream vanilla for your taste later in his career. Strait From The Heart holds its own against any other vintage release in country, launched an incredible career, and proves why George Strait deserves the recognition as one of country music’s three kings.
Two Guns Up.
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