George Strait sometimes seems like the anonymous hit maker. He doesn’t have the larger-than-life personality of so many music stars, of any genre. There is nothing loud about him. His look is standard cowboy. His voice has no idiosyncratic or eccentric characteristics. Yet for Strait, hits flow like rushing water. Since 1980, when he signed his first record deal with the same label he records for today, MCA, he has rolled out successful albums and singles year after year. Thirty-eight of his songs have hit #1 on Billboard’s Country Singles chart, with another 30 in the top 20. That apparently makes him the artist of any genre with the most #1 singles. His website proudly states, “Every George Strait album released has at minimum attained gold status from the Recording Industry Association of America,” also noting that he has achieved more platinum-selling albums than anyone except the Beatles and Elvis. His new album Troubadour, his 37th album, debuted at #1 on the Billboard albums chart.
The title Troubadour has an air of self-description about it. Though he doesn’t precisely fit the historic European definition of a troubadour as a traveling lyric poet, nor the American version that comes to mind, the caricature of the tattered and dusty vagabond/hobo/folk-singer. Think of Strait as a troubadour more in the sense of the word’s Latin root: tropator, “singer”. His career is marked by devotion to the simple act of a singer taking a song and singing it. He always sings in service to the song.
“Troubadour”, the title track and opening song, is less about traveling geographically than traveling in years, aging. He sings, “I was a young troubadour / When I rode in on a song / I’ll be an old troubadour / When I’m gone.” Other songs on the album touch on this age/mortality theme as well. The bluesy “House of Cash”, a duet with Patty Loveless and the one song on the album which feels overdone, tells the story of a fire at Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash’s house, but is really about their deaths: “Well it’s goodbye Johnny / Goodbye June.” “Give Me More Time” alternately uses that title phrase to refer to the unexpected passing-on of a family farm, a love relationship, and a life. The mortality references do not dominate the album, but are present enough that they and the title may lead some listeners to imagine Troubadour as an introspective statement of some kind. That’s a trap; as always, Strait has utilized the skills of veteran country-music songwriters to provide songs for him to sing. Simple as that.
If there’s something Troubadour is about, it’s songs. Strait performs them in an efficient, un-flashy way. His humble singing imparts more depth than is first apparent, but at the same time is utilitarian. The mission is communicating these songs to listeners. And the songs themselves are utilitarian, populist: about, and for, everyday life. There’s the rollicking, sing-along trucker’s anthem “Brothers of the Highway”, which really is about friendship, camaraderie, and the way doing work or hobbies that you love can become a mission, a cause. The first single, “I Saw God Today”, is less about God than the joy of childbirth. It economically but quite descriptively tells the story of a man who leaves the hospital for a break partway through his wife’s 18-hour ordeal of giving birth, and, through the lens of what he and his wife are going through, sees the world outside anew.
Much of the rest of the album is devoted to various types of the most ubiquitous everyday-music song-form: the love song. “House With No Doors” handles the tougher push-pull of relationships with an appropriate gravity, though it’s also clever and sort of playful with its words. The slow dance “It Was Me” is one of those nostalgic, anniversary-night look-backs to a meet-cute. The giddy “River of Love” is cheesy as all heck, but appropriately so, laying back and indulging in the mandolin, steel guitar and boat-metaphor lyrics as an example of drifting, letting yourself get carried away, by love or a tune. “When You’re in Love”, one of the album’s stand-outs, has a strange travelogue structure to it, as if Strait is trying to sell us a time-share at a vacation resort. The melody, and Strait’s ease with it, makes us ready to buy it, too, though it’s really love that he’s promoting. “West Texas Town” is about long-distance love, though just as much it’s about how good Strait and Dean Dillon (who also co-wrote the song, and three others) sound singing over a breezy Texas-swing shuffle.
Another of the best of Troubadour’s love songs is also about the power of music itself: “Make Her Fall in Love With Me Song”. The song is goofy, lonely and full of longing, like love, but also a quick comment on the power songs do or don’t have. Its chorus is a fun litany of descriptions for the type of magical slow-dance country song that could make two people fall in love. Can a song make someone fall in love with you? Probably not, but that notion is surely present in most current and historic cultures. It’s the romantic mythology of songs that we all buy into. Where would music, or art and culture in general, be without it? Perhaps that’s the true essence of George Strait’s hit-making gift: he understands the grasp songs have over people, what we want them for and use them for, what they help us believe.