Sep 13, 2011, 05:44AM

Still Strait

George Strait is still cranking out hits thirty years into a marvelous career.

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George Strait is timeless…which is more than a little bizarre for a  pop star.  After all, pop is more or less by definition evanescent, transient crap.  It’s of its moment, which means that it’s not of the next moment.  If you’ve got it in you to evolve from teen idol to psychedelic genius like the Beatles, you can maybe stay relevant for a decade.  If you’re in a subgenre like country that’s less obsessed with originality, and you’re able to keep hoovering up influences and collaborators — rockabilly, folk revival, outlaw, new traditionalists, indie folk — you can even stick around for decades like Johnny Cash.  But you’ve got to be really smart, you’ve got to keep your ear to the ground, and you’ve got to accept that you’re never going to sell the kind of units you sold in your youth.

But none of that seems to apply to Strait.  Three decades after he kicked off his career, and his most recent single, “Here for a Good Time,” started at 29 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, the second highest debut of his career, and went to number 9.  As recently as 2008 he had two #1s in a single year. In fact, he’s the first artist in Billboard magazine history to have at least one single hit the top ten of a Billboard chart for thirty consecutive years.  He’s not Lady Gaga or anything, but tons of people still listen to his music.  Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and Emmylous Harris and Dolly Parton have turned into niche artists, retooling themselves for the NPR crowd and doing desperate roots explorations in the hopes that somebody will think their natural treasures rather than pop stars. But not Strait.  He’s still on the radio.  He’s still got hits. He still matters like he always did.

In fact, he still matters exactly like he always did, because he’s still doing the same thing he’s ever done.  I suppose if you really wanted to you could argue that the honky tonk hits a little harder on 1981’s Straight Country than it does today, that the weepers are slicker; that he rarely reaches for the stylistic variation suggested by the Latin tinges in “Blame It on Mexico.” 

But we’re talking inches here. Strait was never unpolished; he was never particularly inventive or daring.  He’s always been what he’s been; a middle-of-the-road country star, singing about God and booze and being a jovial country boy.  Here for a Good Time runs down its playlist like putting checks in a row of boxes.  “Three Nails and A Cross” is a slow-tempo Christian testimony that stays just this side of sanctimonious.  “Here for a Good Time” is an uptempo party song that balances between pumped up honky tonk swing and seventies country rock.  “Blue Marlin Blues” is a strutting novelty song about fishing.  They’re not great — for that matter, they’re not even among Strait’s best.  He doesn’t channel the stone country pain of “Her Goodbye Hit Me in the Heart” from 1981 or the jokey, bittersweet sadness of “You Know Me Better Than That” from 1991, or the rueful, smooth loss of “I Ain’t Her Cowboy Anymore” from 2007.   

But just because the album isn’t up to Strait’s finest work doesn’t mean it’s bad.  On the contrary, Here for a Good Time is perfectly acceptable. “Drinkin’ Man,” a song whose polish can’t quite pretty up its alcoholic despair, is even memorable.  And if the rest of the album effervesces shortly after you hear it…well, that’s what pop music is supposed to do, right?

Maybe that’s Strait’s secret; he’s so transient that nobody remembers that the song he just sang is the same as the one he sang the year before that, and the year before that.  Or, more charitably, maybe the pop landscape is just slightly less ADD than its detractors would have it.  The country audience, at least, has wanted the same really pretty decent thing for a long, long time.  You’ve got to respect a love affair that’s lasted for thirty years.  It’s nice to think that, whatever the rest of the pop landscape looks like, George Strait may well still be on the charts in 2041.


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