When it comes to George Strait, I'm of two minds. That part of me that loves classic and alternative country would like to see Strait make a tough, hardcore honky-tonk album without the "Nashville Sound" compromises that have littered his career. But then there's the part of me that hates so much of the pop-driven "Hot Country" drivel coming out of Nashville today, and I'm grateful that Strait's around -- he's not shy about including plenty of pedal steel and fiddle on his records, which is more than you can say for a lot of contemporary country music. He's about as "hardcore" as you're likely to hear on mainstream radio.
However, some critics have pointed -- and justifiably so -- to Strait's unwillingness to experiment. His style tends to be a blend of honky-tonk and Western swing "lite", and he never strays far from it. But still his records sell -- he's moved some 56 million records worldwide. Strait's tied with Merle Haggard at 38 for the second spot when it come to the most #1 singles on Billboard's country chart, and the odds are good that he'll surpass Haggard fairly soon. (In case you were wondering, Conway Twitty still holds the title for most #1 country singles with 40.)
All of this brings us to Honkytonkville, Strait's thirty-first album, which Strait co-produced with Tony Brown. This follow-up to 2001's The Road Less Traveled finds Strait trying some new things. First, in April 2003, he released his debut live album, For the Last Time: Live from the Astrodome; second, Strait did some of the vocal work for Honkytonkville from his home studio in Texas rather than cutting everything in Nashville as has been his practice in the past.
The result is a record that is consistent with Strait's history of musical compromise and does little to help me make up my mind.
Certainly, there are some fine moments on Honkytonkville, especially at a time when it's hard to find enough adjectives to describe just how bland mainstream country music is. Highlights include "She Used to Say That to Me" (by Jim Lauderdale and John Scott Sherrill), "Honkytonkville" (by Buddy Brock, Dean Dillon, and Kim Williams), "Look Who's Back from Town" (by Dale Dodson and Billy Lawson), and "Tell Me Something Bad about Tulsa" (by Red Lane and recorded, though not released, by Merle Haggard 17 years ago).
Of particular note is the title track, which echoes Strait's own "Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind" in terms of sound, but, lyrically, goes right back to Merle Haggard's "Swinging Doors". Strait handles the material well as he goes to "Honkytonkville" where, Strait sings, "I don't feel anything since you've been gone", and since he's "Livin' high on Barstool Hill in Honkytonkville", well, things have improved.
But after that, Strait vacillates between sappy, string-laden love songs ("As Far As It Goes", "Heaven Is Missing An Angel", and "My Infinite Love") and honky-tonk songs with a hard sound that gets diluted by cutesy lyrics ("Honk If You Love Honky Tonk", "Four Down and Twelve Across"). Consider Strait's version of "Desperately", co-written by Bruce Robison and Monte Warden. Here, the delivery lacks vocal conviction. These are the words of a singer who's, well, desperate, but Strait's voice is never less than completely self-assured. (Try Robison's version on Wrapped, which Strait follows fairly closely, and you'll see what I mean.)
Midway through the album, there's an odd moment: "I Found Jesus on the Jailhouse Floor", Strait's first "gospel" number, which is probably the more hardcore honky-tonk number on the album. But its placement in the middle of the record is jarring; it would have worked better as an ironic benediction, sending the listener out of Honkytonkville with an interesting message: a conversion song with lyrics undercut by the honky-tonk friendly musical arrangement.
By current Nashville standards, Honkytonkville is a solid album, but for me, well, I'll be digging out my copies of Strait Country and Strait from the Heart, his first albums. Although they may not be as beautifully done as Honkytonkville, they're just a whole lot truer to the Texas tradition Strait draws from.